By Jeri Sedlar and Michael Watson
The unemployment rate is frightening, jobs are being cut across the nation and hiring freezes are in place at many organizations. Yet nonprofits are continuing to recruit experienced people. To be hired, you need to be strategic and smart as you investigate your next act during these changing times.
Now, more than ever, you need to have a specific encore career in mind and a plan for finding it. You are heading out on a rocky quest, but if you wait until things get better, you’ll be part of a pool with other job seekers who postponed moving forward. Now is the right time to make your move and get out ahead of the competition.
As a longtime "rewiring" guru and a nonprofit human services executive, we know both the obstacles and the payoffs in making a switch to the nonprofit sector. You need to be both mentally and physically prepared to switch careers and be willing to do some self-assessment before you jump into action. Here are some tips to help you make a transition to nonprofit work during difficult economic times:
Understand your “drivers.” Identify the personal needs that motivate you before you start your encore journey. For example, one person may seek a leadership role, while another is happy to work behind the scenes. Analyze what made you feel valued and content during previous jobs and volunteer roles.
Determine where the jobs are. To learn where jobs are likely to be available, consult the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of fastest-growing occupations or its career guide to advocacy, grantmaking and civic organizations.
Cast your net wider than usual. Since you are contemplating a change during challenging times, be open to unexpected recommendations and opportunities. Accept invitations you might ordinarily pass up and seek out invitations to gatherings of people doing work that you’re curious about. Be ready to give your “elevator speech” when thrown into contact with someone new, explaining what you offer and what you want in one minute or less.
Expand your network. Traditional networking tools, such as contacting friends and arranging informational interviews, are still key in unearthing opportunities. New social networking tools, including LinkedIn and Facebook, also can be dynamic resources if used in moderation. They can be time stealers if not managed.
Narrow your focus in the nonprofit world. There are over 1 million nonprofits in the United States. What area turns you on? The environment, education, children, health care, housing, animals? Having a passion, or at least a strong interest, will help you focus on which organizations to investigate first. Working for a nonprofit is about passion and making a difference, not about the money or perks. You have to be ignited by the mission of the organization.
Get to know the culture of nonprofits on your short list. Learn about each nonprofit’s personality and work culture by talking to individuals who are currently volunteering or working there. Listen and ask questions that will help you get a perspective on what the organization is really all about.
Spend some time on the “inside.” Do a test drive of the organization by volunteering or serving as an unpaid intern. Volunteers are needed in a variety of capacities, from direct service to board membership. Working inside the organization allows you to investigate the culture fit and see how a nonprofit functions. And you may be the first person the manager thinks of when an opening occurs.
Use the downturn as an opportunity to retrain for your new career. Now is a good time to brush up on skills or take classes toward certification in a new field.
Be versatile and creative. It’s important to remember that nonprofits don’t have the same resources as corporations. When times are tough, you need to be more flexible than ever. Can you adjust to an environment where there are fewer resources? Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty? Can you think of new ways to make a membership or publicity campaign successful with a smaller budget? Your willingness to adapt may make you a “keeper” when other jobs are cut.
Jeri Sedlar is senior adviser at The Conference Board on the Mature Workforce and coauthor of the book,Don’t Retire, REWIRE! 5 Steps to Fulfilling Work that Fuels Your Passion, Suits Your Personality and Fills Your Pocket
Michael Watson is senior vice president of human resources for Girl Scouts of the USA. He previously worked at IBM.