Three times I was surprised by the differences between the charity and private sector

Two years ago I made the decision to leave the charity sector and, due to Covid, I’ve actually managed to have three jobs in that time, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on my assumptions going in and share a few surprises I’ve found since making the change.

We value quantity over quality

The most surprising difference I’ve found is the tradeoffs in quality and best practice we are willing to make in order to increase our profits as quickly as possible. In the charity sector, we aim to do things cleanly and well, and we care less about how quickly value is returned for our efforts. We tend to be painfully diligent people, all too aware that our users are living with cancer, degenerative physical diseases or mental health problems and a good day in the office for us goes some way towards lightening that load for them.

In the private sector, however, the speed at which money is generated is the number one priority and we appear to be willing to sacrifice almost anything to get it. The consequence of this is the mounting of an endless and often prohibitive amount of technical debt. This is not only technical debt in the backend, for example in pipeline or service stability, but also in the frontend too. We worry little about bugs, broken UI, brand violations or fragmented user experiences. If a new feature will generate more money than fixing these issues, then that’s what we’ll work on, everything else is off the table until ‘quieter moments’, which of course never materialise.

We believe we deserve our jobs

Approach and attitude is another significant difference that continues to surprise me the more people I meet in the private sector. In charity, I always felt a sense that everyone around me believed they weren’t good enough and that even if they were, they were the luckiest people in the world to have that job and would work tirelessly to prove themselves and keep hold of it in the face of never-ending financial worry.

In the private sector, that sense appears reversed, people generally seem to feel the company they work for is lucky to have them and with that comes a strange sense of complacency and entitlement that feels uncomfortable to me as someone coming in from a world dominated by anxious insecurity.

As a Product Manager, my job includes overseeing delivery and this is where I most notice the attitudinal disparity. If deadlines were threatened in the charity sector, people would be up all night, working at weekends or crying in private meetings with their managers, afraid that they were letting everybody down and would deserve to be fired as a result. Whilst in the private sector, deadlines approach with a disinterested shrug as people casually state they didn’t achieve anything yesterday because they had to take their dog to the vet, it was already 5pm or they couldn’t see the value in the task.

There still isn’t enough money

One of the reasons I was initially interested in seeing what life was like on the other side of the fence was to see what could be achieved with much larger budgets. Working for a charity you become very creative, always looking for new ways to get around the fact that you can’t really afford to do what you need to. In the private sector I came in with the assumption that money would flow more freely and liberate teams to be bolder and more ambitious in their digital aspirations.

Instead, what I’ve largely experienced is a form of financial Parkinson’s Law in which premium capital leads to premium spending and what remains feels equally small and difficult to secure. This is particularly noticeable in recruitment where wages are vastly higher than in the charity sector and teams are comparatively very well staffed. This makes the case for additional resource and even the backfilling of existing roles surprisingly challenging.

And yet, I love it

Despite every surprising difference and every complex challenge, I find it difficult to imagine going back, at least for now.

Every day I come to work it’s interesting, fun and nobody is going to die.

Instead, the worst consequence of a bad day is a little lost revenue or a few disgruntled colleagues. I’m no longer fixated on the fact that what I do is too important for me to be doing it. Because it isn’t important, not really. I like my job, I’m grateful for it, take pride in it and work hard. But when I leave in the evening, I no longer lie awake at night wondering whether I did enough to alleviate the burden on someone living with stage four breast cancer or contemplating taking their own life.

Every time I lose a UX battle, a leadership debate or a consequential decision, I no longer torture myself with the potential implications for users whose lives are hard enough already. I can afford not to place such heavy expectations on myself and those around me because it’s finally, actually, all going to be absolutely fine.