A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to give back to society through volunteering with a nonprofit. The challenge I faced was that I wasn’t sure how I could contribute or get involved. What began as an initial interest in volunteering activities evolved into a senior position with an International NGO based in China.
Friends and colleagues always ask – How did you do it? How did you go from technology company to NGO executive? The truth is I applied for the job like any other, however, in hindsight I had been laying the groundwork of a career change to the social sector for more than five years.
So what can you do get the experience that will enable you to make the transition to an NGO? The following is a list of five actions that will enable you to focus your efforts to build the skills and experience needed to help you transition.
Understand the skills you offer
Many mid-career movers are interested in the altruistic sense of a move to an NGO to benefit society. But the hard question you need to ask is what role could you actually play in a non-profit organisation? So you need to define where you can actually use your skills to help the NGO.
Obviously operational roles—marketing or fundraising, human resources, finance, PR—are areas where you can more easily transition. However, if your goal is to get involved in the technical delivery of programs or to drive government’s policy change, you need to really define your niche. This area is harder area to penetrate, but that simply means you have to be even more diligent in identifying the skills you need to move into the role you want.
I know this may sound obvious but volunteering is the best place to start. Most NGOs offer volunteering opportunities which give you strong exposure to how the sector works and if you want to make the most of them, it helps to have a good sense of what you want to do and learn.
For example, the first time I volunteered with a local office of a global NGO, I was met with questioning from the NGO staff of what they could get me to do. I was actually volunteering to do anything, stuff envelopes, enter names in databases etc. What did I get? They offered me a key project to go fundraise by signing up local schools who would be interested in exposing students to their projects. I did not make one sale! There was a total mismatch with what I could contribute and what they needed. So while you should be eager to help out, also be clear about what you want to learn. You may not find something right away, but be persistent and you will find a volunteering opportunity that meets your interests.
Join your local chamber of commerce or trade association
Get involved in your trade associations and local chamber of commerce. I had originally worked in the technology area and over the years was involved with local chamber committees. The reason I got involved is that I was starting to get itchy feet in my current role and wanted to start a job search and figured it would be a great place to start networking. One of main aims of a chamber is to get members involved. So what did I do? I participated, went to the committee meetings, volunteered when activities came up, sourced speakers for events etc.
Most chambers and trade associations also lobby their governments through white papers or provide responses to upcoming government legislation. Getting involved in this area can build your professional credibility.
Explore opportunities at your current employer
Is your company involved in certain community issues, does it support a local charity? If you work in a medium or large company, they might have a Corporate Social Responsibility lead who is responsible to look at how the company engages on societal issues. Go talk with them and see how to get involved.
If you’re a consultant, offer pro-bono services
Many NGOs are interested in pro-bono services, so talk with local organizations that you have an interest in to understand what they need. In my early career, as a representative of my firm I called up an international NGO and went to talk with them. I found out that they were looking to expand into new markets where our firm had clear expertise. We were able to work out a deal where we provided our services at cost and filled a pressing need.
Now of course I was lucky and in most instances if you phone the director of a local nonprofit to offer your services, don’t expect the red carpet treatment. Even if you want to offer pro-bono services you need to cultivate the relationship just as you would any potential customer.
If you follow a few of these opportunities you will, over time, build understanding of NGOs and how you can best contribute to the cause. Remember be persistent as each of these ideas requires an investment of time and energy which will pay off once you get traction. Attending a chamber committee meeting, or giving a call to a local NGO isn’t enough, taking specific action which can provide new experience should be your goal.
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About the Author | Peter Beaudoin has lived in Asia for 18 years and has worked in the private sector for most of his professional career. He moved to the NGO field in 2010 and is presently the CEO of WWF China living in Beijing.