As someone who has jumped from the corporate world to the nonprofit sector and back again, I’ve learned a lot about the nuances of both, especially in terms of the all-important first interview.
While I don’t claim to be an expert on interviewing (I’ve had a few terrible ones in my time), my work with nonprofits of all shapes and sizes has taught me how to understand a new audience.
If you’re planning to interview at a nonprofit organization soon, but aren’t feeling comfortable talking about your for-profit achievements, read on for some humble tips from someone who has succeeded (and failed) at both.
Why we think about making the switch
It might be a good idea to start by answering an important question: why do professionals move from the private sector to jobs at nonprofits? Hint: it’s not for the money.
In all seriousness, the presumed pay cut that goes along with transitioning from the corporate to nonprofit sectors can be a steep hill to climb for many. On top of that, those accustomed to a traditional corporate hierarchy structure and raise-and-review process aren’t always likely to find the same at a nonprofit.
Why, then, do people move into the third sector? There are actually a lot of reasons, especially for millennials and those new or returning to the workplace.
What nonprofits are known for
Are you a frequent wearer of “many hats?” Have you ever lamented the ten-person mega-team or complained about meetings for the sake of meetings? You might like a job in the nonprofit world!
Nonprofits generally offer the unique opportunity for a “flexible” job role, or one where, more often than not, you’ll take on large projects or responsibilities without much support. With more to do, across multiple departments, and fewer resources to work with, many professionals looking to shake off the often-restricting structure in the corporate world may find they thrive in this sort of environment.
Besides that, the general desire to become a full-time “do-gooder” is sometimes the only thing a person needs to make the switch. No matter the reason, if you want to work at a nonprofit, it’s important to be able to sell yourself in an interview.
Be sure to speak the right "language"
One of the biggest challenges I found in my transitions between for-profit and nonprofit employment was translating how I talked about my work and achievements.
Here are a few terms to use that will help you translate your for-profit experience to a nonprofit resume, and eventually, your nonprofit interview:
Understanding impact in the corporate world means having a great deal of “market awareness” and seeing how the moves you’re making are “moving the needle” and influencing your bottom line.
On the other hand, nonprofits naturally exist in for the purpose of improving the world and our communities. Measuring impact has more to do with building awareness in issue areas and the larger public conversation. When discussing how you’ve made an impact with your for-profit work, thinking in these nonprofit terms will help you translate it more effectively and reinforce the “why” or passion that’s brought you to the nonprofit world.
What does this look like in practice? I’ll share an example from my personal experience with you. When I interviewed for a nonprofit position, I translated my experience working on an internal corporate newsletter into my love of blog writing. Although the tone and substance were very different, I related my responsibility of collecting information from different teams for the newsletter to exploring and promoting programs through content marketing on the nonprofit blog.
While the word “scaling” may seem like a for-profit concept (profit margins, billable hours, recurring revenue, oh my!), it’s relevant no matter your tax designation.
Simply put, scaling asks the question, “Can you continue down a prosperous path of growth?” You need to be able to demonstrate whether the results of your work can be built upon and ROI grown accordingly.
Try thinking of the ways that you built something in your previous roles as a way to show you’ve experienced the scaling process and can think and plan in those terms.
Back to my newsletter example: if I was to redo that interview, I’d talk more about the “culture” I helped to build around contributing information for the publication - normalizing the publishing schedule so deadlines weren’t a surprise, making submission as easy as possible so as not to be dreaded, setting expectations for content quality, etc.
If you’ve worked in any sort of corporate capacity, you’re familiar with performance metrics. Whether they’re called KPIs or quotas, metrics are essentially the milestones that an employee in your prescribed role should reach over a given timespan.
Moving to the nonprofit sector won’t mean the end of metrics – measurable success might be even more important there, since budgets are small and you need proof of ROI if you hope to get any more resources.
Since accomplishments in your new nonprofit role may not be tracked in the same way, your best bet is to discuss success in terms of campaigns and your ability to effectively run them.
Unlike some for-profit environments, having a solid plan is pivotal to starting any nonprofit endeavor. To gain some insights into mapping out a campaign launch at a nonprofit, check out EveryAction’s launch template.
When preparing for your nonprofit interview, anticipate the following questions and be prepared to respond to them:
- What are the resources you’ll need for your campaign?
- What will be your outreach plan to make sure your audiences and influential players in your space hear about it?
- How will you measure your campaign’s success?
Displaying an understanding of how a campaign can influence an organization’s mission is the first step knowing what success looks like at a nonprofit.
Have the right attitude
Now that you have a better idea of how to tout your for-profit accomplishments, here are some interview attitude tips to help you shake off the nerves and put your best self forward.
One of the most valuable assets you can convey in a nonprofit interview is creativity. In a do-more-with-less world, ingenuity is a skill most nonprofit employers prioritize when narrowing down an applicant pool.
Oftentimes, corporate rigor can stifle your creative juices – why not use this interview as an opportunity to shed the shackles? Challenge yourself to add a creative element to your presentation (especially if you’re not comfortable doing so).
Do you enjoy writing? Do some research and put together a draft blog post or memo for one the organization’s existing programs. Know your way around Photoshop? Mock up wireframes for a gorgeous microsite for a fictional campaign.
The point is to act creatively to set yourself apart and show the kind of imaginative thinking you bring to the table.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: salary. Often this is a sticking point for interviewees (and interviewers) that’s either swept under the rug until a hiring decision is made, or makes for an uncomfortable first impression.
Being honest with your potential employer (and yourself) about what you want and communicating it from the get-go is crucial. If you’re truly looking to make a mint, most nonprofit work won’t fulfill that. Take care to consider and speak thoughtfully about the opportunities you want instead.
Do you want to lead a team? Discuss management. Are there specific skills you want to hone? Make sure to ask about paid professional development opportunities.
Whether it’s a desire to travel for work, develop your writing, or maintain a flexible schedule for childcare, a side hustle, etc., use the face-to-face time with your potential employer to put it all out there – you may be surprised!
Show your worth
Your value extends beyond numbers in a spreadsheet. Forget the sales-earning, metrics-exceeding, budget-crushing accolades you might have achieved at your for-profit gig – focus on who you are and what drives you.
In your next nonprofit interview, show your true worth by putting your passion, your work ethic, and your ability to be “scrappy” front-and-center.
Enthusiasm for your job, pride in your personal work product, and relentless resourcefulness can’t be graphed, but they can elevate your already impressive resume to new heights.
Typically, it can be hard for job seekers to translate their skills, accomplishments, and work ethic from for-profit employment into the social sector. But with the right attitude, more highly-skilled, capable, and passionate professionals can enter the nonprofit world and find both satisfaction and purpose in doing good.
About the Author: Marcella Vitulli is a Community Strategist at EveryAction, where she writes about fundraising, digital campaigns, and more of the things that matter most to nonprofit pros. She’s also an avid Idealist who is passionate about empowering lady bosses everywhere.