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17 Tips to Help You Make the Transition from For-Profit to Nonprofit

Many organizations don’t recognize the reported tsunami of workforce shortages looming on the horizon that will spur them to get ready for the next generation of workers. Nonprofit organizations from all areas of the sector are facing, among other challenges, the loss of significant leadership and direct service personnel over the next 10 to 20 years. Sector-switching professionals are a significant part of the solution to this problem.

This movement is challenging long-held beliefs and behavior about career development, work-life transition, and retirement. Like all movements, those who are part of the leading edge (some call it the bleeding edge!) may receive the benefits of new opportunities but will also face the challenge of educating prospective employers and even your peers once hired.

As one of these trailblazers, you have a dual mission. You are both selling the idea of re-careering or bridging across sectors and convincing a nonprofit employer that you will be a good fit with, and will add value to, the organization. Expect to take a few hits for the rest of the transitioning workforce. Understand that your job is to both help nonprofit leaders understand the challenges they are facing and sell your skills, experience, and passion as solutions to those challenges. In other words, embrace your role as an early adopter of change.

You have your work cut out for you but ultimately it is worth the effort. We say, go for it.

You will be the one who convinces these organizations that they are ready for you. Paradoxically, while mission and the search for meaning and purpose leads many re-careering individuals to nonprofit organizations, questions about sustained commitment to the mission seem to trouble nonprofit leaders the most when they think about engaging transitioners from other sectors. With so many people seeking an alignment of values and action, there is fertile ground for exploring the mutual benefits of stronger links between the various sectors.

Here are some tips to help you start forging the trail:

1. Cast a wide net.

Meet with nonprofit professionals from various organizations with diverse missions and sizes to learn about them and to assess your fit. Large nonprofits often resemble larger corporations and public agencies in function and structure while smaller nonprofits may mirror small businesses. You know best what kind of cause you feel passionately about, your preferred work environment, and how your skill set would best fit.

2. Network relentlessly.

You must simultaneously reach out to staff at new organizations and drill deeper to develop relationships with those individuals who are strong prospects for helping you with your search. Know in advance that this will take more time than you expect and make sure you are willing to commit to ongoing networking. If not, you need to seriously consider if this is the path for you.

3. Be prepared for resistance.

Nonprofit leaders and hiring professionals are usually stretched very thin and have limited time for out-of-the-box, nontraditional thinking and hiring. This can take the form of everything from not having the time to meet with you to dismissing your work portfolio as irrelevant or unrelated to the skills and experience for which they usually hire. Remember also that, for many hiring managers, engaging experienced professionals from other sectors is still an out-of-the-box concept.

4. Expect your motivations to be challenged.

Besides specific academic and experiential preparation, nonprofit leaders desire people who are committed to the mission of the organization. They see it as a noble calling (it is) and one that requires lots of persistence and perseverance (it does). Be aware of and clear about your motives. If you are frustrated with the responses you receive, remember tip number two.

5. Let them know you are in for the long haul.

Some nonprofit leaders fear that you will jump ship at the first significant challenge or when you receive a better offer in your earlier chosen field. Be upfront that you are committed to the sector and that you are aware of “what you are getting into” by citing your experiences with and study of the nonprofit sector as a volunteer, a board member, and other interactions.

6. Offer to “intentionally intern” as a way of learning on the job.

If you don’t have the specific training or experience for which nonprofit organizations typically hire, get it before you transition by intentionally approaching an organization to develop your skills sets and gain experience. Intentional internships, the strategic use of an internship that benefits both the organization as well as your own personal development, are popular ways for people entering the field to be “auditioned” as prospective employees while giving them the experience they need to be successful. It has the same benefits at any transitional point in your career.

7. Understand and accept the trade-off of money for meaning.

If you are coming from a career that compensated you well financially, be convincing that you are not motivated by issues of salary. Talk about how you have made or will make those trade-offs work for you and express your understanding that compensation isn’t necessarily always monetary. Prepare to state in plain language why you need to make this switch and directly address how this connects with your ability to take a reduction in wages.

8. Be open to starting all over.

One of the trade-offs you may need to make is beginning with an entry-level position; be sure to communicate your willingness to do this. From the beginning, reach mutual agreements about how you want to contribute to the organization in the future as well as possible timetables for advancement. Keep in mind though that talk of advancement and future opportunities is often best left to the negotiating phase of the hiring process as opposed to, say, the first interview.

9. Remember your professional, managerial, and technical skills.

Experience in areas of finance and accounting, human resources, IT, marketing and communications, and fund development is often highly prized by nonprofits. Remember that many small nonprofits have little or no experience hiring talented people with these specialties so be ready to explain why they need your skills, what skills you bring (in jargon-free language), and specific ways you can contribute to their organization. Remember to highlight that your skills can be organizationally useful even if they are not a direct part of the job you seek.

10. Convey your understanding of the uniqueness of nonprofit cultures.

When selling your professional, managerial, or technical skills, make sure you help hiring managers understand how your skills fit into the culture of their organization in particular and the nonprofit sector in general. Nonprofits tend to have process-oriented, consensus decision making practices and may not be as results-driven as you are used to in other sectors. Explain how you can contribute these skills as a part of a decision making team.

11. Know that corporate backgrounds could be a red flag.

To some nonprofit organizations (especially smaller, grassroots groups), for-profit experience signals a culture clash. For example, will you expect administrative or technical support or a personal office space? Your personal values and style may be a convincing antidote to (or an affirmation of) these concerns. Nonprofits value many business disciplines and processes from the for-profit sector but highlighting these attributes without the stereotypical “cultural baggage” or the “I’m here to fix everything” attitude will help you make, to borrow from the language of business, a “soft but firm sell.”

12. Know that public sector backgrounds could be a red flag.

While the public service mission aligns with most nonprofit cultures, the past experiences nonprofits have with public sector agencies through funding and program relationships may influence their receptivity to you. Public sector agencies are often viewed as large bureaucracies where decision making is slow and tedious and possibly influenced by political interests. While the same critique is sometimes made of nonprofits, be ready to proactively address this stereotype if you have a public sector background. You may have some insights and relationships that can be of great value to a nonprofit!

13. Be aware that, in some cases, you will have more skill and experience than your manager.

When it comes to professional, managerial, or technical areas, you may be “senior” to the person who hires you or to whom you will report. Be effective at “managing up,” respecting individual talents (and constraints), and appreciating the value of intergenerational mentoring. And recognize, too, that your approaches may not always be appropriate to the situation—it can take time to learn the logic of certain established practices if you’re used to doing similar tasks in a different way. Listen to and earn the trust of your colleagues, and they’ll be more receptive.

14. Get ready to work.

Nonprofit leaders may think that you perceive work in their sector as a walk in the park or a vacation from other work. If you think this way, get a taste of the work before you begin a job search by volunteering or interning. Once you are aware of what nonprofit work entails, make an informed choice about whether this is what you want to do. See tip number five.

15. Prepare yourself to wear many hats.

Because of limited resources, most nonprofits, especially smaller ones, cannot afford the specialization of skills and functions that other sectors can. This may be an opportunity for you to contribute your unique skills while simultaneously learning and taking on new duties. Make sure to highlight this as a facet of nonprofit work that excites you.

16. Emphasize your ability to work independently while also being comfortable working on a team.

Successful businesses and public agencies are those with employees who champion efforts, are accountable for outcomes, and are able to work in a coordinated team environment. Nonprofits are no different.

17. Accept that you are not saving the world but joining an important cause.

Often, sector switchers are attracted to the idea of saving the planet and sometimes even believe that their contributions will help a nonprofit achieve that end. While nonprofits firmly believe in their lofty missions, they also have a realism about the limitations any one organization (or sector, for that matter) has in carrying them out. Promote your interest in joining a team addressing important social or community issues, and the skills you may contribute to help the organization be more effective.

This was originally published in our guide for sector switchers.

About the author: Stephen Ristau has over 30 years in the human service sector as an executive, senior manager, consultant and trainer, and clinician. He has worked in nonprofit, governmental, and corporate environments. He has served as president and CEO of four nonprofits in the Northeast, most recently at The Governor’s Prevention Partnership, a statewide partnership between the State of Connecticut and the business sector focusing on youth development.


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