Advice for nonprofit career changers

Unlike most of my articles, this one is not for my colleagues who are nonprofit professionals or experienced volunteers. This article is for you if your career has taken a different path, but you are wondering if a job in the nonprofit sector might be more meaningful, more fulfilling, or just more fun. One of my favorite parts of my job at Clover Search Works is that I get to sit down with people in that moment when they are thinking about their professional future. I always enjoy hearing about what has brought them to that point and what their dream job might look like. Since I can’t have coffee with everyone, I have tried to condense my advice for potential nonprofit career changers into this article. Aspiring nonprofit professionals, read on!

Before you apply

The first piece of advice I would give anyone considering working in nonprofit is to have realistic expectations. Yes, it does feel good to do meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives, but rest assured that there are still plenty of boring meetings, demanding bosses, and irritating office politics in the nonprofit sector . . . and you may be getting paid a lot less to deal with them. How can you figure out if a nonprofit career is really what you want? Here are some steps to take at the beginning of your search process, before you submit your first application:

Educate yourself first

If you’ve volunteered at your kid’s school or helped out at a charity auction, it’s easy to think you have a pretty good idea of what it would be like to work in a nonprofit. But like any profession, the nonprofit sector has its own values, language, challenges and assumptions, not to mention issue-specific content knowledge related to whatever your particular “cause” might be. You don’t have to be an expert in all things nonprofit before you apply for your first nonprofit job, but it is smart to familiarize yourself with the basic philosophy and vocabulary, as well as the big challenges and trends that are happening in the sector right now. Not only will this help you sound less like a newbie in your interview, it will help you to know if you really want to make this change.

There are lots of ways to get up to speed about what is going on in the nonprofit sector as a profession: take a class, read a book or a blog, listen to podcasts. I’ve listed a few of my favorite resources at the end of this article. And of course, talk to people! Ask your friends who work in nonprofit what their organizations are excited about and what they are struggling with, so you begin to understand what is happening in the field. For instance, I would advise anyone who wants to work in philanthropy right now to be doing everything they can to learn about institutional racism and how people are trying to reimagine philanthropic work with an equity lens, because those conversations are, as they should be, becoming more front and center in that sector every day.

Join a board

There are an almost infinite number of ways to volunteer in the nonprofit sector, but I believe if you want to get a realistic sense of the kinds of issues a nonprofit leader may face, there is no better training ground than joining a board. As a board member you will be asked to think strategically about a nonprofit organization, and you will learn firsthand how it feels to be an ambassador and leader for a cause you care about. You will get to know how your organization fits into the larger ecosystem of its particular issue area, and begin to understand the complexities of how the sector works together – or doesn’t. You will dive into the numbers and see the spreadsheets, and you will (if you are doing a good job as a board member!) by asked to flex your fundraising muscles and maybe even ask others for gifts.  All of these are essential skills for working in a nonprofit, especially if you want to be hired at a director level from another field.

No matter where you live, I can promise you there are countless organizations that need energetic board members who are eager to learn, even if you don’t have the resources to make a large donation. Once you join a board, lean into the parts that are new for you. Maybe that’s joining the fundraising committee or attending an equity training, but whatever part feels the least comfortable to you is the part you want to sign up for, if your goal is to get valuable experience for your next job.  In fact, because boards are such great training grounds for working in a nonprofit, I admit that I tend to be very suspect of career changers who have never sat on a board. Your board experience shows me you know what you are getting yourself into, and that makes someone a much less risky hire in my book.

Crunch the numbers

It’s not exactly news that the private sector often pays a lot better than the nonprofit sector, but you may not realize just how true that is until you start contemplating a job change. Spend some time looking at nonprofit job announcements on a site like Idealist to get a sense of what a job in your city and skillset will actually pay, and think realistically about if you can make that work. And don’t forget benefits! We’ve had more than one candidate get close to the end of a long interview process only to realize that the “health care stipend” that is offered will only cover a small percentage of health insurance for their family, and paying out of pocket for insurance can cost thousands of dollars a year. Before you throw your hat in the ring, make sure you can afford to take the job if it is offered.

When you’re ready to apply

Let’s say you’ve done everything on the list above, and you are ready to make the leap into a nonprofit career. Here are a few tips for how you can go about getting that first nonprofit job:

Apply at the right level

If you’ve been a leader in your company and you feel executive leadership is the strength you’ll be bringing to the new job, you may assume that you should seek an Executive Director or CEO position right off the bat. We are sometimes surprised at how many people assume they can land a high-level nonprofit job without having any real background or training in the field . . . would you also assume a nonprofit ED could walk right into a leadership position in business or law? If you are not having luck getting interviews or call-backs, it may be that you need to aim a little lower than the top spot.

We do sometimes see people step into the ED or CEO role from other sectors, and it can work, especially if someone has significant board experience including fundraising, and they are receptive to feedback and coaching. But be warned that it can be a very steep and stressful learning curve if your first nonprofit job is being a CEO with full responsibility for all aspects of an organization – including meeting payroll! Putting in some time as team member first can help you gain valuable experience that will serve you well when you are the one in charge.

Seek out the best fit organization

Nonprofits come in all shapes and sizes, with very different work cultures and values. A large fee-for-service provider with multiple layers of management will likely have a lot more in common with a large private sector company than it does with a small, grassroots nonprofit making it work with a couple of staff. In addition to size, the issue a nonprofit addresses will often impact its “vibe”: the energy at an environmental think-tank is entirely different from, say, the energy at a domestic violence direct service provider. The point is, there is no one “nonprofit culture” so it will be up to you as a job seeker to figure out what kind of workplace you will thrive in. This is particularly important for job changers, because work environment is often a big part of the reason you are making this change in the first place! If you left your job at a law firm because you wanted to work in a more diverse, relaxed, and accepting environment, don’t assume that just because it’s a nonprofit things will automatically be better. Do your homework and ask around – I guarantee they are asking about you! 

Connect the dots to make your case

There are countless skills that you can learn in the for-profit sector that can easily transfer into nonprofit work. If you were a financial advisor who talked to people about their goals for retirement, you might find that you have a special talent for talking to major donors about sensitive topics like planned giving. If you were a manager who supported tech teams working across many different time zones, you may have valuable insight for how to think about that same problem for healthcare clinics. But even if those parallels are obvious to you, it may not be obvious to your readers, who are likely scanning your materials quickly to look for fit. Don’t assume that they will connect the dots from your last job to your next job for you – in both your cover letter and your interview, be explicit about how what you did is relevant to the job you are applying for. As I said in my article on cover letters, don’t try to hide that you are a career changer, but instead make a strong case for why your experience really is relevant for this job.  

And don’t forget to share with your interviewer all the things you have done to prepare to switch careers – talk about that class you took or the board you joined, using the vocabulary professionals in this field use. As an employer, this not only tells me you are building your knowledge base and will know what you need to learn, it also tells me that you are serious about making a change, and didn’t just apply for this job on a whim.  Show me that you’ve done your homework, in other words. 

Stay humble

There is a persistent and frankly patronizing idea that if only nonprofits had more business people running them, all of their problems would be solved. I won’t debate that point in this article, but in my experience that is a myth that simply doesn’t hold up – and I can think of plenty of MBA’s working in nonprofits who I’m sure would agree with me. So do yourself a favor and don’t go there in your interview.  Also avoid the trap of sounding like you are saying “Since I’ve succeeded in my Real Career where I worked so hard, I’m ready to take a step back and do an easier job like this one!” or its corollary, “I took time off from my Serious Career to spend time with my kids when they were little, but now I want to ease back in the job market by working in a nonprofit.” Catching a whiff of these attitudes tends not to sit well with interviewers who have been working for years in the field.  Even if you were a VIP at your last job, it will help to acknowledge that as someone new to this sector you will be learning every day on the job.  Having a well-thought out answer to how you plan to continue to gain expertise in your new field will also help interviewers believe in your ability and commitment to switching sectors.

Good luck!

In conclusion I would just say that making a big career change is challenging, and it is a process that takes time and intentional planning to do well. A friend said to me recently, “The best advice I ever got was to keep my tech job and just donate and volunteer for the causes I care about”, and that is worth thinking about, because for many people that is absolutely the right answer. But for all of you who seek to bring your talents and passions to the rewarding and messy, fulfilling and crazy-making world of nonprofit jobs, let me be the first to say, Welcome! We can put your talents to good use here. I can’t wait to meet you in an interview sometime soon.

Additional resources

Here are just a few resources for getting up to speed on what’s up in the nonprofit world:

https://www.joangarry.com/ Joan Garry is a consultant who hosts the podcast “Nonprofits are Messy” every two weeks. Her book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership is a helpful overview, as is her blog, and her podcast has interesting topics and guests.

https://blueavocado.org/ Blue Avocado is a helpful generalist blog geared towards small to midsized nonprofits, published every 6 to 8 weeks, sponsored by the Nonprofit Insurance Alliance. Lots of good Q and A about all things nonprofit.

https://nonprofitaf.com/ Nonprofit AF is the irreverent blog of Vu Le, who riffs on race, equity, and what it’s like to be a “nonprofit unicorn” on a weekly basis. Vu is very funny but also has important insights into what’s working –and not working – in the nonprofit sector, especially when it comes to funder’s relationships with the organizations they support.

• If you have a little more time, consider taking a class or earning a certificate in the art of nonprofit leadership. These two at the University of Washington are popular in the Seattle area: https://www.pce.uw.edu/certificates/nonprofit-managementhttps://www.pce.uw.edu/certificates/fundraising-management