Transitioning Between For-Profit and Nonprofit Work

Looking for a job in the nonprofit sector? Lots of people are! Nonprofit jobs offer an opportunity to make a direct impact on your community and help others in your day-to-day job.

Unfortunately, there are often hurdles for people looking to make a leap between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. Nonprofits and for-profits have vastly different professional cultures. In fact, sometimes it seems like the two sectors speak completely different languages. Some people believe that the skills developed in one sector are not transferable to the other, but the truth is, professionals with experience in one sector have a multitude of offerings to bring to the other. It’s all about how you communicate! 

Let’s dig into some of the perceived challenges and steps toward success for professionals looking to transition from for-profit work to a nonprofit career, and vice versa!

Myths about the nonprofit world

One of the first steps to transitioning into nonprofit work is overcoming a few common myths:

Myth #1: Nonprofit leaders and employees are not business people.

Reality: Every nonprofit employee is a business person and is charged with running a financially viable and healthy organization.

Myth #2: You can’t live on a nonprofit salary.

Reality: While nonprofits do tend to pay less than for-profits, salaries have been steadily increasing over the years. Many nonprofits provide employee access to key benefits (health and wellness, education, etc.) that combined with salary provides very competitive total compensation packages.

Myth #3: Nonprofits operate at a slower pace and don’t adopt new technologies.

Reality: Have you heard of kiva.org, nten.org, or idealist.org? These and hundreds more routinely receive accolades for being on the bleeding edge of tech adoption and service delivery based on tech platforms.

Myth #4: Nonprofits are only for older employees looking for encore careers.

Reality: The largest segment of nonprofit employees is the 25-35 age group. In fact, many millennials enter the nonprofit sector due to the increased number of job opportunities and their desire to make a true impact in their career.

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It’s absolutely true that the nonprofit arena is not for everyone, just as the for-profit world is not. But today’s tech-savvy, entrepreneurial, mission-driven, and challenge-hunting job seekers should certainly consider the nonprofit world for personal and professional gain. And as an added bonus, you just might help save the world.

Launching your nonprofit career

Will working for a for-profit company negatively affect your chance of getting a nonprofit job? According to our panelists who were leaders of Oregon nonprofits, the answer is “no.” In fact, a for-profit job might make all the difference when you are applying for a nonprofit job opening. Use the following steps to start looking for a good nonprofit fit:

Step 1: Volunteer your way into a job

Volunteering is always a good way to further your career, but it is especially key in the nonprofit sector. Pick a cause or an organization you want to work for and join the board. Volunteer for projects that you care about and build up your nonprofit portfolio. Regardless of your professional background, you have skills that can add value to local nonprofits. Volunteering these skills is a great way to get known in the community and get a foothold in the nonprofit space.

Of course, the primary reason to volunteer is to help others and contribute to your community. But the added benefit is that your skills, enthusiasm, and integrity are put on display with potential employers. If you’re looking to make the jump into the nonprofit space, there’s no better way to become a known and trusted professional than by volunteering your professional expertise.

Step 2: Don’t underestimate the power of networking

This might be the most important, but least acknowledged, aspect of a nonprofit job search. When you’re looking to start a career in the nonprofit sector, you need to immerse yourself in the local nonprofit community. Who do you know? What are the big nonprofit organizations? What have you done to invest in the community? The more enmeshed you are in the sector, the easier it will be to find a job.

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Nonprofit networking and relationship building is vital if you want to build a career. As an outsider, it might be daunting to break into the seemingly insular nonprofit network, but there are proven ways to get your foot in the door: participate in professional associations, attend local networking events, and enroll in nonprofit training programs. WVDO offers one such program through Portland State University.

Step 3: Make your skillset look more transferable

Many of the skills you learn in the for-profit world are transferrable. It really is only a matter of how you present yourself. Before you start your nonprofit job search, make sure you know what you have to offer, where you want to end up, and who can help you get there.

How might your previous job experiences and professional strengths be applicable in the nonprofit sector? Don’t assume that the value of your skill set — however impressive — will immediately resonate with a nonprofit hiring manager. The truth is, nonprofits have unique needs and a unique language for describing their operations. When reviewing a nonprofit job opening, make sure you understand the words in the job description and craft your cover letter and resume around this language.

Step 4: Find a recruiter and begin applying to job openings

A recruiter can be a job seeker’s best friend when attempting to make the jump into the nonprofit world. Recruiters can help re-frame your prior experience in a way that makes your skills and value more apparent to hiring nonprofits. Once it’s time to start getting those applications out, be aware of all the different resources to help you find the nonprofit job of your dreams. Bookmark these pages and check them often:

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Switching from nonprofit to for-profit work

Folks with 501(c)3 experience can build a robust bridge toward for-profit work. According to Lisa Faust of Columbia Bank, there are several ways people with nonprofit backgrounds can market themselves to private sector employers. Here are two keys:

Nonprofit employees are natural born salespeople

In the for-profit world, we spend a lot of money and time training employees to be effective sellers. If you are in development, you are most likely a master at donor cultivation, a super effective communicator, and an extremely comfortable business pitcher. Tell potential employers how that experience can benefit their team from day one! 

Nonprofit employees are really good at communicating and moving toward a vision

If you asked a typical for-profit employee to express the mission of the company, you might not be fully satisfied with the responses. Sure, they could talk about the need to make money or keep shareholders happy, but would they be effective at explaining the company’s purpose? Further, could they accurately explain the strategy to achieve it? Your typical nonprofit employee would have no trouble at all, because explaining and living the vision is something they work toward daily.

If you’re a nonprofit professional looking for new work in the for-profit realm, show how the skills you’ve cultivated will be a boon for your next employer. Demonstrate the value your unique experience brings, and you’ll be on your way to finding and landing the perfect for-profit role.