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Expert tips for the sector switch

Written by: Marc Schultz
Published on: Apr 24, 2018

Sector switchersWhen you’re looking for your first purpose-driven position, it can be a challenge figuring out how to sell yourself. That’s why we asked some of our Work for Good contributors to weigh in on the following question: If all my previous experience is in another sector, how do I position myself as a great candidate for nonprofits?

Here’s how they answered:

Maddie Grant, Human Workplaces: Nonprofits are always looking for self-starters who are creative, innovative, and who can help come up with solutions that do more with less.

Laura Paradise, Paradise Coaching: You need to know who you are talking to and what makes them a good fit for you – where you match up in terms of values and vision, and how your skills apply to their needs. It’s helpful to find some intersect between your previous employer’s mission or culture and the company you’re applying with. Speaking from a place of values is particularly important: Often, it’s values that drive people to work in nonprofits, and fuel commitment in a new position.

Pam Sawyer, U.S. Olympic Committee: Volunteering at a favorite nonprofit over a period of time is a good way to gain experience with and insight into the similarities and differences between for-profit and nonprofit work. It also translates to valuable resume-building credentials, better understanding of a particular nonprofit’s culture, and opportunities to meet staff who might be future hiring managers or references.

Dana Fletcher, Fund for Global Human Rights: I would highlight the transferrable nature of my skills while also highlighting how my for-profit (or government) experience could be a great advantage – for instance, enabling me to bring a fresh perspective and develop more innovative solutions to the tasks at hand.

Charlene Fitzpatrick, The HR Girl: Understand that a non-profit is still a business, requiring a strategy for accessing resources and achieving success. Research the specifics of the nonprofit you have interest in – needs, mission, five year strategic goals, and fundraising strategy – and capitalize on any skills that would be of benefit to them. Work with someone who can help you shift the language you use to communicate your capabilities. (For a more in-depth answer, see my video blog on this topic.)

Mary Bear Hughes, Georgia Center for Nonprofits: Three points: (1) Actively volunteer at a nonprofit whose cause excites you – and not just board service. (2) Take all the classes you can, across a spectrum of nonprofit topics: a basic primer, grant-writing, individual and corporate fundraising, supervision and management, nonprofit finance, and performance management. Some “crash learning” in each will be useful in any position. YouTube is extremely helpful, but join an interactive learning environment too, where you can meet current nonprofit professionals and absorb their knowledge. (3) Recognize that, as with any career change, you’re going to start out at a lower job (and compensation) level than you had attained – but know that the totality of your experience will probably allow you to move ahead quickly.

Michael Cummings, Tate/Cummings: Unless you are angling for a position in a discipline fairly unique to nonprofits (such as volunteer management) or are looking for a position where there are some major differences (like in finance), I tell candidates that there is not a huge difference between working in for-profits and nonprofits. The most important qualities to bring to the table for any job are your expertise, and the impact you can make on the organization.

Marc Schultz is communications editor at Work for Good.