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Change for the better: Escape the rat race and work with charities

Much of Rob Owen's CV reads like that of a JP Morgan executive. For 17 years after graduation, his career trajectory was clear, with stints at Nomura International, Schroder Securities, and ABN-Amro propelling him towards a seemingly inevitable place on the board of a global investment bank.

But in 2003, part-way through an MBA course at Henley Business School, he switched direction. Weary of his employer, and frustrated at how little time he was spending with his wife and recently born son, he jumped ship: parachuting out of his high-stakes banking job into an equally high-stakes role heading the St Giles Trust, a charity that trains ex-offenders to help others leaving prison. Despite dropping at least one decimal point in salary, he's never looked back.

"It's not percentages – it's multiples," says Owen, 43, contemplating the financial sacrifice. "I'm chief executive of a big charity, so earn a very reasonable salary, but it's not comparable to merchant banking. Similarly, I used to get whisked off to Hong Kong near the front of the plane. Now it's a second-class ticket to Doncaster."

But he adds: "That's not what it's about. When I visited St Giles for the first time, I noticed the energy everyone had. I adored working in investment banking 90 per cent of the time, but the spring I get in my step on getting out of bed to work at St Giles is completely different. Towards the end of being a merchant banker, I regularly came home unhappy. We had this wonderful little kid, but I didn't see much of him. I still don't, but I'm not grumpy anymore."

Owen's career move – and pay drop – might seem dramatic, but he can hardly be said to have "downsized". At St Giles, he's responsible for helping transform the lives of 15,000 people a year – saving British taxpayers millions of pounds into the bargain. Then there's the complexity of his constant battles to secure more money for the charity's various initiatives through the government's labyrinthine funding procedures.

"This job's more stressful than working for a merchant bank," says Owen. "It's stressful because I care about the organisation in a way I didn't as a banker."

While the route Rob took to his current position may have been unusual, he's far from alone in using his MBA as a launch-pad into a non-governmental organisation. In its latest annual progression survey, the Association of MBAs (AMBA) has identified a significant increase in the number of graduates pursuing careers with charities and campaign groups.

The biennial research found that, of the 2,000 graduates from AMBA-accredited MBA courses last year, nearly one-in-four has gone on to work for organisations with annual turnovers of £1m or less. A further 18 per cent have joined ones earning up to £5m a year, and 15 per cent those grossing £5m to £20m. While some of these are likely to be start-up companies, AMBA believes many are NGOs. To give some sense of scale, one in 10 MBAs works for companies with turnovers of £1bn or more.

"We focus on the size, rather than type, of organisations graduates move into; but one of the most surprising things this year is the number of people working for small-scale ones," says Mark Stoddard, AMBA's accreditation projects manager. "They're going into companies that are small in terms of both employees and turnover. It's likely a good proportion of these are NGOs."

A common pattern is for business people with social consciences to use MBAs as an academic "bridge", enabling them to explore how strategic thinking from the corporate world might be applied to the organisational and competitive challenges facing NGOs. This was the approach adopted by Tony Sadownichik, who started his career with KPMG in Vancouver in the late Eighties before taking a 50 per cent pay cut to join Greenpeace, eventually becoming the pressure group's global head of research.

Sadownichik, 48, admits he is far from a typical eco-warrior. His main motive for joining Greenpeace was his experience of witnessing the large-scale environmental and economic waste generated by, of all things, pulp mills.

"Even today, I look at things from an economic perspective," he says. "It isn't a matter of environmental versus economic. It's a change of attitude about how you extract value from the world. The word 'waste' needs to go."

His MBA gave him valuable time out to examine how a dual goal of economic and environmental sustainability might be achieved, he says. Having already moved to Amsterdam with Greenpeace, he began looking for suitable courses in the Netherlands, alighting on one at RSM Erasmus University in Rotterdam because of its focus on corporate social responsibility.

Sadownichik now plans to take the expertise gained from his decade at Greenpeace back to the private sector: "I'd like to be a bridge between NGOs and commerce, but from the commercial side," he says. "The whole world needs to look at how we can move in a more equitable, sustainable direction."

In making the leap from business to NGOs, Randall Zindler moved full-circle the opposite way. As a young graduate, he was a volunteer aid worker in Angola, before taking on several high-flying corporate jobs with Credit Suisse and Swissair. Today he's chief executive of disaster relief charity Medair – and helped to co-ordinate the humanitarian effort after the Asian tsunami in 2004.

Zindler, 44, first began working for the charity by taking on pro bono consultancy work while at Swissair. He joined it full time 18 months later, before starting an MBA at Lancaster University School of Management. Like Sadownichik, he wanted to "bridge" the business and NGO sectors: "I saw the corporate phase as a step towards my goal of working for an NGO in a more strategic way," he says. "I decided I had to learn the language of business, so when I came back that would help. You can get into a closed environment where business people talk to business people and NGO people talk to NGO people."

It isn't just a question of NGOs learning from business, though: a recent initiative launched by a group of MBAs from Spain's IESE Business School suggests the benefits work both ways. Outzone, a product of the award-winning not-for-profit organisation Adopt a Business, gives corporate executives work experience with NGOs that is tailored to their individual needs. Those seeking to improve their supply-chain skills, for instance, might be posted with an NGO distributing aid supplies in a developing country.

Indeed, the developing world is proving a melting pot for growing collaboration between private, voluntary, and public sectors. Stefanie Grutza spent her early career in the overseas development arm of the German Civil Service, culminating in a job with the Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development in Addis Ababa. Her experience co-ordinating grass-roots development efforts encouraged her to choose modules focusing on logistics while reading for her MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Grutza, 33, now German Red Cross country manager for Indonesia and the Philippines, sees clear correlations between the difficulties faced by large-scale enterprises in every sector: "The aims are different – in the profit sector, you want to make profit – but if you want to change the world you need to manage things strategically. To be blunt, you can't do good by just being good."