Growing up, I was always told to aim for coveted jobs that paid well- a true marker of success. Volunteering was something to earn extra credit for school, or to make my resume ‘look good’. These two worlds were not to collide. But who is to blame for my millennial brain that is wired to care more for work-life balance, health of the environment and lack of gender equality than despair over the rat race?
Hold up, of course I want to be financially independent, pay for my own bills (yes even for that overpriced avocado toast) and eventually own a home. But is that impossible if I work in an NPO (Not-for-Profit Organisation / Nonprofit Organisation)? Do I really have to pick between my passion and being able to pay for my treks?
This week, in conversation with Ishita Manek, founder of Rubaroo, an NPO that focuses on prevention and awareness of child sexual abuse in India – we learn more about her journey on tackling the passion vs profession argument.
I finished a degree in Hotel Management and wanted to pursue a Masters in Culinary Arts but was not allowed to do that. I then went on to train as a flair bartender and freelanced as a mixologist for about 5 years. After that, I briefly joined a travel and trekking company as a trek guide before going on to work at a tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh as a naturalist.
I think I knew that I wanted to do something in the space of prevention of child sexual abuse from the time I was a teenager. I had an orthodox upbringing with very limited exposure, so I’d be lying if I said I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in the non-profit sector. However, I was sure that this is a cause that I feel very strongly about and that I wanted to make change happen. While volunteering at another NGO, I think I began to actually give shape to my desire of doing something to safeguard children and that’s pretty much the starting point from where I took the leap and started Rubaroo along with my work partner Lisha Chheda.
No, I had none of these hesitations. I think I went in with a singular focus of creating something that changed and affected an existing problem. But having said that, yes, this is the general view about careers in the social impact sector. Although I can’t speak for an entire sector, I wouldn’t say the comic is entirely accurate. A lot of individuals, including myself, have managed to create fulfilling jobs for ourselves and others. At the end of the day, the hours we put in are all worth it because we’re earning a lot more than just a salary: the satisfaction of contributing towards a society we all want to be a part of.
This may be news to some but a lot of NPOs compensate their employees at par with the corporate sector. There is greater awareness about mental health and wellbeing than the corporate sector, and some of that also seeps into the work culture. It’s time that this sector’s reality is narrated fairly. Career development can continue in NPOs because our operations run just as for-profit organisations. After all, we also need a team for HR, Marketing, Accounting, etc., don’t we?
When we first started Rubaroo, we had zero funding. There was a period of two years where we had no income and both Lisha and I dipped into our savings to survive. When our work started getting noticed, funding started rolling in.
Most NPOs depend on external funding like CSR, High Networth Individuals (HNIs) or family foundations and therefore, salaries are dependent on the ability to raise the required funding. I do believe that there is scope for better pay, but that is dependent on how funders value the social impact sector.
The value derived from meaningful work has a two-pronged impact. Firstly, the appreciation from society and secondly, the inner satisfaction at an organisation with a great culture and cause. From society’s lens, there is gradual positive change, especially in these testing times where changemakers play an imperative role so that the remainder of the world can function at normalcy. With the inner satisfaction derived, every organisation irrespective of whether it’s a NPO or not, has a work culture in place that plays an important role in creating a sense of self-worth. I’d like to believe there is a growing sense of respect for individuals working in the social work space.
Bottom line, there is scope for improvement in both those factors. It could provide financial security and encourage more individuals to pursue careers in the NPO sector.
I experience a great sense of respect and value for the work I do. When I interact with friends/strangers and speak about my work in the NPO sector, I receive admiration and respect that is far more than what I’ve received in the other careers I have pursued. I did not go in with the intention of making crores and retiring by the time I’m 40, I don’t think that is realistic (wish it was possible though). But I do manage to save and set aside for my future. In the initial years I even took up part time weekend jobs to supplement my income. I think if there is a will, there is a way. So many of us pursue a career in social work because it is our passion, and yes, we make sacrifices but don’t necessarily feel bad about it. I know of many individuals who tap into their other skills to generate a secondary source of income or through part time-jobs that can be done over weekends etc.
We are trying our best to make Rubaroo a model organisation. It has been our aim to provide remuneration that is at par with, if not above, market standards and to create a sense of financial security for our team. We believe in leading by example, so both Lisha and I try to be empathetic leaders. We strive to have a horizontal hierarchy and a merit based system for growth. Our team is made aware of our open door policy where grievances are actively listened to and solutions are found. Another thing we try to provide is work-free weekends. When and why did Saturday become a working day, whether full day or half day or every alternate Saturday? It is important to take time off for physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and at Rubaroo we try to make that happen for our team. If the HR policy states a certain number of hours of work, it’s unfair to expect overtime at no extra pay/compensation with time off, and this applies to any and all sectors out there.
I think we need to understand that the only way to attract individuals to pursue a career in social work is to create an environment that feels secure and is conducive for self-growth. No one likes to feel undervalued or taken for granted. The high levels of competitiveness of the world we live in also causes quick burn out and we don’t think that’s the right way to operate. I think financial security coupled with employee well-being is the least we can offer to individuals who are trying to make the world a better place. We provide mental health support to our team and make time for the team get-togethers, bonding and sharing sessions, birthday celebrations, etc. (although during the pandemic physical meetups have been difficult to execute).
I think it is essential to retain humanity in humanitarian work spaces. If we don’t set an example, how will we try to create a fresher perspective on work-life balance?
For someone who wants to switch and/or is unsure, there are several ways to dip your toes in the NPO world before you decide to jump in head-on. Volunteering part-time or over weekends, or for a few hours, with a cause that resonates with you is one way to start. Another way is to offer voluntary services or skills, for eg: Help with marketing, social media, HR, fundraising and event management, etc. that you may have experience with. A lot of NPOs have similar structural setups as corporates do. So, one can try to find a similar department in NPOs too. Some individuals also start smaller by taking on social cause projects on the side while they do their full-time jobs. This works for individuals who wish to start their own NPO or become a social entrepreneur. It allows you to choose your pace and the quantity of engagement that you are comfortable with without feeling a sense of risk of giving up that security-inducing corporate job.