In one of the sessions in the Fellowship for Emerging Leaders in Public Service, Dean Schall of NYU Wagner cautioned us not to focus on the sector we are in and instead think of the change we want to see and pick the best path to make it happen. The reality is that each sector—government, for-profit, and non-profit—is instrumental for a society to thrive and they all work together more often than we realize.

This advice made me wonder: does public service require one to work at a nonprofit, or does it mean dedicating one’s work to the greater good, regardless of the sector? For example, in The Triple Bottom Line, Savitz argues that sustainable for-profits won’t need to have corporate philanthropy or volunteer programs because the way in which they do business will be shaped to support the communities in which they are located. Another book, The Idealist.org Handbook to Building a Better World, offers tangible tips on creating change no matter what sector you are in.

I think many of us who work in nonprofits find ourselves in the sector because of the causes we are passionate about. We may view our employment at a nonprofit as secondary to our identities as educators, lawyers, health care providers, social workers, etc. In other words, some of us just happen to be in the sector unless you are in a position that is fairly nonprofit specific (i.e. fundraising or executive director) or are making a transition from for-profit to nonprofit.

But this also makes me wonder if this attitude hurts the sector. I find that people will discuss their commonalities as nonprofit employees if it is related to something bad as opposed to wanting to harness the commonalities that make the sector unique. It is easier to focus on your subfield—education, health, law, etc—than to think of yourself as part of larger field and work on collaborating and strengthening the whole.

In my view, the sectors are fundamentally different, have different social roles, and therefore mean different things to the public. So while you should choose the path that allows you to do your best work, not acknowledging how your sector interacts with the public, other sectors, and the state of its employees may actually weaken your ability to fully engage your cause.

What are your thoughts? Are you part of a cause or part of a sector or both?