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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