When I made the decision to change my career to the nonprofit sector I was excited and a bit intimidated. I was excited because I knew I was ready for a change. After doing a thorough job of soul searching along with some skills testing and matching, I came to a sound conclusion. I was ready and eager to use my professional skills – a combination of financial, marketing and sales – to fundraise for a nonprofit.
Intimidated may sound like a strange word since I made this change very intentionally. Here’s why it applies: I was fortunate that nonprofits saw my resume and were interested in interviewing me. I went on these interviews and met founders of nonprofits as well as board and staff members of charities that were engaged in truly changing the world. All I knew was that I was ready, willing and able to help them raise money to fund their missions. I felt good about my desire to serve but uncomfortable that I too didn’t have a very specific and directed passion…yet.
In hindsight, I see that this was OK – and not even unusual. Once I secured my first role, it led me to a journey of discovery for those causes I was passionate about. Ultimately, this process was a funnel that allowed me to explore many aspects of nonprofit work including the issues, types of charities and opportunities to serve. Nevertheless, it can be challenging to get your first job with little or no nonprofit background. Here are three suggestions for obtaining that valuable experience. (spoiler alert: these probably won’t be shockers; it’s just that they work!)
While this list is far from complete, if you’re not sure where you might be a fit, trying one or several of these should give you a head start. And remember, it’s OK not to know! You don’t have to rush a decision and there’s a lot of good you can do while enjoying the journey.
Seventeen years ago, I changed the direction of my life when I moved to the nonprofit sector. I made this change due to a longing to find a deeper meaning through my work. Back then, I didn’t know how I wanted to serve, I just knew I was committed to serving. Having worked in finance, fundraising was a natural fit. I enjoyed talking about ideas and change. Most of all, I was comfortable talking about how wealth could be a driver in making a difference in the world.
Looking back, I had little understanding of the nonprofit sector and some key considerations that would have made this transition smoother. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to meet professionals that have joined the sector for a range or reasons. I wanted to share some thought processes and I’ve outlined them based on the primary three main reasons I’ve seen individuals join the charitable work force.
The Epiphany: If you’ve experienced a life altering event, this could be you. One of my favorite examples are the individuals that started Students Run LA (www.srla.org). SRLA is a nonprofit that uses running as a motivator for goal setting and achievement. As the story goes, two Los Angeles teachers were working with struggling students. Both were avid runners and thought that the goal orientation of distance events could drive students. After trying this approach, they realized it worked. The rest, as they say, is history.
For folks that “catch lightning in a bottle” it’s a journey of turning passion into purpose, then a program and maybe even an organization. Key considerations include:
· The viability of your model;
· Competition (not necessarily a bad thing - it validates your idea);
· Options for getting started i.e. partnering, lunching etc.
Passion for Service: Perhaps you’ve volunteered for years and love the work. Maybe you did a pro bono project for a charity and found the experience more rewarding than your own job. Or, maybe it’s just the right time to dedicate your life to serving others. Fantastic! If you’ve volunteered for a specific organization and there are opportunities there, great. Before switching; however, ensure your interest in working in nonprofit extends beyond the organization. Leaders change. Charities change. You get the point.
If you’re passionate about service but aren’t sure where you fit, here are some helpful questions to examine.
· What are you passionate about? What sub-sectors interest you i.e. health, education, hunger, homelessness – the list of causes is sadly, very long.
· Do you want to work at a community, state, national or even international level?
· What skills do you want to use? Where will they be most valuable?
With the growing number of charities, the options are infinite (well not infinite: there are 1.5 million nonprofits in the US alone but that should still be enough to choose from!)
Career Opportunity: I recently met a marketing professional who was recruited to a nonprofit in her local community. I’m always pleased when I hear about this happening. Bringing in individuals with different perspectives can have tremendous value. If you’ve worked in the corporate sector and have been recruited to a nonprofit, consider the following:
· You won’t be working less. Individuals may believe that nonprofit work is easier and less demanding. Wrong We’re just working for different rewards;
· Get comfortable with Process. Nonprofits value inclusion and collaboration and lots of discussion before a move. This may be different than what you’re used to; and
· It’s a family affair. There are myriad reasons to be sure your partner and entire family embrace the move from finances to participation.
Regardless whether one of the three descriptions above fits or not, there are also general questions to explore. Perhaps most important, are you moving towards something or away from something? If you’re unhappy working in the for-profit sector, don’t fool yourself into thinking that the nonprofit sector is easier. Examine your reasons and make sure you’re being honest with yourself. If you are, in fact, committed to service, then it’s a matter of figuring out where you’ll be a fit. Examine your passions – what causes do you deeply care about? Or as I was once asked “What’s Breaking Your Heart?” If you can answer this one, that’s an awesome start!
About a week ago, a friend of a friend reached out and asked me a question I’ve been asked before. “How do you make the switch from the for-profit world to a career in nonprofits?” Apparently, my friend mentioned that I had done this about 17 years ago. Then last Thursday I found myself engaged in a similar conversation. A new professional contact had done a lot of volunteering and training with nonprofits and was contemplating focusing her practice on the charitable arena. She was asking about ways to successfully work with organizations and prepare for this approach.
Maybe it’s the resurgence in activism from today’s political environment. Perhaps it’s a generational shift with a focus on finding deeper meaning in work. Who knows but there must be something in the air! Anyway, I wanted to share my top three recommendations if you’re considering The Big Switch. And yes, there are countless posts, blogs, books, and seminars you can check out that will be helpful. Read those too! But since you’re already here, these are mine (and in no particular order):
1. Test the waters: There are numerous ways to get a sense of what it’s like to be a part of charitable work. Some typical and highly valuable options include volunteering and serving on a board of directors. Since I made my switch, several new options have become available. Sign up to do a pro bono project for a nonprofit via the Taproot Foundation (www.taprootplus.org) or Catchafire (www.catchafire.org) Both of these will connect you with organizations that could benefit from your skills.
2. Don’t wait for the epiphany: Some of us are lucky to have that magic moment where something inspires you to change your life and the lives of others. But some don’t. Just because you haven’t found “that one thing” doesn’t mean you can’t make a valuable contribution. Take the time to do #1 (above) and enjoy learning about the work of many types of nonprofits. You’ll learn there are multiple subsectors i.e. education, health and human services. You’ll find that there are small, medium, big and even huge nonprofits. Not only will you get a sense of your niche, who knows? You might even have that epiphany!
3. Realize that nonprofits are like businesses – but then again, they’re not: One discussion that’s been going on since I’ve been involved in the field (and no doubt before) is whether nonprofits should operate like businesses. This is too small a space to dedicate to that subject. Suffice to say, there’s no perfect answer. What I can tell you is that there are aspects of nonprofit work that must be businesslike and professional i.e. financial and operational standards that must be met. At the same time, nonprofits have a process element that’s often not part of corporate life. You may find yourself having intense philosophical and ideological discussions and debates. Just don’t expect it’s going to be one or the other.
Again, this is just scratching the surface of what can be a very interesting, challenging but ultimately satisfying switch. As I said, there are numerous resources and opinions on what is critical to look at when joining the sectors.
Robert Grabel is the President of Nonprofit Now! You can find his posts here and at www.robertgrabel.com
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