Rethinking Work: Stien van der Ploeg Talks Giving Back

Shannon Edwards

Shannon Edwards

Founder, FromAtoSHE®

Women are leaving ‘traditional’ work in record numbers; more than 865,000 women in just September 2020 (that’s four times the rate of men). But let’s face it, most women are just rethinking work by swapping one kind of responsibility for another. Giving up the work that society pays us to do; to do the work it does not (e.g., cooking, cleaning, caretaking, teaching at home, etc). But this may pave the way to rethinking what it all means. And how we compensate and reward women for the work that they do. Now is also a good time to consider how to stay intellectually challenged and plugged in. While perhaps giving back at the same time. And this is why we found a LinkedIn post by non-profit leader Stien van der Ploeg about the power of pro-bono work very timely. We wanted to learn more…

No Pay As A Choice

Stien van der Ploeg wrote this Summer about her decision to forgo a salary while rethinking work. And she is very clear that, for many, this isn’t a viable — or even a desirable — scenario. But via Stien’s personal journey we can consider something that women who don’t have a choice right now may want to think about: using their power, skill and intellect for good. In the post, Stien talks about the different ways to give back from volunteering to ‘earning to give’ and working full time in the non-profit sector. For Stien, a move overseas prompted the rethink. With her partner’s salary covering the cost of living, she could give her skills more freely; which felt like a win-win while tackling her new life adventure.

With so many women reconsidering work right now we asked Stien about ways to think differently about our careers in the years ahead.

Why did you write the piece for LinkedIn?

A year or two back I started to question two beliefs: could I do more to abate suffering in the world and did I personally need to make money. The first question was easily answered: yes. Compared to most individuals in the world — especially if you include sentient animals — I am absurdly fortunate and saving lives is easier than you might think.

The answer to the second question was technically no. My partner is fortunate enough to be bright and successful in the tech industry. He makes enough for us both to eat, live in a comfortable apartment, save for a rainy day and go on vacation. But internalizing that belief was a lot harder. I felt I had to do my part and contribute to the household income. My parents raised me to be an independent woman, my mother has always worked. And for many being a productive member of society is judged by the money you make.

But I began to realize that my husband and I are a team. Our combined worth should be determined by what we contribute to making the world a better place. That led me to use my career capital, my work experience and knowledge, to help make charities do more good. Now my husband and I both take care of each other and do good, we just contribute in different ways. Rethinking work for us as a team was a win-win approach.

How can pro-bono work for women help keep skills sharp and engender a sense of greater contribution?

These are definitely challenging times and I recognize most people do not have the privileges I enjoy. Not everyone can just go work without pay and no one should be expected to. The pandemic has highlighted and amplified how undervalued essential workers are. Many of those jobs are disproportionately occupied by women. From nursing, to home care and most of the work in the nonprofit sector. So, I feel conflicted advocating working for free when I believe nonprofit work should actually be paid more.

But when you can, working pro bono can be an incredibly fulfilling way to do your part and expand your professional experience. Nonprofits and the people they are supporting are going through hard times. And you and your expertise can make a difference.

Besides volunteering skills directly with nonprofits, you can consider mentoring young workers who are underrepresented in the professional world. Access to practical leadership advice can give you a leg up in your career but these opportunities are often less available for women and People of Color. Mentoring is often more flexible to incorporate into your hectic schedule than pro bono work – a sure benefit these days.

What should women consider before rethinking work and taking on pro-bono work?

For me, there are three main considerations:

First, consider your capacity…

Your responsibility is not any less without a paycheck. So, if your situation or drive won’t allow you to be a dependable resource for an organization, consider other ways of doing good and staying productive. Donating or taking a self-paced online course for instance.

Second, there is a possibility you would unintentionally uphold existing inequities by going pro bono…

Only people with family and friends to fall back on have the luxury of working for free to build their resume and skills. A long history of oppression has prevented many Black and Indigenous women, to build such a network; they cannot afford to volunteer once laid off and instead must take on menial jobs to keep themselves and their family fed. To limit the risk that you perpetuate or increase the skill gap, avoid volunteering for an organization that has any room for an additional salary.

Lastly, a fun consideration is that going pro bono allows you to work for organizations anywhere in the world…

For a foreign NGO to hire you is usually costly or prohibited by law. Volunteering on the other hand is a lot less complicated. And now with the pandemic many organizations are set up for remote work. This is exciting from a cost-effectiveness perspective; your time (and money) might do a lot more good abroad. Plus, international work experience will make you a better communicator and expose you to different ways of thinking.

How do you find an organization that you can get stuck into?

If you can commit to a consistent number of hours for a designated period, there are plenty of pro bono opportunities. They might not always be listed like regular volunteer jobs. You might have to be proactive and offer your skillset directly to organizations you admire. If you see they don’t have marketing staff on their team and that’s your talent, just reach out.

Rethinking work by finding meaningful activities that fit your needs largely depends on your personal situation and intrinsic values. So, I can only speak from my perspective. I seek out roles where I can find a balance of making deep contributions to the organization and the cause, while learning new skills or ways of thinking. That means an organization needs to trust me with having a certain amount of responsibilities and accountability. I try to go through a somewhat regular interview process — I look for partnership.

In choosing who I work with I prioritize effective organizations working on issues that do not receive a lot of attention but do concern a great number of individuals and that use reasoning to figure out the best way to help them.

I also want 75% of the work I do to be with organizations led by women or people of color.

How are you enjoying your current role and what’s next for Stien van der Ploeg?

I am terribly excited about my ongoing work at Wild Animal Initiative. I am confronted daily with new perspectives on well-being and suffering, surrounded by intimidatingly sharp and compassionate people. And I have a strong sense that I help the organization be more impactful in their efforts to allow animals live the lives they prefer.

In addition, I do some coaching and take on short-term consulting projects to help young and growing organizations increase their chances of success.

I feel truly lucky to spend every day working towards a brighter future.