The Dos and Don’ts of Making a Career Transition to Nonprofit

Mar. 31, 2016

Dara Z. Klarfeld




Making a transition from the private to nonprofit sector can be challenging, even for the most accomplished executives. How do you show that you are the right fit for a role when you don’t possess a wealth of experience in the nonprofit sector?

Here are some of the dos and don’ts for making a career change to the sector.

Do lead from the heart. Many professionals work in nonprofit because they’re looking for purpose and meaning in their lives and careers. Don’t apply for a position at an organization that you’re not genuinely interested in just because it’s a nonprofit and you’re trying to break into the sector. You have to be heart-strong about the organization and its work.

Don’t cast a wide net. Instead of applying for multiple positions in different areas in nonprofit, identify an area that you’re interested in. Are you passionate about environmental issues? Religion? Education? Health? Want to work for an organization dedicated to providing support to cancer survivors? It’s necessary to approach your job search with a strategy or a focused vision.

Do your research. Once you have identified an area of interest, research the field, notable nonprofits and associations. What challenges are nonprofits in your desired field facing? Understand that some positions are tougher to break into and might require a lateral career move. Positions in finance, communications and marketing may be less challenging to fill, whereas the CEO position requires knowledge of complex nonprofit environments. Pay special attention to the differences between the sectors, from decision-making processes to fundraising responsibilities. You should also be comfortable with nonprofit compensation, which vary based on the size of the nonprofit and its budget.

Don’t disregard the language of nonprofits. It’s important to dissect the job descriptions on nonprofit job boards to learn about the nuances of the role that you’re interested in. The goal is to get familiar with the scope of the work and the words that the nonprofit community uses to describe the work it does. This will allow you to translate the skills you have outside of the sector into nonprofit vernacular.

Do identify connections in your professional experiences that are related to the challenges of the role. You must be able to translate your professional experiences and accomplishments from the private sector to the specific challenges of the position you want to be considered for. It’s not enough to say that you led a group in mergers and acquisitions or that you know a lot about managing money if you can’t explain what that has to do with being a nonprofit CFO or any other role you’re applying for. Are you a sales or marketing executive who is looking to transition into fundraising? Describe how your ability to motivate customers to purchase a product is related to inspiring donors to invest in a nonprofit’s mission. From a glance, your last line of work may seem dissimilar from your desired role, but in some cases, there are bridges between the two.

Don’t submit your resume without a well-crafted cover letter. Together with a skills-based resume, a well-crafted cover letter is essential. Your cover letter is an opportunity to market yourself and campaign for your career transition. Why should the organization hire you? What do you have to offer? Why are you making a career switch? You want to be upfront and explain your current professional situation and discuss what you are seeking in a future career in nonprofit. Detailed examples of your successes and an honest account of your experiences and transferable skills may lead to an interview.

Do serve on nonprofit boards. Your desire to make the world a better place is not a novel reason for wanting to work in nonprofit. Show that you are dedicated to the sector through your volunteer experiences. One of the best ways to gain useful volunteer experiences is by serving on a nonprofit board. This will exemplify your desire to make a transition. It also shows that you have some understanding of the work that nonprofits do.

Don’t underestimate the power of knowledge. Are you pursuing a position at a food bank? You should be well-informed about food insecurity and hunger issues. Networking and participating in relevant events and conferences can also improve your understanding of the field. When coupled with in-demand skills, extensive knowledge of a subject can get you much closer to being similar or competitive to a candidate that has been working in nonprofit.

Do exercise humility and a willingness to learn. There are a lot of misconceptions about what it’s like to work in nonprofit. Some candidates assume that nonprofit is more laid-back than the private sector, but soon realize that it is just as vigorous, if not more complex. Whether you served as the CEO of a major conglomerate or an executive at a top financial services company, leading in a new sector will present many challenges and learning curves so it’s necessary to exhibit humility during the process. Remember, you’re repositioning yourself in your career and that requires both courage and humility.

In order to become a viable candidate in the talent pool, you must possess the necessary competencies to deliver results in the sector. It will be difficult for hiring managers to have confidence in your ability without a well-crafted resume and cover letter, a willingness to learn, volunteer experiences, transferable skills and a genuine interest in creating social impact.