At a large national environmental conference, I was presenting a workshop for career changers. After the workshop, a woman approached me and said she was interested in breaking into the environmental nonprofit field, but didn't have any experience. When I inquired as to what she'd been doing, she told me she had been working in public relations for a well-known company for a number of years. As an environmental nonprofit professional at that time, I was shocked that this woman would think she had no skills to bring.
Too often, people making the transition from for-profits to nonprofits assume that they have nothing to bring to the table but an interest in the nonprofit's mission. I tried to dissuade her of this notion. As we spoke, it seemed to dawn on her that her current skill set would be amazingly valuable for a nonprofit organization. That skill coupled with her passion for the environment made her a great candidate for nonprofit work.Recently, I have been thinking deeply about work in the nonprofit sector. I have taken a position at a technical college where nonprofits are not on the radar screen as employment alternatives. As I try to expand the base of available jobs for graduates, I encourage students to consider the nonprofit sector. Reaction has been mixed. Students seem to share similar concerns: How do a find a job in a nonprofit? Can they pay well? Do I have to be an expert in the issue the nonprofit works on? What can I do at a nonprofit?
For all those job-seekers considering the nonprofit sector, here are some tips on expanding your job search and breaking into nonprofits:
Find the Nonprofit Jobs
1. Let Your Career Interest Point You to a Job
Do you watch the Discovery channel? Volunteer at a local school? Love food? Care about particulant-caused childhood asthma? Want to reform politics? Worry about missing and exploited children? All of these interests can lead you to organizations doing good work. Perhaps your local aquarium is looking for a finance guru. Maybe the nearest shelter is looking for an executive chef. A local hospital is wishing for a computer wizard. Many people come to a career circuitously; they begin volunteering and get more and more involved in the group's activities; a family member is diagnosed with an illness and they derive help from a support group. Why not seek out organizations doing good things in the world? You do not have to be an expert in the field, and in fact, it may be a benefit that you have expert skills in something else. For example, every monkey expert in the world wants to work at the Primate Research Center, but the center also needs HR professionals, accountants, and Web gurus.
2. Let Your Job Point You to an Interest
The opposite strategy works as well. When I began working at the New England Aquarium, the job itself drew me there. I was not particularly interested in the ocean and ocean animals per se, but who doesn't love sea lions and cute kids? Seven years later, I can argue about deep-water sonic booms, fishing rights for indigenous people and funding for science education with the most ardent ocean activist. As a Web guru, consider the Primate Research Center, even if you are more of a flamingo or cat or dolphin person. Take a job in a nonprofit -- perhaps your passion for the issue will grow on you.
3. Use the Nonprofit Job Specialists
By far, the single best search engine on the web for finding nonprofit positions is Idealist.org. A nonprofit itself and founded by true idealists, this is THE place for finding nonprofit jobs and information about the nonprofit community both in the United States and abroad. I recently sat in a focus group for nonprofit recruiters and the only thing everyone agreed upon was the usefulness of listing on idealist.org. Because it is inexpensive for nonprofits to post jobs, many do. Job seekers have free access to all listings, and idealist.org will send a daily email of jobs meeting your desired specifications.Other search engines include Community Career Center, NonprofitOyster.com, and Opportunity NOCs New England (New England listings only).[Editor's Note: We list numerous career and employment Websites in our Volunteering and Nonprofit Career Resources.]Many United Way offices have Web sites that offer volunteer opportunities and organization listings. Use this information to generate a list of Websites to visit.
Know and be Able to Sell Your Transferable and Transportable Skills
The most important strategy for the nonprofit job-seekers is to carefully examine their current skills. I make a distinction here between transferable and transportable skills. Transferable skills are those used in one position and related to the ones needed for the new position. An example would be a salesperson trying to secure a position as a political lobbyist. An articulation of transferable skills would be something along the order of "while I have never worked directly as a political lobbyist, I have extensive selling and networking skills. The skills that have served me well in selling widgets are easily transferred to the lobbyist setting.
I am confident that I could use these skills to successfully lobby on your behalf." Transferable skills could include sales (for fundraising and donor cultivation), journalism (for grant writing or press releases), conflict management (good for any organization), human resources (for volunteer management), teaching (for any kind of public outreach or program), and entrepreneurship (for creation of new initiatives).Transportable skills, are those that can directly move to the new context. This skill set is the same used in both the old position and new position, despite the context. The woman from the example above could say: "I have successfully negotiated media relations, press releases, on-camera work, and print advertisement for a large company." While the subject matter of your organization's mission is different, these same skills would be invaluable for better communicating your mission: "I am confident I can use these skills in an environmental context." Transportable skills could include those in accounting, finance, computer technology, entrepreneurship, Web design, horticulture, human resources, management, public relations, and supervision.
Know What You Can Get: Salary and Beyond
Many job-seekers assume that nonprofits cannot pay competitive salaries. While that may be the case for new or smaller nonprofits, many nonprofits pay market wages for positions. If issues of salary and benefits are significant for you, have that discussion with the HR office early in your process. Similarly, if you are moving from a high-paying for-profit position and are willing to take a pay cut, it is probably strategic to include that information in your cover letter. An appropriate way to phrase this willingness is: "While I understand there may be a significant difference in my current salary and the salary range associated with this position, I am very interested in working for the Guide Dogs Association of America, and am open to discussing the differential.
"Salary alone should not be the determining factor when considering a nonprofit job offer. A wealth of benefit options may be available to you. Inquire about flextime, telecommuting, bringing your kids in on snow days and casual dress. Find out if the organization offers a 403(b) retirement option -- the nonprofit equivalent of a 401(k), transportation subsidies, maternity/paternity leave, and conference travel funding. Nonprofits know that they may not be able to afford extremely competitive salaries and therefore may be more flexible in their benefit and lifestyle package options.Expanding your job search to include the nonprofit sector is a smart approach to finding the career of your dreams. Whether your passion leads you to a job or a job leads you to a new passion, nonprofits are viable alternatives to corporate positions. Why not consider changing your career and changing the world at the same time?
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.