Making employment in the non-profit sector a “first choice” for young people

photo 2I studied law and accounting at university, so I am as surprised as anyone to find myself, 12 years into my working life, having only worked for non-profit organisations (NPOs). What is even more surprising to me is that I am exactly where I am meant to be.  That being said, it appears to me that so many people in the development space have somehow ‘ended up’ in this sector, just like me. Given that there is in excess of 100 000 NPOs in South Africa, with potential to employ large numbers of people, is it not high time that work in this sector (sometimes called the third sector after the public and private sectors) becomes a career of first choice?

We have to begin to ask how we elevate working in the development sector to the same level where it has equal representation at career days with the more ‘traditional’ careers? And how do we give the same level of profile for study options in this sector? I believe that part of the puzzle involves offering more opportunities for tertiary study in this field. This is something that is starting to change with development studies now being offered more widely at universities and colleges. Change is also being reflected in the growing number of young people in the country that are already working on development projects in a variety of fields; many of them choosing to enter these projects as soon as they leave high school. My hope is that the higher education system catches up in time to allow them to get the education they need to become empowered in their work, as opposed to having to make a choice between their passions and a formal qualification.

Another part of the equation is giving the opportunity for young people to gain experience in the sector. Do enough NPOs allow young people the opportunity to come and intern or job shadow? Do enough NPOs create career pathways for the young people that they do have? This is not to oversimplify the very real issues around limited resources and capacity for these kind of processes. Rather, I sometimes feel like these limitations are offered as a cop-out for trying it at all.  A cop-out that I too am guilty of …”I am too busy, I am too stretched to take on an intern/volunteer/someone with not enough experience”, yet in my next conversation I decry my lack of assistance. Twenty-one years into South Africa’s democracy, we are starting to see a growing number of leaders who are aging or simply wanting to dial down their workload after so many years on the front line, yet find that they cannot because insufficient numbers of young people are coming through the ranks to take their missions forward.

So, I guess my hope is that people like me remember that once upon a time someone took a chance on a 21-year old who knew nothing … 12 years later … look at me now.

Sandra Ngwena is the Director of Operations at the DG Murray Trust.


  • Zinzi says:

    I’m a 29 year old black female working for a NPO in the rural Eastern Cape. I have been committed to working with under-resourced communities since I can remember. My career path in development has not only always been a first choice, it is my only choice. I cannot imagine working in any other field, it is challenging of course but is has always been rewarding. What I’m battling with currently is trying to find a mentor in this line of work or any kind of support network.

  • Sandra, it is great to read of the worthwhile work you are doing in such a critical area. I would be happy to give a talk on any aspects of job applications or careers that these young people might benefit from.

  • Buyela Kula says:

    I had a five experience in Non Profit Organisation in Western Cape. The project was creating jobs for the youth and unemployed people in general. The work itself requires dedication and love as most people are not working. The company was also busy training the youth in life skills as well as trade skills. Its has placed most young people in job vacancies but it closed due to lack of funds as it was merely depends on funding with no sustainability income.

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