I often meet people interested in working in the nonprofit sector. Whether they are recent grads or experienced folks switching sectors, I give the same advice: 1) Understand the nuances that make our sector unique; and 2) Find a way to bridge the gap between your past experience and your new career interests.
Tip #1: Understand the Nuances
I know that nonprofits are indeed businesses. But, for the most part, we don’t call our organizations that. If you call a nonprofit a "business", it sends up a red flag. For some, it might mean you are less experienced. For others, it might mean you don’t get what makes our sector different.
Sometimes I hear statements like this: You know, a nonprofit is really just a business that isn’t allowed to make a profit. The implication being that the only difference between nonprofits and corporations is the bottom line. This statement, which I have heard from people who even work at a nonprofit, is simply not true. First, nonprofits are allowed to make a profit (typically called a surplus). We are just limited in what we can do with it.
Secondly, there are actually MANY differences between the sectors. I could create the laundry list, but I fear it would read more like a dissertation than a blog post. Instead, let me give you just one: the need for community engagement. As I have stated in previous posts, the nonprofit sector is really the people sector. Most nonprofits cannot function without extensive support from the community. This level of civic engagement – in the form of donated time, goods, services, and money – requires a unique approach and skillset. If a new staff member doesn’t understand the value of the volunteer and donor base, there’s a big problem. Nonprofits wouldn’t want to risk a serious blunder that could cost valuable resources and connections.
I recommend reading the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers. It spells out many of the differences between the sectors. In addition, if you aren’t already, start volunteering today. This will also help you to understand what makes our sector tick and will serve you well when you are on the other side of the equation as a paid staff member.
Tip #2: Bridge the Gap
Don’t expect the interviewer to make the connection of how your for-profit experience connects to your new career interests. Instead, determine how the past has prepared you for this career change and use your resume, cover letter and interview time to demonstrate this connection. If you uncover holes in your skillset or knowledge base, do something about it.
I have a friend who was interested in working at a nonprofit in the area of program outcomes/evaluation. His background was in the corporate sector doing marketing research. Clearly, his corporate experience would aid him in this new career path, but he still needed a better understanding of how nonprofits do program evaluation. He filled in the holes by aggressively taking workshops and classes as well as by joining appropriate professional groups. When he recently interviewed for a job, the interviewer could see that he had all the skills, experience and ambition to be successful in this new career. No wonder they offered him the position.
Stay tuned for the next post, where I will share additional interviewing tips and resources.