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How to Transition to a Social-Impact Career—Without Starting at Square One

Lakshmi Hutchinson

A man wearing a headset sitting at his desk and working on his computer.

Are you a mid- or senior level professional who would like to transition from another sector to the social-impact space? As an experienced professional, you likely won’t want to start at an entry-level or volunteer position. However, it is possible to transfer the skills that you have to nonprofit roles at the appropriate level—it may just take a little more research and legwork to find the right fit.

Figure out what type of organization interests you

There’s a reason why you’re considering sector switching—for many people, it’s the desire to feel that you’re making a difference of some kind. You’ve probably already thought about which direction you want to go in, whether that’s an organization working towards community-based change, an NGO with global impact, or perhaps a specific health or environmental cause that you’re passionate about. But it’s important to narrow that down further to determine just what type of organization would be a good fit. 

  • Organizations working for social change can vary a great deal in terms of structure and funding. This Idealist guide can help you understand the variety of social-impact organizations that are out there. 
  • Create a targeted list of potential organizations and do your research. Is the organization’s focus enough to get you excited about switching sectors? Do you think you would fit in with the organization’s culture? If you’ve found salary information, is it in line with your expectations?
  • Reach out to people in your network with experience in the nonprofit sector. If possible, seek out a mentor in the field who can provide insight and guidance.

Assess your skills and research possible entryways into the organization

Take the time to evaluate the skills and experience that you have. Figure out how your expertise is applicable to a job in one of your ideal organizations. 

  • For some people, it could just be a matter of taking hard skills in an area like IT or web development and doing the same type of work in an equivalent role, such as Information Technology Director. In other cases, you may be able to bring your management experience and people skills to the table. The ability to manage across divisions and work successfully with stakeholders and constituents are desirable skills for nonprofit leaders.
  • Another entry into the social impact space is through consultant and project-based work. Taking on a fixed-term project (whether it’s strategic planning or board development) is a great way to demonstrate your abilities and show that you’re serious about moving into the social-impact space. 
  • After taking stock of your skillset, you may discover that you need training in a particular area. This is your chance to take advantage of online coursework and professional development opportunities. Suppose you’re a skilled communications writer, but have never written a grant. There are classes and tutorials available to teach you specifically how to do that, among other skills.

Be ready to explain your passion and how your skills are transferable

Once you’re ready to start applying to and interviewing for jobs, you need to think about how to explain your desire to switch sectors and how to demonstrate that you have the necessary skills. You should be able to convey this in your cover letters, as well as during interviews.

  • Be prepared (with specifics) to answer questions about why you want to work in the social-impact space. As with any interview, you should have a good understanding of what the organization’s mission is and what the specific job entails. The hiring manager will want to know what it is that you’re excited about (rather than hearing about what you didn’t like in the for-profit world). 
  • Don’t assume that your experience in your current sector is going to speak for itself. You have to be able to convey how, for example, your ability to achieve sales goals is relevant to the work of a fundraiser. Be explicit about your relationship-building and networking skills. 
  • Be patient and remain hopeful, even if you don’t land the position you want right away. As you go on more interviews and meet more people in the sector, you’ll get a better sense of exactly what you’re looking for and where you want to work. 

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Are you a sector switcher? How did you successfully make the leap to the social-impact space? Let us know on Facebook!

Lakshmi Hutchinson

Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.

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