August 15, 2007

A Recruiter Gives Guidance to Those Seeking Switch to a Nonprofit Career

For business-world professionals considering a career switch, the nonprofit world — with its emphasis on charitable mission over the bottom line — can seem very appealing. Laura Gassner Otting, founder of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a search firm that works exclusively with charitable organizations and nonprofit job seekers, in May published Change Your Career: Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector (Kaplan Publishing) to help such job seekers make the leap. In an interview, she talked about the differences between the business and nonprofit worlds — and what type of candidate is most likely to succeed at a charity.

What are some of the misconceptions and realities about the nonprofit field that job candidates should know?

Myths about the nonprofit sector abound — starvation wages, terrible benefits, relaxing work pace, and job security, just to name a few. But one of the biggest fallacies spun by those in the for-profit sector is that everyone who works at a charity is a hemp-wearing, easy-riding do-gooder. The realization that the nonprofit world employs the same smart, savvy, and ambitious professionals as the corporate world often comes as a refreshing surprise to those who imagine charities to be staffed only with selfless, tireless champions.

What advice do you have for job seekers in regard to adjusting their salary expectations?

Most people looking for work in the nonprofit sector have already accepted the fact that they will probably make less than they did previously. However, while a nonprofit salary may be as little as 40 percent of their for-profit equivalent, it doesn't have to be; many people earn six and even seven figures.

For many, though, the salary discrepancy is what has held them back from transitioning to a nonprofit career before now. They simply couldn't afford to make the change. Still others are making the transition now because they simply can't afford not to. Something has happened to them, or to the world in general, that has led them to feel that things must change and that they must help make this change happen. For these individuals, money isn't a question.

For the rest of us, a more tactical approach is required. Candidates should learn to value the intangibles. There is simply no direct correlation, as in the for-profit sector, between one's salary and the value they deliver to society. A change of lifestyle may also help: Those who want to work at a nonprofit but who don't have a savings account upon which to rely should consider scaling back their spending for a few months to determine how comfortable they feel sacrificing a few additional meals out or the latest designer purse for a mission that touches their soul. Finally, people who require higher incomes should look for jobs at larger nonprofits, such as universities or research institutions, or — if they aren't quite ready to jump into the nonprofit world with both feet — at socially responsible businesses.

What types of people are most likely to succeed in making the transition from for-profit to nonprofit work?

CompassPoint and the [Eugene and Agnes E.] Meyer Foundation found in their "Daring to Lead 2006" study that nonprofit executives are placing new value on strategic planning, entrepreneurial concepts, and business-development skills, because many of them do not have senior staff in charge of finance or development. Thus, such corporate-sector skills are proving to be increasingly transferable.

Those who are generally most successful at making the transition are those who recognize the distinct differences between the sectors and do not bemoan the nonprofit sector's inability to work more like the corporate world. They delegate with kindness and empathy while demanding accountability. They revel in the diversity of the sector and are adaptable, flexible, and open in their management and communications styles. They are multi-taskers and are able to manage broad portfolios of responsibility. They can deliver impressive results with limited resources. Finally, and equally as important, they have a distinct passion for the work of the nonprofit.

How does one know whether making a switch into the nonprofit world is the right move?

Everyone has his or her reasons for making a transition. Perhaps their company is downsizing and this is a move they have always desired. Perhaps they are a board member for a nonprofit whose chief executive just announced plans for retirement. Perhaps they are just coming back to work after raising children and realize that they cannot go back to the job they held before.

Many who switch sectors find themselves applying for jobs that seem completely unconnected to where they have been. Usually this is the result of a unique, often life-altering experience as a volunteer, an illness in the family, or a major world catastrophe, and it's often exactly the right, and perfectly plausible, time to make such a dramatic change. If properly framed, an applicant's underlying motivation will make sense to a potential employer.

But people wanting to switch careers should think long and hard about their underlying motivation. Is their interest just a passing fancy that will flame out when met with rough times and frustration? Or is it from deep within their core? Candidates should ask themselves tough questions about how they really feel about this major career change and keep asking until they feel they have an honest answer.

What misconceptions or stereotypes do nonprofit employers tend to have about for-profit candidates?

Many corporate career changers come to the nonprofit sector with unrealistic expectations, and because many hiring managers have seen it all before, their applications may be stereotyped. For instance, some applicants expect to have the same administrative support staff, cutting-edge technology, or high salaries tied directly to bottom-line results they had in their previous job. Some nonprofit employers worry that candidates from the corporate world think that charities would run better if only they ran like for-profits, and that they will set out to imprint their corporate stamp everywhere.

Others fear that for-profit candidates would consider the nonprofit lucky to have such a corporate success from whom to learn and emulate. Some candidates are even stereotyped as soulless corporate automatons who wouldn't have sold out quite so readily years ago had they really believed in the mission.

Applicants should be prepared for their interviewers to hold one or even all of these stereotypes, and be prepared to correct them. The cover letter is a great place for a job seeker to discuss, for example, how he has sent his children to college and as a result is now more financially able to make the sacrifices necessary to give back to his community. Or a candidate might use her résumé to list the volunteer work she's done throughout the years as a way to allay concerns that she doesn't care about people.

Becoming fluent in nonprofit-speak also helps. Candidates should volunteer for and talk at length with people who work at their charities of interest, and start reading the sector's publications in order to learn how work in the nonprofit sector is different. They can then use this knowledge to prove to potential employers that they have a real commitment to the sector as well as expectations that are aligned with reality.

How should a candidate get started making the transition from for-profit to nonprofit work?

Before starting a job search, candidates should ask themselves three important questions:

  • What is my motivating social cause? Do I care about saving the whales or teaching children to read? Would I rather fund economic development in villages in sub-Saharan Africa or develop a food bank in my own community?
  • What approach would I like to take to solve this problem? Different nonprofits approach issues differently. Consider the problem of teenage mothers. One nonprofit might do direct service, such as running nutritional-counseling workshops or prenatal health care. Another might advocate on behalf of young mothers, lobbying state governments for greater food-stamp distribution for those purchasing infant formula. The tactical approach of a nonprofit defines how it raises and spends money, and also determines the personalities and skill sets of the employees it needs.
  • What skills and experience do I bring to the table? Job seekers tend to think of their experience solely in terms of the jobs they've held, and forget to think about all the relevant skills they've acquired outside the 9-to-5 workday. They should think about things such as: What have they learned through involvement in neighborhood committees or with their child's school? How have they volunteered in their place of worship? Have their leisure activities lent them any relevant expertise? Nonprofit job titles may be an amalgam of several jobs they have come to know in the corporate sector. Assessing skills learned from both the paid and unpaid hours in their days will enable candidates to better target the nonprofit job that's right for them.

Are you thinking about making a switch from the business world to the nonprofit field -- or have you made the leap already?