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What to consider before switching to the nonprofit sector

February 16, 2017

Switching career paths or roles can be daunting. More so if you plan to switch over to a sector completely new to you. I experienced this fear of the unknown firsthand when I moved to the nonprofit sector from my role as a financial consultant in banking and capital markets. Before making the move, I thought about my experiences and drivers: I wanted to make a positive impact in the world, had volunteered with several organizations, and had even served as an interim board member for a small, start-up nonprofit. Looking back, I naively felt prepared for the transition. But as soon as I started interviewing, my eyes were quickly opened to the different realities of this new and exciting sector.

Reflecting on my experience and what I’ve learned, here are six things you may want to consider before making the jump:

  1. Know what you’re looking for: I have had dozens of lunches, coffees, and happy hours with friends and acquaintances who believe they want to switch sectors. In nine out of ten cases, when I ask what they are looking for, they tell me they’ve decided they want to do something meaningful and therefore want to work at a nonprofit. When I push, asking what type of nonprofit or which issues in particular they are interested in, I’m met with blank stares. The nonprofit sector is huge, and it’s diverse. What issues are you interested in focusing on? Are you interested in direct service, where you directly engage with community members, or are you interested in capacity building work, like working at a consultancy? What function interests you? Are you interested in business development, finance, programs, or something else? The more you’ve reflected on what exactly you are looking for – and what you have to offer – the easier and more meaningful your search will be.
  2. Understand the business models: Having worked in finance before coming to the nonprofit sector, as a performance improvement consultant no less, I felt confident that I understood what drives organizations and how they make money and cover their operations. But nonprofits are – you guessed it – different. Nonprofits are driven by their missions and desired impact, often captured by their theory of change, which outlines how specific programs and services create the change an organization wants to see in the world. This impact focus shapes every organization’s business model: it outlines who they serve and which programs they pursue, which in turn dictates the resources needed and thus directs fundraising and revenue generation. Nonprofits have to consider what programs will have the most impact in their communities, as well as what programs and activities can best generate revenue to cover the cost of providing them, in order to ensure sustainable operations. Understanding the relationship between social impact and sustainability, and therefore, the pressures on a nonprofit’s business model – as much as you can before you interview, and ultimately, before accepting an offer – is important to your success in the sector.
  3. Don’t assume that everyone is motivated by the same thing: There are so many reasons that someone works at a nonprofit organization, only some of which stem from pure altruism. Some people join the sector because they have a connection to a certain mission, while others join because they saw an opportunity for progression, wanted to work close to home, or knew someone on the board that could get them an introduction. Be sure that you are able to speak to your personal motivation for coming to the sector and try to understand what motivates individuals working at organizations you are interested in. Why an individual comes to the work changes not only how they do the work but also what they will prioritize, so understanding what is driving your potential colleagues will help you determine if that organization is the right fit for you.
  4. Be clear on your non-negotiables: It’s no secret that resources are limited in the nonprofit sector, and while switching over might result in a lower salary, it’s important that you are clear on your non-negotiables going in, both financial and nonfinancial. For example, I had a friend that couldn’t take more than a 25% pay cut and still be able to pay her rent. Having at least three weeks paid time off was my non-negotiable, as my family is spread out all over the world and traveling to see them was important to me. From salary and promotion opportunities to benefits, the clearer you are with yourself and with organizations about your list of true non-negotiables, the easier it will be for you to find an opportunity that will work for both you and them.
  5. Be humble but know your value: You may have been managing a fifteen person team on a ten million dollar project last month, but today you are interviewing with a nonprofit, and you are the new kid on the block. Be humble. Don’t assume that just because you were successful in a for-profit business that you know as much as the grassroots organizer across the table who has been helping communities in need for twenty years (this advice goes for whenever you are changing jobs!). On the flip side of that argument, understand your value and know what you bring to the organization – all sectors and roles can learn from each other, so be clear about where you see yourself fitting and adding value. Potential employers will appreciate that you have given thought to how you can contribute and enhance their organization in particular.

Switching sectors has been simultaneously the most challenging and enriching experience of my career. I consider having worked in both for-profits and nonprofits one of my strongest assets, though I found the transition less than easy. But with a little bit of preparation and thoughtfulness, your transition to the social sector can be a seamless and rewarding one.

By Consultant Emily Adams