How to Switch from a Corporate to Nonprofit Career, with Marcia Ballinger

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More than 10 million Americans work for nonprofit organizations.

Even the Great Recession couldn’t stop growth in this sector. According to the federal government, the number of nonprofit jobs increased by 18% between 2000 and 2010. That trend shows no sign of slowing down in the near future.

And while the demand for skilled nonprofit workers is huge, it’s often difficult for established professionals to transition into the sector. It can be a challenge to frame skills developed in the for profit world in a way that resonates with nonprofits. Plus, there’s a huge amount of diversity within the nonprofit space.

This week, we talk with Marcia Ballinger, an executive recruiter for nonprofit organizations and co-author of The 20-Minute Networking Meeting.

Marcia shares her tips for how professionals in the private sector can make the jump into a nonprofit career. She believes it’s all about fit; you need to find the type of nonprofit–and a role within that organization–that aligns with your skills, passions, and professional narrative.

This Week’s Guest

Marcia Ballinger is a co-founder and principal at Ballinger Leafblad, an executive search firm for top leaders of nonprofits, higher education, foundations, and professional groups.

Resources from this Episode


Mac Prichard:

This is “Find Your Dream Job”, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life. I’m Mac Prichard, your host and publisher of Mac’s List. Our show is brought to you by Mac’s List and by our book, “Land Your Dream Job in Portland and Beyond”. To learn more about the book and the updated edition that we published on February 1st, visit

Ben Forstag:

Hey, Mac. Ben here. I’m going to ask you a question that I think I know the answer to, but I wanted you to share it with our listeners. What makes this book unique from all the other job hunting books out there?

Mac Prichard:

First of all, Ben, thanks for rocking with our format here and doing something a little bit unexpected. I’m glad you asked that question because I think we’ve been telling our listeners about the book and that it’s coming and now it’s here, but we haven’t shared why we’re excited about it.

I think what makes this book unique … Well, first of all, it’s the only full-length book out there about job hunting in Portland. I know because I researched this and I’ve also talked to a lot of job seekers over the years, as have you, and there’s nothing like it out there. Another thing that makes it unique is that it, at the end of each of the eight chapters, you’ll find a link to a reference page that’ll take you to dozens of local websites, blog posts, and other resources that are specifically about Portland.

Now that doesn’t mean that the book won’t be useful to you if you’re listening from another state, but if you’re here in Oregon and you’re looking for that insider’s advantage, you’ll find it as well. Finally, it’s the only book of its kind that’s available, not only as a paperback, but also as a Kindle, a Nook, and a pdf.

Ben Forstag:

You know, I’ve been keeping track of the sales of the book so far and every day I go in and look at how many Kindle versions we sold and how many e-book versions and how many paperbacks. Do you want to guess which format is the most popular?

Mac Prichard:

Well, the traditionalist in me hopes that it’s the paperback, but I know from sitting on the bus and walking around the transit mall, a lot of people are using Kindles, too.

Ben Forstag:

Well, the traditionalist in you would be happy because it is actually the paperback version which is selling best. I think people like that being able to dog-ear pages and write in the margins and there’s note pages in the back [when 00:02:22] you can take notes from meetings. It’s a great resource and they’re flying off the bookshelves.

Mac Prichard:

Well, that’s good to know. Whether you’re using the Kindle highlighting function or you’re using an old-fashioned yellow marker, we hope you’ll mark up that book.

More than ten million Americans work for nonprofits today. Even the great recession couldn’t stop growth in this sector. According to the federal government, the number of nonprofit jobs increased by eighteen percent between 2000 and 2010. Now in an earlier show, we talked with Allison Jones of NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, about the steps that anybody can take to get a nonprofit job.

You can listen to Allison’s excellent tips by downloading episode number fifteen on iTunes or visiting our website, After that program aired, however, we heard from listeners who asked us for specific advice about how to break into nonprofits after working the private sector.

This week on “Find Your Dream Job”, we’re talking about how you can switch from a corporate to a nonprofit job. Ben Forstag: has a website you can use to network your way into your local nonprofit community no matter where you live. Aubrie De Clerck answers a question from a listener about the part passion plays in a nonprofit job search and I talk to Marcia Ballinger. She’s an executive search expert who works with nonprofits across the country.

Sitting here with me in the Mac’s List studio are Ben Forstag:, our managing director, and our guest co-host this week, Aubrie De Clerck, of Coaching for Clarity. Before we begin, I just want to acknowledge that Cecilia Bianco, one of our founding co-hosts, has left for another opportunity. We wish her well. She’s been a huge part of the show and helped us record twenty two episodes.

I certainly will miss her intelligence, her wit, and her good fellowship. She’s been a terrific part of, not only this podcast, but the Mac’s List team for more than two and a half years. Cecilia, thank you and we hope we can have you back as a guest one day. Let’s talk about our topic this week. Aubrie, Ben, it’s looking at how to transition into the nonprofit sector. It’s one of the most frequent questions we get in Mac’s List. Why do you think that is?

Aubrie De Clerck:

I think that we spend so much of our time at work, right? If we’re working full-time, that’s eight hours a day. That’s a lot of more time than we even maybe spend with our families. Thinking about where that time is spent, we want to have purpose and meaning and feel like we’re giving back and a part of our communities.

Mac Prichard:


Ben Forstag:

Yeah. I think everyone wants to do something with their career that matters beyond providing dividends to shareholders, for example. The nonprofit space is the narrow end of the wedge for that because there are so many great nonprofits out there. Many of them have fantastic missions where you can clearly see a direct line from what you’re doing to the improvement of people’s lives or some other social condition. I think people find that really appealing.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah. Well, I know it’s [sort of 00:05:32] been an important value of that service to others for both of you and certainly in my career. It’s one we know just from our conversations with readers and our annual surveys at Mac’s List that it’s a value that matters to our readers as well … Now let’s turn to Ben, who is out there every week dutifully researching tools that you can use. Ben, what have you discovered for us this week?

Ben Forstag:

This week we’re talking about nonprofits. As we mentioned earlier, this is a topic that comes up a lot on the Mac’s List blog and events. Everyone is asking the question of how they get into the nonprofit space. It’s a question that I think is a little bit overly simplified because the truth is, there’s a huge amount of diversity within the nonprofit space.

When you’re talking about nonprofits, you could be talking about charities and foundations, social service agencies, social clubs, political parties, religious groups … All those entities are nonprofits as identified by the IRS. For my resource today, I want to talk about a specific type of nonprofit that doesn’t get mentioned very often and that is professional trade associations. This is a type of nonprofit that I’ve worked in a lot in my career and that I’ve got a particular fondness for as well.

Mac Prichard:

I was certainly impressed by your background in that work, Ben, in large part because it showed me that you knew how to build out a network of people across an industry. I think that’s a valuable skill no matter what your profession, but especially for someone who is the managing director of Mac’s List.

Ben Forstag:

Well, thank you. I really loved my time in the nonprofit association space for two reasons, really. One was that it’s a unique area where you can build public/private partnerships where you’re getting the best of government agencies and private enterprises working together. It often is the rallying ground for those organizations. Also, it’s just fun to be around big industry leaders and big thinkers.

The past industry groups I’ve worked with, these were folks on the cutting edge of different medical technologies. It was just exciting to be able to talk with those people day in and day out. My resource this week is an organization dedicated to the needs of nonprofit association professionals. It’s called The American Society of Association Executives.

The organization actually went through a bit of a rebrand several years ago and now calls itself ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, which is a little bit of a mouthful. Basically, this association is the association of associations. It has twenty one thousand professional members and represents ninety three hundred different organizations. ASAE does all of the things that most associations do: trainings, advocacy, networking, events, etcetera.

I’ve been to several of their events and they are really fantastic. They’re a great place to meet others in the field. Many of my best professional contacts were formed through attending these events. I also can highly, highly recommend the ASAE technology events that they do where they expose association professionals and nonprofit professionals to technology tools that really make your job easier. They’re fantastic events for education and to finding partners to work with as well.

Mac Prichard:

I would say, Ben, no matter what the scale of the event, whether it’s national or local or hundreds of people or even thousands or it’s just a local meetup with five, ten, fifteen people, there’s always value in participating in events. Ultimately it’s networking and the relationships that come from it that help us, that play a big part in our success in our careers. It’s not the only ingredient in the secret sauce, but it’s a big part of it.

Ben Forstag:

Sure. Again, some of the contacts I made at these events are people I still go back to for their advice or when I’m looking for a special service or need. These are the known and trusted commodities in my professional life. For our podcast listeners, the ASAE resource that is probably the most valuable is their free nationwide job board.

The board’s focus is on association jobs and organizations from around the country post their openings there. Last time I checked, there were five hundred and twenty six current job openings. Now the list tends to cluster in places like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago in part because that’s where many associations are headquartered, but there are opportunities scattered throughout the country.

I looked in Oregon and there are opportunities here. There are even some opportunities in Alaska and Hawaii. If association management is something you’re interested in, you should go visit ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. Their website is As always, I’ll include a link in the show notes.

Mac Prichard:

Well, thank you, Ben. Speaking of the value of networks, we’re averaging more than ten thousand dollars a month on this show. You, our listeners, are a huge network and we would love to help you connect with each other. If you have an idea for Ben or a resource that he should share with other listeners, please email him. You can write him at

Now it’s time to hear from you, our listeners. Aubrie De Clerck of Coaching for Clarity joins us this week to answer one of your questions. Aubrie, what do you have for us this week?

Aubrie De Clerck:

All right. Here’s the question. “I’m currently hunting for a job in the nonprofit space. I’ve recently seen an opening where the job duties perfectly align with my skills and professional interests. Unfortunately, I’m not really passionate about the organization’s mission. How should I address the passion issue during my interview?” Well, first of all, just acknowledge how exciting it is when you find a job posting where everything lines up.

Mac Prichard:

That is a great feeling.

Aubrie De Clerck:

Yeah. When we look at this notion of saying, “Okay, all of these fits”, but then that fit around passion isn’t there, well, one of the things that I like to talk to people about is bringing that one level up. What I mean by that is let’s say someone’s interviewing at the Audubon Society and they’re not all that much of a fan of birds, right? Then, we talk about one level up.

Is there something about nature this person is passionate about? Is there one level up that this person can connect to that connects directly to that organization’s mission? If so, then they can really be genuine and connect with the organization on that level. Another place is for them to do quite a bit of research on the organization’s site and find out if there’s any other way that their own values works into the mission statement or values of that organization.

Maybe it’s perhaps the way the organization goes about their mission that feels really good to them. Maybe there’s a great deal of community outreach and they feel that that’s very important for a successful initiative, so then they can connect to those pieces where they can have the values in common and share that. We’re mostly looking to find those areas where that when they’re interviewing, if they have the great opportunity to see each other, the interviewer can see it on their face and make that connection that that’s something that really means something to them.

Mac Prichard:

Well, that energy can be a powerful ally in an interview. Finding ways to share it in a sincere, authentic way, I think, can make a huge difference.

Ben Forstag:

I think on a pragmatic level, it’s unrealistic to believe that every nonprofit association out there with all the esoteric interests that they represent are always going to be able to find someone who’s deeply passionate about their cause. As I said earlier, my background is in association management. There are many associations out there that represent very small niche groups. I worked for one called the American Telemedicine Association. When I applied, I had no idea what telemedicine was, so it’d be a lie to say I was deeply passionate about it. What I was passionate about was how they did their job and what they did and how they represented the industry. Over the course of my seven years there, I got passionate about it. Increasingly, there’s a professionalism in the nonprofit space where the people who are doing this work are … I don’t want to say they’re issue agnostic, but the specific cause is not as important as the very high level up of “This is creating social good for our community or our country or the world.” That’s really where their passion is focused.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. Well, thank you, Ben, and thank you, Aubrie. We look forward to having you join us next week to answer another reader’s question. If you have a question for us, send us an email. The best address is These segments with Ben and Aubrie are sponsored by the 2016 edition of “Land Your Dream Job in Portland and Beyond”. We’ve made our book even better. We’ve added new content and we’re offering it now in formats that you’ve told us you want.

For the first time ever, you can read “Land Your Dream Job in Portland and Beyond” as a paperback or you can download it onto your Kindle, your Nook, or your iPad. Whatever the format you want, our goal is the same: to give you the tools and tips you need to get meaningful work that makes a difference. For more information, visit You can sign up for our special book newsletter. You’ll get updates not available elsewhere, exclusive book content, and special discounts.

Now let’s turn to this week’s guest expert, Marcia Ballinger. Marcia Ballinger is a co-founder and principal at Ballinger Leafblad, an executive search firm for top leaders of nonprofits, higher education, foundations, and professional groups. Marcia holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and Ph.D. from Capella University, where she now serves as chair of the board of directors.

A frequent presenter to groups of executives, Marcia is known as a no-nonsense representative of the executive search industry. Marcia, thanks for joining us today. We hear from a lot of listeners who want to make that move from a corporate to a nonprofit job. In your experience, what’s the first step you think people need to take?

Marcia Ballinger:

Well, thank you very much. I also am hearing today from many individuals who wish to make the change from corporate or business into nonprofit. As a matter of fact, I used to maybe get five percent of all of my networking calls in this regard and I think today it’s probably ninety five percent of all of my networking calls. This is very thematic and certainly top of mind for many of us.

I think the first thing that a person needs to think about is, what is the best way that they wish to contribute or follow their passion into a nonprofit? What I mean by that is thinking about the various options that might present themselves, such as challenging the thinking that a full-time paid job with benefits is the only way to contribute to the nonprofit sector.

It may be that a part-time job or a combination of nonprofit jobs. It might be that consultative work. It might be that being available for project work or interim assignments, special assignments, volunteerism, or perhaps involvement as a donor and patron may also be ways that may be equally fulfilling to someone who wishes to become more mission driven.

Mac Prichard:

You’ve laid out a lot of great paths there, Marcia, that people could take to pursue an interest in working with nonprofits. What’s your best advice about how to sort out those paths and find out which one might be best for an individual?

Marcia Ballinger:

I think that’s a good point. I think that I like to think about nonprofit jobs the same as I think about business jobs and that is that organizations, whether they’re corporations or nonprofits, tend to hire people where there is a fit. Asking ourselves and maybe even getting feedback from others about “Where is the best fit for myself right now?”

I am going to more likely be a fit in my next job if my background, let’s just say, connects. If I am in distribution, I might be a better fit at a food shelf than at a law clinic, let’s just say. If I am a customer service representative, I might be a better fit working on a crisis line and offering advice by telephone than being a animal caregiver at the Humane Society.

What is my functional background? Where might that fit in the nonprofit community? Also, I should probably think about what types of organizations I’ve worked with. Are they large international organizations? Have I been with small entrepreneurial startups? What types of nonprofits are the closest fit to my background in terms of the types of organizations I’ve worked with, the industries I’ve been at, and my function?

Mac Prichard:

People need to think about their fit. I want to go back to the point you made a moment ago about all these different paths that are available. Once people get clear about their fit, how should they weigh whether they should pursue, say, a full-time job, which I think is where most people go immediately to when they think about replacing a full-time position versus looking for a consulting gig or considering a volunteer opportunity?

Marcia Ballinger:

You know, that’s a really good point. I think far fewer of us think about opportunities other than a full-time paying job with benefits. More of us might benefit from thinking about other types of employment. Nonprofit organizations, at least in the most recent study that I read, the 2000 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, are fifty percent of them have said that they would be adding jobs in the next year or two, fifty percent of nonprofit organizations.

Most of those jobs they identified to be in the direct support and direct service area. In other words, maybe more entry-level. If I am managerial or director-level and above and I figure I’d like to come in at the same level in an organization, I may want to think very carefully about the likelihood that I’m going to find something at my level in the time frame that I’m looking and the type of organization that I’m targeting.

I think a great deal of research and self-reflection is wise before one approaches the market. The vast majority of people who contact me, maybe you as well, state that they would like to move into a nonprofit. They’re not typically much more specific than that. I’d like to suggest that anyone who wishes to get into the nonprofit sector do a fair bit of research about what part of the nonprofit community would be the best fit for them.

Mac Prichard:

People need to think about their fit, they need to be aware that there are different paths they can take in pursuing their interests. Above all, they need to be clear about what it is they want. Now, Marcia, this is excellent advice for any job-seeker, but I’m also reflecting on the questions I get from people who have been working in the private sector, particularly the corporate world, who want to make this leap.

Sometimes I think they believe there’s some kind of secret handshake or there are special barriers that exist for people who want to move from the corporate to the nonprofit sector. My question is, Marcia, what’s been your experience? Do those barriers exist? If they do, how have you seen people overcome them?

Marcia Ballinger:

Yeah, that’s a really good question. I don’t feel that there is a secret handshake. As a matter of fact, I think that approaching the nonprofit sector is, and should be, the same as if an individual were approaching the corporate sector. Here’s what I mean by that. To our point that a lot of people call and say, “I’m looking to move into the nonprofit sector.” My question is, “What part of the nonprofit sector?”

Most of the people who call are not able to be specific with part of the nonprofit sector. I’m going to guess that virtually nobody would call you or me or anyone else in their network and say, “I’m looking to get a job at a company. Any kind of company will do.” Right? A bank, a manufacturer, any kind of company. We don’t do that on the corporate sector.

I would like to suggest the secret handshake for me is, don’t do anything about approaching the nonprofit sector that wouldn’t do approaching the corporate sector. You wouldn’t approach the corporate sector and say, “I’m open to any sort of job. I’ll be an engineer, I’ll be a finance person, I’ll be in the training department …” Same thing here. Know specifically what type of functional background you’ll bring and how that translates.

Understand the nonprofit sector in your region as well as you possibly can. Who are the bigger nonprofits? Who are the thought leaders? What’s the landscape of nonprofits in the areas that you are particularly interested in? Are you interested more in a direct support/social service organization? If so, what type of support? Is it to people with disabilities? Is to children? Is it to a Spanish-speaking population? Is it a social service?

Number two, is it a foundation? Is it a philanthropic organization? Is it a think tank? An advocacy organization? Is it a member or trade or professional organization? Those are nonprofits, too. Is it any sort of education K-12 community? Is it arts based? Is it museums? Theaters? Is it faith based?

Do enough homework to really understand these segments of nonprofit where you resonate and where you don’t resonate. It’s counter-intuitive, but you’ll be far more successful with a targeted approach than with an “I’ll take anything anywhere” approach.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so know what you want, know what you have to offer, and above all, do your homework and go out and find where those opportunities are and focus your energy on those places in the nonprofit sector. In terms of expectations, Marcia, what’s been your experience? How should people manage their expectations in terms of salary, hours, or culture in moving from particularly the corporate world to the nonprofit world?

Marcia Ballinger:

Yeah. I think in many cases, the salaries will be a different band. It’ll probably be a lower band. Virtually all nonprofit salaries are a matter of public record. A person can look up a target nonprofit, let’s just say, and look on GuideStar and find out what are the managers earning in that particular organization. That’s helpful to try to get a feel for it.

I would also use my network to help me think about places that I’m going to fit the best. I think when one thinks about approaching the nonprofit community, we have talked about fit. “Where am I going to fit skill-wise and job-wise? Where am I going to fit in terms of the part of the sector that’s going to fit my passion area?” Then the also is when, “Where is my narrative going to fit?”

In other words, if I’ve never given a penny to a nonprofit and I’ve never volunteered at a nonprofit and I’ve never been on a board of a nonprofit and I’m not civically connected to this nonprofit, my narrative in getting in the door and then leapfrogging past other qualified people for a job is going to be tough, compared to if I’m applying at a place where I’ve been a longtime donor or I’m applying at a nonprofit where I’ve been a longtime volunteer or I sat on a board or I led a event or whatever the case might be.

Certainly as I think about where I’m going to fit the best, part of that is “Where have my passions shown themselves in the past?” That will resonate more with the hiring nonprofit as well.

Mac Prichard:

That brings us back to where we started, which was with your advice about considering different paths. Don’t think that the only way into the nonprofit world is a full-time job. It can start with volunteerism, it can start with involvement in the community. By doing so, you’ll make those connections and build a reputation that can serve you well when you make that leap. Well, we should wrap up, Marcia. Tell us about what’s coming up next for you?

Marcia Ballinger:

Thank you very much. I am in the process of writing my second book on executive interviewing. That will be a sequel to my first book which is called “The 20-Minute Networking Meeting”, which talks about the importance of networking. I would also say when I am thinking about changing to a nonprofit sector, network, network, network.

The latest statistic that I heard is that somewhere between eighty five and ninety percent of all jobs are obtained through networking. That is going to be as important as ever when switching sectors. My own personal network and people who are connected to nonprofits will be imperative.

Mac Prichard:

Well, thank you, Marcia. We’ll be sure to include links in the show notes to that book and we look forward to your new book coming out later this year. To learn more about Marcia, her book, and her company, visit We’ll include a link to the 20 Minute Communications website in the show notes as well. Thanks for joining us, Marcia.

Marcia Ballinger:

My pleasure.

Mac Prichard:

We’re back in the studio. Ben, Aubrie, what were the most important points you heard Marcia make?

Ben Forstag::

Well, I think Marcia was right on point when she said there is no secret handshake to get into the nonprofit community. That being said, I think there are some cultural differences clearly there. One of the things I tell people when they tell me they want to make that transition is there is, frankly, just a difference in language between the nonprofit space and the for-profit space. I’ve been in both and I’ve heard this.

Oftentimes, we’re talking about the exact same thing, but just using different languages. If you’re coming from the for-profit space and you’re talking about customers, that’s probably not going to sell real well in the nonprofit space. They talk about stakeholders or members or constituents. If you’re talking about sales in the for-profit world, even if the process of selling is the same in the nonprofit world, they’re talking about memberships or donations.

The one that I really like is … The big keyword in for-profit is ROI. “What’s the ROI on this project?” That’s a phrase you almost never hear in the nonprofit space. What they really talk about is impact. It’s the same concept. It’s just different languages. I think people who are looking to make that transition would be benefited by doing the research and just learning the language, so that they’re going in and framing their own experience in that language.

Mac Prichard:

I agree, Ben. The nonprofit world or any organization within it has its own culture. Just as you would if you were moving to a new company in the private sector, you want to learn as much as you can about that culture and the values and what matters to it. It’s something that you would do whenever you’re making a job change. There is something unique about the culture and language of the nonprofit world. Aubrie, what was your reaction?

Aubrie De Clerck::

Well, it really resonated with me in hearing about the focus on fit as far as skillset, not just what someone’s passion is. So many people get excited about certain areas of nonprofit that they love because something specific personally has happened in their life and it’s touched their heart. That’s absolutely a part of making a connection with a nonprofit. As far as what value you’re going to bring, that conversation is really important.

What are you bringing from your background in corporate that could be useful to a nonprofit? Especially a nonprofit that’s looking to grow and might be looking to add some processes or procedures in a way that you might be able to bring from your corporate experience? I think really valuing one’s own skillset and looking for a fit that connects in with that particular nonprofit need, I think, is important.

Mac Prichard:

Good. Okay. Well, thank you both and thank you, our listeners, for joining us. We’ll be back next week with more tools and tips you can use to find your dream job. In the meantime, visit us at You’ll find hundreds of jobs. You can also read our blog, learn about our new book, and get the show notes and transcripts for this and other podcasts.

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