I grew up before the internet, when kids played in the street until it got dark and came home when dinner was ready. Thankfully, the absence of smartphone cameras and social media means that my teen years were undocumented and unseen by the world’s critical gaze. Mullets, blue eyeshadow, shoulder pads and ill-chosen boyfriends are dark secrets hidden in old boxes of grainy photos.
The past isn’t necessarily good nor bad, it’s simply part of what has shaped our present. Only in the rear-view mirror can you realise how far you’ve come. When I reflect on the years spent working in corporate partnerships there are certainly things I wish I’d known at the start that would have made my life easier.
Here’s what I’d say to my younger self.
Congrats on leaving the bullsh*t corporate job that sucked your soul dry. You’ve chosen to make a difference instead. That difference will show up instantly in your wage packet unfortunately, so embrace salary packaging with gusto and hoard those meal receipts.
Your mum thinks you’re saving the world and your previous colleagues look upon you with envy as they attend their umpteenth HR training away day. Bask in the glow of righteousness for a little while. You’ll find that working for non-profits is 50% inspiration and 50% frustration, not always in that order.
There is no shortage of passion for the cause, unlike your previous job where HR posts the corporate values on the wall, because no-one believes in what the company stands for. Sometimes that passion can stymie real decision making, as everyone has strong views. There isn’t an easy objective measure for choosing between clean water, education for children or food relief so there’s plenty of spirited argument.
You speak a different language, coming from the corporate world. Everyone has acronyms, but you’ve never seen so many in one place. Start a glossary and learn how to talk NFP language. Spend some time learning about your programs or meeting the people you’re helping. It might even win over that program guy with the dreadlocks and Save the Whales T-shirt who looks at you like you’ve dropped from outer space. Which reminds me, dress code is different. Sharp grey suits are out. Learn to embrace scarves; preferably organic, ethically sourced cotton ones made by the empowered female weaving collective you’re busy lifting out of poverty.
In corporate land you’re used to suppliers competing for your attention. You commanded market power and they flocked to you. On the NFP side of the fence you’re one of thousands trying to get corporate attention. You don’t have products to offer; you’re selling hope. You need to use your corporate knowledge to create solutions to their problems and make yourself relevant. Otherwise you’ll be shouting about your wonderful cause and getting drowned in the sea of similar NFP voices.
You can’t do corporate partnerships alone. You may be the only one who has the big revenue KPI, but it needs the whole organisation to support you. Unfortunately your colleagues haven’t realised this yet. You’ll need to convert them to allies and supporters. Show up at team presentations, give them regular bulletins, encourage them to participate. Most of all, you need to get to your board. If you don’t have direct access, get sneaky. Ambush them in the lunchroom during breaks, put up posters, reach out directly on LinkedIn. You need their networks and their leadership support to be successful in partnerships.
Corporate partnerships will allow you to unleash every bit of talent, creativity, skills and experience you’ve gathered so far. Corporate life puts you in a box and forces you to specialise so narrowly that you’re only using a fraction of your talent. Partnerships throw open the doors and let you roam across a universe of potential. You’ll be dealing with all sorts on the corporate side: marketing, HR, sales, CSR managers and business leaders. You won’t become an expert in everything, but you’ll be learning fast.
There will be times when it feels like you’re wading through treacle. Corporate partners are slow to respond or are doing their 5th restructure that year. Your colleagues have forgotten to tell you that the impact report will be two months late. Your income KPI seems like a mountain to climb. But never doubt that you’re in the best possible place, despite the frustrations. You’re the one that will change the world for good. You’ll tap into the strengths and assets of your corporate partners and help good people make a real difference to society. And your mum will be extra proud.
your future self