Many job seekers approach me for help in transitioning to the non-profit sector. I’m always delighted by this, yet also realistic and plain-spoken with them.

My two main messages:

  1. While you may have great transferable skills, if you don’t have first-hand experience in how non-profits operate, it will be difficult for you to transition. The non-profit sector is different enough from the for-profit world that you need to know what you’re getting into.
  2. Recruiters/hiring managers from the non-profit sector won’t take you seriously unless you demonstrate prior knowledge of and commitment to the sector.

If you truly do want to transition in the non-profit sector, begin volunteering at a non-profit. Volunteer experience is the best way to gain knowledge of how non-profits operate, and to demonstrate your dedication to a cause.

One great way to volunteer is to join a non-profit Board, Advisory Board, Young Professionals group, or event committee. These mechanisms give you the most exposure to what I think is the most important aspect of a non-profit: fundraising.

Fundraising is how non-profits generate all or most of their revenue. Non-profits cannot raise their prices for services or products, as most for-profits can and do.  Non-profits “sell” a feeling, not a product or an outcome.

Each year, most non-profits begin their fiscal year with $0.00 in revenue. More established non-profits may have endowments or investments from which they draw some income. Yet even they have to raise the bulk of the funds needed to deliver programs, services, research, and other vehicles for having an impact on their clients and constituency.  Once a non-profit has established a track record, it’s possible for fundraising staff and organizational leadership to project likely sources and amounts of funding (aka revenue). But there is always an uncertainty about whether funding will actually come through in the amount needed every fiscal year.

That uncertainty is uncomfortable for many people who transition from for-profits. That uncertainty also means that non-profits typically spend very judiciously and rarely accord employees the kind of benefits and support often enjoyed by for-profit employees.

  • Expense accounts and payment for car service or ride-shares are rare among non-profits.
  • The latest technology is rarely adopted early on.
  • Furniture may not be the nicest.
  • Locations tend to be in lower-cost neighborhoods, which may not have the amenities of a more central and more expensive location – coffee shops, delis, restaurants, retail stores, etc.

I know of people who transitioned into the non-profit sector without knowing how they operate, and left after a year or so because it was too different from their for-profit experience. Both the person and the organization were disappointed.

Gain familiarity with how non-profits are funded and how they operate before seeking a non-profit position. You’ll do yourself and the non-profit sector a favor by being well-informed before you make the transition.