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What's The Best Way To Break Into The Nonprofit Sector?

A brick wall.

This week on Ask Victoria: breaking into the nonprofit sector.


Good morning, Victoria,

I just received an email about your weekly advice column and I'd love to get your insight on the following.

A former journalist, I currently work for the local school system as a communications strategist and moonlight as a freelance writer/editor. While I enjoy discovering and sharing the "good news" in the school district, I know my heart and passion is with helping young girls.

It is my professional goal to combine my superpowers as a writer and editor with my desire to help young girls. I believe that working in a communications position for a nonprofit that caters to young girls would be the best way to do this. I've made a "short list" of dream companies and I've been busy networking, but can't seem to nail a position.

I don't have any experience in the nonprofit realm (besides volunteering for a couple of local mentoring programs and assisting a Girl Scouts troop) and was wondering what's the best way to "break in" to the industry and if I should pursue a master's degree in communications and/or nonprofit management.

Thank you in advance for your assistance and I look forward to reading your response!



Hi Lorinda,

Thank you for your question! It sounds like you've already started your homework by identifying dream organizations you’d like to pursue and having confidence not only in your interests but also your strengths. I love that you mention having “superpowers”- it’s very telling to me that you are clear in where your abilities reside and you’re ready to use them towards your career transition.

I can tell you with confidence that your skills can transition to nonprofit work very well. There is a strong need for communications skills throughout many nonprofits; in addition to internal and external communications, opportunities abound in fundraising and development, marketing, strategy, even training and development. In fact, during our recent Careers in Nonprofit Communications panel, many of our panelists discussed their transitions from one sector to the other. So rest assured, it can be done!

Hiring managers from many different nonprofits have expressed to us that seeing volunteer work is strongly considered in the decision to hire.

If you have not already done so, be sure to craft your resume in a way that gives a nod to the nonprofit world by using the right terminology. So for example, instead of using the words “company” or “sales” use “organization” or “funding.” By using the “lingo” that is customary in the sector, it helps a hiring manager see your fit. Check out this presentation by career expert Heather Krasna for examples on how to frame your work in nonprofit terms. In your cover letter, be very clear about why you want to join that particular organization and help further its cause.

Some hiring managers may have misconceptions about sector switchers, wondering why you want to make the switch and if you’re truly dedicated to their work. A major way to address these misconceptions is to include your volunteer work. Though you might hesitate to include it, volunteer work counts (and many people who break into the sector count volunteering as an important part of their strategy). Hiring managers from many different nonprofits have expressed to us that seeing volunteer work, particularly when it relates to their organization’s mission, is strongly considered in the decision to hire. It shows interest and passion in the cause area and builds your skills.

If you’ve devoted more of your time than your talents in your volunteer work thus far, consider taking on projects that will really let your superpowers shine! It’s also a great way to give a potential hiring manager a first-hand look at your abilities and how you would fit at the organization. Websites like Taproot, Catchafire, and Idealist have plenty of pro bono opportunities to explore.

All that said, a big part of how many people make a career switch is through networking Without knowing the details of the ways in which you network, I’m going to offer some questions for you to use in assessing your networking style:

  • Have I talked to my freelance clients? Expand your network by tapping into the people who can closely see your work. You might even want to target your list of “dream companies” for freelance gigs and seeing if there is an opportunity for a permanent position. Just like you would when you volunteer, freelancing gives hiring managers the opportunity to see your work with their own eyes. Build a trusted relationship and see where it takes you. You can also ask your clients if they would be willing to recommend your work to their colleagues.
  • Do I ask for introductions or opportunities? If your contacts don’t know of any job openings, perhaps they can introduce you to a colleague who can share some insights with you.
  • How do I use social media? Try reaching out to people simply because you find their profiles or tweets interesting and start a conversation based on that. See what comes of it!
  • When was the last time I joined a club or went to an event based on one of my interests? Similar premise to the above suggestion----take the pressure off yourself by focusing on what interests you rather than having to make another contact.
  • What have I done for someone else lately? If your networking attempts are feeling stale, invest some time listening to someone else’s needs and supporting them with a resource or idea.

(Check out more great ways to network in a way that doesn’t feel like networking.)

Once you start talking to professionals in the field, reflect on their comments - have their degrees made marked differences in their careers?

As far as going to graduate school, that is decision that requires a lot of thought and evaluation. You will be the best person to assess whether it is right for you. The best way to find out for sure is to review job descriptions for the requirements and to talk to people in the field to see if a graduate degree is required for the type of work you want to do. In general, some “benefits” to going to graduate school, in addition to the degree and new expertise you’ll gain, include:

  • Opportunity to leverage contacts you meet while in your degree program (faculty, other students, guest speakers, etc).
  • The chance to develop a research project, thesis, or fieldwork experience that can be applied to the type of work you want to do.
  • Ability to delve deeper into the topic area and perhaps even identify great ways to apply your previous experience in a way that really relates to your new career.

Craft a graduate school research strategy. What are some grad programs you’ve looked at so far, and what have you found appealing about them? Start creating a list along with some pros and cons for each. Once you start talking to professionals in the field, reflect on their comments - have their degrees made marked differences in their careers?

I hope your confidence in strategizing your career switch becomes as high as the confidence you have in your superpowers! Keep working at it and please do let us know how things go!

To your success!

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By Victoria Crispo

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