How to Make the Switch to the Nonprofit Sector

Sue Berger of Laguna Hills, Calif., was in her 70s when she began working for a nonprofit counseling center.


The time has come to put your personal passion to work for a cause greater than yourself. Now what?

The advice from job counselors who specialize in transitions from the commercial world to nonprofit organizations: Follow your passion. Reframe your career. Try it before you buy it. And check your ego at the door.

Follow your passion. For corporate trainer Sheila Moore of Ooltewah, Tenn., her wake-up call came while leading a workshop for managers. She reminded them of the company's goal: increasing income for shareholders. "How do you engage a group behind a mission like that?" she thought to herself. Now she runs a small nonprofit management center.

Reframe your career. You not only need to reshape your resume and cover letter to match your skills to the nonprofit's needs, you also need to be specific about how your motivation and your experience will contribute to your encore career. For example, a marketing professional might stress how selling products led to her desire to promote educational programs and innovative ideas, and what lessons her marketing campaigns carry for the community campaigns the organization is planning.

"The biggest lesson I learned was thinking of myself as a skill set and not as a journalist," recalls David Yarnold, the former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News who jumped to the Environmental Defense Fund and is now its executive director.

Try it before you buy it. You'll know better if nonprofit work is right for you if you immerse yourself in it, and you'll have a better chance of landing a job in the nonprofit world if you bring some nonprofit experience. Volunteer at an event, help with fundraising or serve as an intern. You may be tapped (or step forward yourself) to serve on a nonprofit's board of directors.

Nonprofits often make hiring decisions from within their own networks. "The strongest candidates usually have some connection to the organization's mission," says Dana Hagenbuch, director of marketing and communications for Commongood Careers.

Stephen Thomas of Baltimore enrolled in a one-year AmeriCorps service program, and now works as a career facilitator at Maryland New Directions, where he helps ex-prisoners find work and keep their jobs. After growing to abhor "the marketing plans, the balance sheets, the artifice of office politics and sucking up to corporate big-wigs" of his corporate job, he now says. "I honestly love my job."

Check your ego at the door. Adapting to "nonprofit culture" may take some adjustment. Projects may take longer to accomplish. Working with volunteers and donors may require people skills that are different than those in a business setting. A collaborative atmosphere and softer deadlines may appear to mask a lack of accountability. At the same time, you may need to do work that's "below your pay grade." Flexibility may be a euphemism for working evenings and weekends. On top of all that, you may have taken a pay cut.

Despite your valuable experience, not all nonprofits welcome the "I'll whip this place into shape" attitude of some people who come from for-profit enterprises. They'll want you to remember that a nonprofit's primary mission is social purpose, not financial returns. Give yourself time to listen and get up to speed, and don't assume you'll start at the top.

All that said, there's one more piece of wisdom from many who have made the jump from the profit-driven world to the mission-driven world: I wish I'd done it sooner.

"Once I became involved in helping recovering women, I have never once questioned that what I am doing is who I am," says Sue Berger of Laguna Hills, Calif., a former real estate escrow officer who was 75 when she started working at a nonprofit counseling center for women recovering from substance abuse and other addictions. "It is totally fulfilling, satisfying and challenging, and I do not plan to retire, ever," she says. "They're going to have to carry me out."