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29. Changing Policy in the For-Profit Sector
Maybe the simple truth, after you’ve considered what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing, is that you don’t really want a job in the nonprofit world. You believe in liberty, you admire the work of effective think tanks, you enjoy reading about policy and economics. But living that life just doesn’t excite you. That’s okay. You should be passionate about whatever you’re going to spend the majority of your waking hours doing.
There are plenty of good reasons to pursue a private-sector career. Some of the more compelling ones are income, the pleasure of delivering something tangible and useful to people, and the validation that comes from earning a profit and thereby knowing that you have created value in the world. The creation of value from resources in the marketplace is one of the key activities your allies in the policy community want to protect. So who could frown on you for entering the business world?
Don’t think, however, that a private-sector career means you have to forsake your commitment to liberty, or that these need be separate pursuits. Your commitment to liberty should remain quite relevant to your life, starting with where you choose to work. At the very least, you shouldn’t work for an organization that actively seeks to undermine liberty.
That admonition raises plenty of potential discussions we’ll not get into here—the role of business subsidies, for example, or whether companies that sell products to anti-liberty organizations or governments are thereby undermining liberty themselves. Suffice to say that if your prospective employer doesn’t profit primarily by delivering value to people who voluntarily pay for its services, you might be putting your labor at odds with your principles.
Working for a company that isn’t working to destroy liberty is a minimum, and you might benefit from looking for positive qualities beyond that. Perhaps you’d like to work in an industry, for example, that delivers products or services especially critical to the success of liberty-advancing organizations. Several Internet and communication technologies, for example, have been invaluable to individuals struggling against totalitarian regimes worldwide. Closer to home, top-notch fundraising and event-planning operations deliver considerable value to liberty-oriented nonprofits, freeing them to focus on their comparative advantages in policy analysis and education.
But suppose you don’t want to work even that closely with the liberty movement. Say you want to design clothes, or sell insurance, or do financial analysis. Even in those cases, your recognition of the importance of liberty can serve you well. Businesses, after all, can be run in a variety of fashions. Some are run like the former Soviet Union, with no tolerance for dissent, no reward for useful innovation, and no clear internal data about what is producing or destroying value. Others are run more like marketplaces, such that rewards are apportioned according to value creation, productive challenges are encouraged, and advancement is determined by one’s track record at delivering positive results, rather than tenure.
Wouldn’t you rather work in the latter kind of organization? Even if you want to be an accountant, your understanding of liberty can still be a useful guide to your career choices. Don’t waste your life in an organization that stifles your creativity and entrepreneurialism while simultaneously fostering in you a bureaucratic, political mindset. We’ve all met that guy. Don’t become that guy.
Aside from pursuing employment in light of your skills and interests, in the most liberty- and market-affirming organization possible, there are other ways you can help advance liberty without directly working for a nonprofit. The most obvious, of course, is through your financial support. You’ve chosen to pursue a career in the profit-making world, so spread some of that profit around!
But don’t hand out money willy-nilly. Think of your charitable giving as an investment portfolio: put your dollars to work in organizations that you believe will generate significant change in the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of opinion leaders. Just as you don’t put your retirement funds into a company just because its CEO has appeared on the front page of Fortune, don’t invest your charitable dollars in a nonprofit just because it’ s popular. Scrutinize its social change model and results just as you would the business model and financial returns of a company. And invest some of your profits in liberty.
Beyond that, once you’ve achieved some wealth, status, and connections, why not offer to host an event for your favorite nonprofits? Introduce your friends to these “investment opportunities.” Successful nonprofits are always networking and looking to establish relationships with potential givers. Your positive influence there, insofar as you are a vocal advocate and salesperson for them, can go well beyond the value of your individual financial contributions.
If you’re successful in your business career, you’ll accumulate not just cash but valuable experience—about how to manage projects and people, what makes for effective strategy, and how to foster organizational excellence. This is, if you think about it, another kind of “profit” that you can invest in liberty-minded organizations. Once you’ve become a grizzled business veteran, spend a little time developing relationships with managers in nonprofits you want to help excel. If you’ve been giving consistently and generously, you’ll already be on a first name basis with their leadership. Why not spend some time with them as a consultant, asking them about the challenges they face, building a rapport, and making yourself available to them as a sounding board or even a mentor? Who knows, you might even be asked to join a board or two, where you can really effect change by helping nonprofit leaders develop strategies that will lead to success.
One of the problems facing those who love liberty, if you think about it, is that so many of our fellow citizens have abdicated all responsibility for maintaining it to other people. They imagine their courts and elected officials will do the job. We’ve seen what disastrous results that has produced. Those of us in the liberty movement should not make the same mistake. By all means, pursue a career that best suits your skills and passions. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that only those who work directly for nonprofits are in the fight for liberty. You can do a lot more for the cause than you think.
Tony Woodlief is vice president for academic programs at the Market-Based Management Institute. Before joining the Institute, Woodlief was president of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, an organization focused on economic research, education, and outreach. Previously, Woodlief was vice president for education projects at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, where he worked with university research centers focused on economics, entrepreneurship, and social change, as well as other nonprofits focusing on these areas. Woodlief also spent several years as a consultant and facilitator with the Market-Based Management Team of Koch Industries, where he worked with businesses to improve performance and provided training to employees on topics like economics, decision-making, and personal development. His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan.
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