Opinionista Shelagh Gastrow 27 November 2019

Your country needs you: Civil society offers challenging career paths for job seekers

The civil society sector provides space for individuals to work with others and become active citizens. People come together, not necessarily to benefit themselves and make money, but to achieve change in society.

As new job seekers come on to the market after the matriculation results are out and university graduation is complete, many will be unsure of the way ahead. If it is any consolation, many of us are never sure what we want to do when we grow up, no matter how old we are. Not everyone has established their career paths when leaving school and single-mindedly follows that path. Some of us train to be lawyers, doctors and accountants, but then don’t enter those professions.

We live in a rapidly changing society and the days of starting at the bottom of a business and slowly rising to the top are long past. When people look for work, they tend to focus on the government and the corporate sector and avoid considering the non-profit sector. There is a view that people working in the sector are badly paid and spend their time begging for money and other resources. Many believe the sector is corrupt, inefficient and ineffective and that there is simply no career path available. But what is it really about?

The civil society sector provides space for individuals to work with others and become active citizens. People come together, not necessarily to benefit themselves and make money, but to achieve change in society. Civil society organisations are therefore values-driven to advance developmental, social, environmental or cultural objectives (among others). The sector includes voluntary associations, non-profit companies and organisations that are established as trusts, all for the public good.

The values of civil society organisations have permeated the corporate sector and are now reflected in various codes of governance, the concept of the triple bottom line (people, planet and profit), the concept of social enterprises and impact investing. Efforts that businesses now make to comply with ESG codes have their roots in the values embedded in civil society activism whereby the environmental, social and corporate governance factors are used to measure the sustainability and ethical impact of a company.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) play a critical role in the delivery of services in South Africa as the government falls short of community requirements. They also assist in building social cohesion, campaigning for change, undertaking independent policy research, educating the public and addressing a massive range of developmental, social, cultural and environmental issues. There are now hundreds of thousands of non-profit organisations (NPOs) working in every conceivable nook and cranny of our society.

For many people who are interested in politics and democracy, civil society is a good place to operate without going into Parliament. Civil society organisations often play a watchdog role, monitoring government and the corporate sector as well as litigating to ensure people’s rights are upheld or environmental issues are addressed.

There are many causes that attract people to various organisations including, inter alia, climate change and environmental degradation; gender rights; promoting peace; sustainable cities; the rule of law and the importance of our constitution; social justice; religious freedom; secular education; and free and independent media.

When it comes to the idea that non-profits consist of begging bowls, we are long past that old paradigm. The activities outlined above are not charitable, they are strategic and can have a massive impact on our future society and the nature of the world we will live in. In addition, civil society organisations in the modern world are expected to be well governed, accountable and transparent, informed, professional, efficient, effective and productive. This has an impact on careers in the sector.

What makes the non-profit sector unique and different from business? Essentially, NPOs address a social need or advance a public benefit purpose. They are barred from pursuing individual self-interest for their boards and employees or any private profit. There are no shareholders and their resources are used to advance a public-interest purpose.

Importantly, non-profits exist solely to serve the common good and promote public benefit, working with others that are focused on social change. It is not how big you are, but how effective you are. People working in the sector are driven by different values and are not focused on making money and profit. There are therefore career ramifications in this respect.

People working in sustainable non-profit organisations earn salaries and often these are competitive and market-related. As with business, the sector needs people with special skills, including accountants, medical professionals, social workers, lawyers, librarians, environmentalists, IT experts, marketing and communications specialists, administrators and researchers. Of huge interest to many young people, however, is the potential to effect change in society and to be part of a movement of dynamic people pioneering new social initiatives with potential for leadership roles. How exciting to be part of social change!

Many NPO staff start off as social activists and then take over greater responsibilities, honing their management skills on the job. Working in the sector requires some similar skills to those in the business sector, but there are also differences.

The civil society space requires people who exhibit social leadership, with the capacity to build relationships, partnerships and collaboration which are not the ethos of business which focuses on competition. At the same time, non-profits need good organisational and project management skills and give great care to their recruitment. They are also expected to maintain high levels of professionalism when it comes to financial management and human resource management.

As with the corporate sector, non-profits provide the potential to undertake international work. There is a globalised non-profit sector and work is done in every country. South African experience is certainly valued.

Every person entering the world of work needs to ask some basic questions, including how meaningful they wish their work to be and whether it is just a means to bring home a salary or whether it should also have personal significance in their lives.

If a choice is made to work in the civil society space, that can be meaningful to family, community and society, and certainly the potential of leaving a legacy in this world by contributing to the social good provides a deep sense of achievement. DM

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