Why You Can Wait Until Retirement to Do Some Good… But You Shouldn’t.

Throughout my life I’ve received all kinds of advice. I mean ALL kinds of advice from ALL kinds of people. Topics have ranged from what food to eat to what career to pursue, what clothes to wear to what person to marry (or not marry). Sometimes the advice was useful, sought after and welcome. Many times it was questionable and given to me whether I wanted it or not (how thoughtful!). Regardless, it would seem that everyone has an opinion on everything these days (and I guess that’s why we have blogs!).

One piece of “advice” that I’ve heard on many occasions was that I left my professional career too early, that I should have stayed in the corporate world longer to build up experience, skills, finances and a broader network of influence, so that I would be “more valuable” to whatever cause I wanted to support by the time I reached retirement. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this and, to be honest, it’s not terrible advice. After all, there is some truth in it. But something about it just doesn’t sit right with me. Let me break down my thought process for you.

1. Professional skills and experience are extremely valuable.  Seriously. If you’ve ever been interested in “helping people” in any capacity, having professional skills and experience enables you to help more people and to offer them valuable forms of help.  Invest in your education.  Go get some work experience.  Sign up for whatever training your job entitles you to.  Attend conferences.  Surround yourself with knowledgeable, experienced, inspiring people.  Learn as much as you can.  In addition to your profession-specific skills, build up core capacities that you can apply in any arena, including communication, collaboration, logic and reasoning, project management, budgeting, problem-solving, creative design, etc.   Observe the way your organisation operates.  Observe the way your best leaders operate.  Analyse, think critically, learn, grow, and make the most of every opportunity.

Don’t make the mistake of underestimating what it takes to do charity well.  You think it’s tough in the corporate world?  Try working in an environment where you’re asked to meet sky-high demands, but with no resources, no support, and constant scrutiny.   And even though you’re offering the same professional-grade services in what is actually a more challenging environment, you’ll almost definitely be under appreciated, underpaid, and told regularly by friends and family (and some HR recruiters) that you’ve ruined your career.  Are you ready for that?  Go get your professional designation.  Go get some experience.  And when you make your move into the charity or social enterprise space, be prepared to work at least three times as hard and face all kinds of resistance.  If you’re as frustrated as I am with charity’s ongoing reputation of being inefficient and unprofessional, why not do us all a favour and change the face of charity by coming in with a few years of professional experience?  More importantly, it’s doing the poor a favour by coming at the issues that perpetuate their suffering with professional-level solutions.  And if all of that wasn’t enough to convince you, consider that having a professional designation or background is oftentimes your only ticket to reaching some of the world’s most vulnerable whom, for a variety of reasons (mostly political), you would otherwise have no legitimate way of helping.

2. Finances and influence can go a long way.  Some part of me wishes this were not true… but it is.  Simply put, the person with more resources can determine the fate of more resources.  In other words, a billionaire can commit hundreds of millions more to helping people than your average Joe.  And if our aim is to control or eradicate poverty, or even just one disease, those extra resources can go a long way in increasing access to valuable products and services like insecticide-treated bed nets, polio vaccines, antiretroviral therapy, nutritious meals, and clean water.  Therefore, it is not unfair to say that staying longer in a more lucrative career can put you in a position to control more funds and help more people. Similarly, by climbing the ranks in the corporate world, you may be able to develop a broader network of influence, especially among others with similarly lucrative careers, which could give greater exposure to your issue/organisation of choice and ultimately mobilise more people/funding in support of your cause.  Consider two prime examples:

(C) Forbes

Warren Buffett.  The investor legend is one of world’s wealthiest people and in 2012 was named by Time as one of the world’s most influential people.  What’s so special about Buffett?  Well, he’s not just your average multibillionaire (worth $58.2 billion according to Forbes).  No, Buffett is a radical philanthropist that has pledged to give away 99% of his fortune and has already given away billions, primarily through the Gates Foundation.  Perhaps even more notable than his personal donations, however, is the way he is influencing others.  Launching The Giving Pledge in 2010, he and Bill Gates have inspired over 100 billionaires to commit to giving away at least half their fortunes.  Notable signatories include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Star Wars director George Lucas, Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, Spanx founder Sara Blakely, and Chuck Feeney, the so-called “billionaire-trying-to-go-broke“.

(C) Cambodian Children’s Fund

Scott Neeson.  Neeson’s story has been making its rounds on the internet these days, so I thought it fitting to include him here.  Neeson was President of 20th Century Fox International, overseeing huge hits like Titanic, Braveheart, Star Wars, Independence Day, and X-Men.  But after a highly successful run in film and accumulating a ton of wealth, he quit.  He sold everythinghis Porsche, his boat, his houseand moved to the trash heaps of Cambodia to start the Cambodian Children’s Fund, a charity that now cares for over 1,800 children, their families and communities.  No doubt Neeson has made generous financial contributions to combat poverty in Cambodia, but it is his high profile in film that has enabled him to inspire so many to consider joining the fight.

All of this goes to show that professional skills, experience, finances, and a broad network of influence are indeed powerful tools in effecting change.

3. However, creativity, passion and energy are also powerful—and these tend to peak during youth.  There’s a reason hugely successful companies like Google, Facebook and Apple continue to seek after young blood.  Youth are fun, innovative, out-of-the-box thinkers with new ideas and fresh perspectives.  They can adapt quickly to changeto new people, environments, information, and technology.  They’re not afraid to challenge tradition or the status quo.  They dare to dream and go after what others say is impossible.  They’re passionate and willing to take risks.  After all, opportunity costs are lowest when we’re young, single, debt-free and without dependents.  It’s also the time when energy and availability are of greatest abundanceyoung people can work long hours and late shifts with few consequences.

This is one of the reasons I can’t bring myself to fully endorse the “wait until retirement” message.  Why should the corporate world be the only one benefitting from the natural strengths of youth? Wouldn’t the world of charity and social enterprise be better off with an injection of young, brilliant minds that could come up with more creative, comprehensive solutions to the world’s greatest problems?  And wouldn’t it be good to have a few more young people dedicate their energy, talent, availability and passion to getting those solutions implemented?  What further progress might we make if we invited the world’s brightest young people to take part in developing innovative social programs/policies, or even new techniques for raising funds/awareness or measuring impact/effectiveness? What deeper understanding could we have of complex social issues if we allowed—or, dare we say, encouraged—a brilliant young person to dedicate himself from an early age to an issue’s research?

For too long, there has been a “brain drain” of sorts to the private sector.  Not only is it promoted as a place with more opportunity and more reward, but, for those interested in development and social good, the corporate world is often touted as our only option if we want to make a “valuable” contribution—and that contribution, of course, far down the road.  But even with less experience, finances, and influence, it’s important to note that young people bring unique value to any organisation and it may not be fair for us to so quickly dismiss their dreams of doing good in the early stages of their careersnot fair to them or to the organisations and communities that would benefit from their fresh ideas.  But why stop at supporting young people joining charities?  Why not invest heavily in those charities so that they have the resources to attract, develop and retain top talent and operate with greater effectiveness?  Flying in the face of the notion that charities are decidedly unprofessional, we could provide bright young people a viable career path with opportunities for growth and reward comparable to the corporate world, while giving the communities they serve a better shot of seeing results.  And while this investment strategy may sound far-fetched to some, that may be exactly why we need to make more room for young people at the social good table.  After all, if anyone can dream a far-fetched ideal into reality, it’s a young person.

With all of that said, here’s my advice: don’t wait until retirement to do some good.  Yes, you could wait around for years and accumulate all kinds of wisdom, experience, finances, and influence and you wouldn’t be wrong to say that those are highly sought after in the charitable world.  But there’s nothing stopping you from doing good now.  In fact, at each stage of life we offer a different set of valuable traits, skills, and experiences, and there are contributions you can make today that you won’t be able to make by retirement, so do what you can now.  Whatever finances you have, put them to good use.  Whatever influence you have, put it to good use.  Whatever time you have, make the most of it.  Some may  insist that there will always be poor people to help, but why should that keep us from helping those suffering today?  Why not take an active role in addressing poverty now and take a serious stab at ending poverty before we even reach retirement?  You don’t have to quit your corporate gig—but you could.  Just get involved in some capacity.  In fact, get your whole family or friend group involved.  And whatever you do, keep learning.  You have something valuable to offer today, but if you continue growing you’ll have even more to offer tomorrow—even more by retirement, if poverty is still an issue by then.

As for me, sure, I could have stayed in the corporate world longer and I could list a myriad of reasons why doing so would have been perfectly fine—beneficial, even.  There are all kinds of valuable contributions I could have made within my firm and through the money and influence I could have accumulated there.  But ultimately I don’t regret my decision to leave.  It was right for me and I am glad that I have invested my youthful creativity, passion, time and energy in the ways that I have.  I may return to a more traditional private sector role one day (maybe sooner than anyone expects), but regardless I am committed to growing wherever I am and using whatever finances and influence I have to do some good.

As Scott Neeson proposed in the introduction to his 2012 TEDx talk in Hong Kong, I encourage you to “give some consideration to where you are in your life.”  After all, why wait until retirement to make your life count?

WATCH: Scott Neeson at TEDx WanChai on Cambodian Children’s Fund

Amanda Y. Fung

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