Finding That Nonprofit Career

13 05 2009

Congratulations! After much soul searching, you’ve decided to seek a career in the nonprofit world. You have experience. You’ve managed people. You have credentials in your field. You want to use them to make the world a better place. 

Good for you! My own experience, and that of others who have made the switch, point to a few things that may help you get that new job. First of all, make sure you have a good sense of what kind of nonprofit you want to work for. Similar to advice for getting on a board of directors, you should research the different causes that interest you. Working for a nonprofit is hard work. What makes it worthwhile is knowing that you really care about the mission.

To get a good feel for nonprofit work and the people involved, pick up the phone and set up informational interviews. When I made the switch from market research consultant to nonprofit agency executive, I spent several months taking my resume to people in different positions, asking them about their work, their preparation for the job, and what they saw in my resume that would be useful to a nonprofit. And, of course, I asked for referrals. Their advice was invaluable. 

As with the private sector, whom you know is at least as important as what you know. If you have a connection to a nonprofit consulting firm, you may wish to let them know that you’re looking. For example, in the course of a year, Bloom Consulting works with many different nonprofits. As we work with them, we hear of positions that are going vacant, new positions that are being developed, and short-term needs for professional talent. There are also few jobs boards — Idealist, Chronicle of Philanthropy, for example — that specialize in the nonprofit world, as well as executive search firms within the sector. 

 When the time comes to interview for a position, be prepared to discuss your commitment at least as much as your skill sets. People who have lived and breathed nonprofits their entire lives are used to dealing with others like themselves. They will want to hear about your commitment to the mission, as much as – or perhaps more than – the skills you can bring. Society talks about ‘the bottom line’ and usually means a financial profit. When a nonprofit talks about the bottom line, they are talking about people served, meals delivered, children vaccinated, animals rescued. It is a shift from a solely dollars and cents mentality to one in which the social product is the bottom line.

Be aware of the constraints nonprofits work under.  Nonprofit executives are well aware they need marketing, HR, planning, accounting, whatever skills. They know it…they just don’t know if they can afford it. More than one job seeker said that he sees many nonprofits that don’t know how to promote themselves; why don’t they hire a marketing professional? Indeed, many nonprofits know they need marketing help. But if the question is whether to spend money on promotion or spend money on food for orphans, the first instinct is to feed the orphans. It may not be the best use of the money in the long run – increased promotion may be the key to greatly increased donations – but it’s a hard choice to make.

Some of the best advice I ever received came from the very generous people who gave of their time and knowledge to help me make the switch. The informational interviews in Ohio, Indiana, New York, and DC gave me tremendous help as I worked through my own process of transition. Despite their crowded schedules, these generous nonprofit professionals gave of their time and knowledge — and their contacts. Through them, many doors opened for me. More recently, I asked colleagues for recommendations to pass on. The Association of Fundraising Professionals group in LinkedIn was particularly generous. Trying a professional internship is one suggestion that I heard several times. If an internship isn’t available, consider a short-term engagement to fulfill a particular project.

Nonprofit professionals are particularly generous with their experiences.  I hope their advice helps you, as well.




One response

18 05 2009
Books for Switching from Private to Nonprofit Sector « Thoughtful Philanthropist

[…] About Susan Detwiler Finding That Nonprofit Career […]

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