January 30, 2003

Engineering Careers in the Nonprofit World

Q: I have a master's degree in communication engineering and work in the field of networking software. Lately, though, I've lost interest in engineering and have grown more intrigued by nonprofit work. After having invested so much time and energy into becoming an engineer, what kind of luck would I have in the nonprofit job market?

A: Nonprofit organizations desperately need qualified technical help, but often can't afford it. Organizations rarely have money in their budgets to hire somebody who does nothing but deal with technology, and the few who do can generally pay only about half of what that employee would be able to earn in the business world, says Jeffrey J. Forster, director of technology services at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management, in Pittsburgh.

One type of job that has developed over the past decade is the "circuit rider" -- essentially, a fancy name for a technology consultant. People with expertise will either offer a broad range of technology services to a small number of organizations that jointly foot the bill, or provide highly specialized services on a project-by-project basis to a large number of organizations.

One of the most important functions a circuit rider can provide is assessment, according to Mr. Forster. When it comes to information technology, he says, "Organizations often don't know what they don't know, don't know what they don't have, and don't know what their priorities should be." As a result, he says, they may feel uncomfortable trusting salespeople, who have a vested interest in selling them one particular system or product. In contrast, circuit riders can be a kind of neutral information broker to help charities evaluate their needs and make smart choices. If you're interested in jumping into the nonprofit world in this manner, you should consider attending the next national conference of circuit riders, the Roundup, which takes place March 7 though 9 in Oakland, Calif.

Technology managers who would rather find full-time employment with a particular organization should check out TechSoup, which offers a variety of career-building articles and resources, including links to job fairs. A general word of advice if you're trying to make the switch from for-profit to nonprofit work: Taking a volunteer job or unpaid internship with a charity is one of the best ways to gain experience and build a network of contacts among prospective employers.