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SFU Co-op Student

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One important thing to keep in mind is that there is a direct correlation between the amount of money involved in something and your performance expectations.

When I started my Co-op journey, I really had no clue what kind of job I wanted. Scrolling endlessly through the list of possible places I could apply to was at times a bit of a blur, and some of the buzzwords I kept seeing—‘non-profit’, ‘agency’, ‘start-up’—carried a vague idea of what that company did but offered little in the way of giving me a concrete understanding of what it meant.

I’ve been fortunate enough in my various Co-op terms to date to have experienced both ends of the spectrum: I worked at a small non-profit where the number of permanent employees that could be counted on one hand, and I have also experienced life in a global communications agency with dozens of offices and thousands of employees worldwide. Curious how these polar opposites stack up? Here are five key differences I’ve discovered between non-profit communications work and life in a corporate, for-profit office from my experiences. 

1. Orientation and Office Atmosphere

Walking into the office on your first day on the job is usually at least a little bit anxiety-inducing regardless of where you’re working. That being said, the orientation and training period may be much slower and more thorough at a non-profit. With the smaller, more inclusive nature of these types of organizations, it can also be easier to ask questions without feeling like you’re bothering your high-up corporate supervisor. There seems to be more of an immediate team dynamic at non-profits, and it allows for a more comfortable bedding-in period. This isn’t to say that colleagues in corporate offices aren’t friendly and supportive – quite the opposite, in fact. However, I found that the dynamic is completely different at a big company, where it is much less of an ‘event’ to have a new intern and where work continues like normal, largely due to the financial pressures of the type of work it is. 

2. Performance Expectations

One important thing to keep in mind is that there is a direct correlation between the amount of money involved in something and your performance expectations. To avoid sugar-coating anything, let me be direct: expectations are far more specific in a corporate company. In the realm of profit-making organizations, workplace culture is all about deadlines, finishing projects as quickly as possible for clients, and adhering to different KPIs (key performance indicators). It is a necessity to be quick on your feet to complete certain tasks, and there is financial consequence for the company if you don’t – though there is equally a greater feeling of satisfaction if you do. While a day in the life at a non-profit isn’t slow by any means, the key difference is that you may be dealing far less with clients than you are with the community, and have different outcomes that measure success.

3. Location and Amenities

This should go without saying, but bigger companies with bigger pocketbooks are going to have nicer, more modern offices in more prime locations. If you’re not totally clear based on the job description what type of company you’re applying for, the office address might provide a pretty good clue. Chances are, you’re not going to find a small non-profit organization perched on the 26th floor of a glass-walled high-rise overlooking Stanley Park in Downtown Vancouver. Corporate companies also tend to be more technologically advanced. Efficient use of every dollar is typical of non-profit work, and your office furniture and computer equipment might be underwhelming. On the flip side, corporate offices might provide you with a fancy dual-monitor set-up and access to high-tech software. You might even get your own work laptop!

4. Impact and Responsibility

Interns can be an important component of a non-profit organization’s business model, particularly with government funding such as the Canada Summer Jobs program covering much of the wages. As such, with a smaller team, interns have the potential to take on ‘big’ roles right off the bat. For example, it’s completely realistic for an intern to run the social media accounts of a small non-profit, whereas that idea would be totally ridiculous for a big-name corporate firm. The reality is, while the work you are assigned at a big company is certainly valuable to the firm, the more prevailing hierarchies in place mean that the most important work is going to go to those who have established themselves within the organization.

5. Future Job Prospects

One of the biggest positives of the Co-op program is gaining the experience and making the connections that can help you land a job post-degree. At a big corporate firm, as I mentioned, there are often several levels of hierarchy. This means that there is room to grow internally, and you have an ‘in’ with the employer if a future job opportunity presents itself. On the other hand, small non-profits may not always have room for advancement within the company. With that being said, there is plenty of access to networking opportunities if you play your cards right. Non-profits are generally much more community-oriented than corporate firms, and there may be opportunities at local events your organization puts together, for example, to network and form connections with other industry professionals who attend.

Of course, these aren’t the only differences between non-profit and for-profit work – but they are some of the key things I’ve noted in my Co-op journey, which has spanned three very different organizations at each end of the ‘profit spectrum’. What’s consistent about any job, however, is that preparation is key. Hopefully, these five points will give you just that little bit of extra insight you’re looking for in your Co-op job search or as you embark on a new Co-op term!

SFU Co-op Student
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Jul 13, 2020

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