Going the Non-Profit Route: My Experience as a Service Leadership Fellow

Just one year ago I was in the same position as most of you-deciding which companies to interview with and not sure whether I should try to find my “dream job” or get some good consulting/banking experience first. I knew my long-term goal was to work in international development, but like so many others, I did not know which path would be optimal to reach my goal. The Service Leadership Fellowship provided me with an exceptional opportunity to get real-world experience that will help me choose the right career path.

I am a Service Leadership Fellow for ACCION International in Washington DC. ACCION is a nonprofit organization with the mission of giving people the financial tools they need-microenterprise loans, business training, and other financial services-to work their way out of poverty. ACCION has been a leader in the growing microfinance industry, particularly in promoting a commercially viable approach to microfinance. ACCION’s goal is to bring microfinance to tens of millions of people enough to truly change the world. Because there will never be enough donations to do this, ACCION has created an anti-poverty strategy that is permanent and self-sustaining. ACCION has a network of 30 microfinance organizations and basically functions as a consultant and investment bank for its partners.

As the director of insurance, I am responsible for developing a program for ACCION in microinsurance. Microfinance has primarily been focused on providing credit as a tool for microenterprises to grow. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) are now looking to innovate other financial products that meet client needs and increase customer loyalty. Insurance helps microentrepreneurs hedge against risks such as death, illness and injury that can often cripple a client’s family.

Since I started work, I have had the opportunity to see up-close how our partner microfinance institutions work and meet some of ACCION’s clients in Bogota, Colombia. Now I am working with one of our MFI partners in Latin America to develop and pilot a life insurance product for their clients.

The biggest barrier I am finding is that there is no explicit demand from microfinance clients because most have never had any experience with insurance. In order to sell the product, we have to educate customers and create a “culture” for insurance.

I chose the SLFP position because it gave me the opportunity to work with a leading organization and addressed many of my concerns of going directly into a non-profit:

1. What will for-profit employers think of me working for a non-profit after HBS?
The Fellowship is a competitive, well-structured program sponsored by HBS. It is an honor to be selected a recipient, so for-profit employers look favorably on the experience. Many past Fellows have returned to the for-profit sector after their fellowship ends, and some employers have even deferred offers for students who receive the Fellowship.

2. How can I work for a non-profit when I have to pay back my loans?
Fellows receive a salary that is comparable to the for-profit sector to eliminate financial burdens faced by graduates. HBS and the non-profit each pay 50% of the Fellows’ salary. Many non-profits are interested in hiring MBAs but weary of paying such a high salary for someone who does not have a lot of relevant experience. The Fellowship gives non-profits the opportunity to bring in MBA talent for one year and then potentially offer a more permanent position.

3. Will I be challenged?
The Initiative on Social Enterprise works closely with the non-profits to ensure Fellows have challenging, focused projects that will add value to the organization. I can honestly say this position has been one of the most challenging in my career. First, I am leveraging my marketing, finance, strategy, negotiation and organizational skills from HBS to develop the insurance program. Second, I am working in an industry in which I have very little experience but need to quickly become an “expert.” I am also learning to work in Spanish with my many Latin American colleagues and partners (my two month Spanish immersion program in Guatemala this summer is definitely paying off!). Finally, I have lots of flexibility to create my own vision and follow-through on it.

The best part of this experience is that I know the results of my work can make a big difference in people’s lives so I am working hard because I want to, not because I have to. I am still not sure whether I will stay in the non-profit sector once the Fellowship ends, but I hope that I can make a well-informed decision after this experience. I highly recommend applying for the SLFP if you have any interest in working with a non-profit organization in the future. It is basically an “option” year where you have a lot to gain and not much to lose. Besides, McKinsey and Goldman will still be there next year!