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Non-profit does not automatically equal “efficient,” “better,” or even “altruistic.”

When I tell young college graduates this, I usually get a surprised reaction. The word “non-profit” is an accounting term.  It’s a legal definition of an income statement and is defined in the tax code — it’s not necessarily a higher calling.

Over the course of my career, I’ve always tried to give advice to people younger than me, just as I’m constantly looking to older professionals for mentorship.

One thing I hear from new college graduates is: “I’m not sure exactly what I want to do. I’d like to work for a non-profit.”

As someone who said the same thing herself at age 19, I like to interview that statement. Why? Why non-profit? What is profit, anyway? What is the best way to help others? Could your talents be better used in the for-profit world, which is more efficient?

The largest charitable foundation in the world is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The largest non-profit foundation, however, is one set up create a favorable tax situation for Ikea, the furniture retailer. This is why I say that the Gates Foundation is the largest charitable foundation.)

The Gates Foundation exists because Microsoft Corp. operated as a for-profit corporation, and generated considerable wealth for its founders and shareholder owners. Here in Seattle, we draw numerous benefits from sharing a town with Paul Allen, the other Microsoft co-founder.

An article in today’s New York Times highlights a trend of young people seeking out public service work. It quotes one young non-profit worker as saying:

“But now I’m serving a purpose,” she says, rather than just “helping some large corporation sell more widgets.”

And:

“I’m not opposed to working in the private sector, depending on what was available as I get older and need a more lucrative career to support family and so on . . . But I’d still like to be something more meaningful. Maybe something in corporate philanthropy would work.”

Here’s the reality: Corporate philanthropy is a side effect — a benefit — of the output of the widget-makers. No widgets means no corporate philanthropy.

We inhabit an interconnected society. We all sell our services in return for money, which in return buys us the services of others.  And one of the greatest ways to help a man is to give him a job.  The woman quoted in the New York Times may one day be grateful to co-ordinate a corporation’s philanthropic endeavors. But she’ll have that job because someone else, somewhere, chose for-profit. And her 401(k) retirement account will largely consist of shares in for-profit businesses. We’re all connected.

If you’re asking yourself, “How can I best use my talents, gifts and intellect?”, then you’re heading down a fulfilling path.

But don’t rule out the for-profit realm outright — it’s a fun space to inhabit.