July 9, 2018

10 tips for surviving your move to the development sector

Switching over from a corporate setup can be a little puzzling, but we've got some pointers to get you oriented.

4 min read

Your transformation from corporate honcho to development professional will be a fulfilling and long-lasting one. At least that’s what you were promised in your job interview. Here’s how you can deal with the reality of each aspect of your new role.

1. Your role

You were hired with the promise of being given a stage to fulfil your potential. Now would be a good time to understand that if your life were a Hindustani music concert then you would be the backup vocalist to the CEO, i.e., ustaadji. Your job is to play the taanpura, pour water for ustaadji, sing two lines during a three hour concert, vigorously break out into “wah! wah!” or “kyabaathai!” every 10 minutes or so, and studiously avoid eye contact with the people in the audience who are glowering at ustaadji’s latest misadventure.

corporate nonprofit humour

2. Writing proposals

Never, ever mention the word ‘rights’, or its singular. You don’t want to mention the opposite direction either. No, your project, programme and organisation are neutral, apolitical, and want as little as possible to do with real people and their problems. When in doubt, sprinkle words like ‘innovative’, ‘technology’ and ‘scale up’ throughout the proposal. If pushed to the wall, mention a ‘community needs assessment’ to figure out if those real people think that your work will be good, great or out-of-this-world awesome.


Related article: Nailing that last minute proposal: The only guide you’ll ever need

3. Meeting funders

This will be tough but you might have to leave the YSL bag or Montblanc watch at home, or at least hidden during funder meetings. Yes, Monu uncle gifted it to you on your birthday but it kind of distracts from the ‘my organisation needs funds for its work with marginalised communities’ pitch. If you can leave the car at home and show up for funder meetings in a Bajaj auto-rickshaw then that’s the only brand you will need.

4. Setting a vision (also known as badibaatein)

There are occasions during which an earnest exposition of social innovation, disruptive models, ‘solving the big problems’, and ROI is welcome. None of these occasions will present themselves during your time in the development sector. About the only occasion for the speech is when you meet a younger version of yourself, remember what you were told to make you join the development sector, and pay it forward.

5. Strategising

Never ask the CEO for a strategy document. That would be distasteful. There is a strategy, of course there is a strategy. There always has been. Heaven forbid you fail to see that and comment that there is just a broad vision but no actual strategy. You should then expect a short conversation with a steely-eyed CEO, mostly along the lines of “The strategy is in my head. Why do you need it in yours?”

6. Communicating with the team

Development sector work is demanding, not just on the body but on the mind as well. You will have to constantly strive to be understood because of the language barrier. Your new colleagues may, in theory, speak the same language and be better educated than you. However, they will often display a startling lack of comprehension when you say things like “let’s sharpen our elbows to create space”, “I want to push you on that” and “we need to zoom out”. Sadly, the only way for you to get through to your colleagues is to speak in simple sentences, as human beings would.

Bonus tip: Avoid sentences that begin with “In the corporate sector” or those that end with “Nonprofit culture”.

Related article: Decoding development jargon

7. Visiting the ‘field’

Pre-visit checklist

FabIndia kurta. Check.

Ethnic-looking chappals. Check.

Sunscreen. Check.

And so on and so forth.

Rule of thumb: Preparing for a field visit should take at least twice as long as the visit itself.

Related article: Five little-known secrets to organising an awesome nonprofit site visit

Post-visit checklist

Delete the pictures where you look clueless (honestly, most of them). Check.

Edit out the portion of the video where the kids laugh at your language skills. Check.

Upload to social media. Check.

And so on and so forth.

Rule of thumb: ‘Leveraging’ the field visit for personal branding should last a lifetime.

8. Getting audited

Spill the beans. Seriously. You may have watched dozens of spy thrillers where the brave hero or heroine stands up to the moustachioed interrogators. Nonprofit audits are nothing like that. They are an advanced version of psychological warfare. Why? Because you have no idea what the auditors want. Do they care that you spent INR four crore on a programme with limited impact? Or that half of your finance team hasn’t heard of GST, or taxes for that matter? No, resistance will lead to five hours of interrogation before you wearily admit to the crime–the extra chutney that you ordered with that dosa last year was a non-reimbursable expense.

9. Accounting

Don’t worry, be happy. Steve Jobs was celebrated for his ‘reality distortion field’, his ability to convince anyone of something that they knew was not true. The most blessed aspect of your job will be learning that the creation of a ‘reality distortion field’ was not the exclusive purview of Jobs. This superpower resides in the hearts and minds of your accounts team. Many will be the mornings on which you storm into the accounts room asking if they have ever heard of GAAP, and many the afternoons on which you walk out meekly, secure in the knowledge that accounting is a corporate conspiracy to constrain nonprofit work.

10. Measuring impact

This is an excellent idea.

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Arjav Chakravarti-Image
Arjav Chakravarti

Arjav Chakravarti is a leadership coach and the founder of Svarya. In the past, Arjav has held a variety of leadership roles across sectors such as consulting, nonprofit management, technology, and research.