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Hiring from the private sector: How and why you should open the door to sector switchers

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Over the last number of years, the traditional boundaries between the private and public sectors have begun to break down — through corporate social responsibility, social enterprises that bridge the two sectors, and business-to-philanthropy initiatives — but there is also growing crossover between the two sectors when it comes to employment.

More and more often, the nonprofit sector is in the situation of having demand outstrip supply when it comes to certain key jobs. Whether a fundraising or senior leadership position, the unusual reality is that there can be too few people with the right training and experience, particularly in certain regions, for the work required.

Nonprofits also increasingly can benefit from traditional business skills. “Governments have cut funding, and competition for private donations has gotten more intense, so business skills matter more now,” says John Salveson, a principal and head of the nonprofit practice at executive recruiters Salveson Stetson Group. “Nonprofits are having to ‘work smarter’ and think more like for-profit companies.”

Into this climate comes the fact that “a small but significant number of executives [in the private sector] are contemplating making a shift to a second career in the non-profit world.”

The natural question that follows: How can nonprofits hire well from the private sector to fill their growing needs?

There's definitely a need

“We have a quickly departing talent pool from the charitable sector from a demographic perspective: Baby Boomers are leaving as they head toward retirement,” says David Hutchinson, president and CEO of executive search firm Hutchinson Group. He adds that the other challenge for the sector is that often younger boomers and Gen-Xers were never directed into nonprofit careers. “When it comes to replacing senior leadership, we often have only half the talent pool to choose from,” he says.

Fundraising researcher Penelope Burk concurs. “When an organization is hiring for a fundraiser, the hiring manager needs to recognize that the fundraiser might be short-listed for four different jobs. There’s an inverse supply-demand ratio in many positions today.”

The same demographic forces, however, are bringing a new potential crop of talent to the nonprofit sector: mid- and late-career executives who have worked in the private sector. “At some point in their lives — and often when they’ve been successful in business and their personal situations may allow them to take a lesser salary — these people are looking to spend the next phase of their career doing something they consider meaningful,” says Burk.

Take Darin Rewi as an example. After selling a successful company he had started and operated for a number of years, Rewi stepped back to contemplate his next move. Early in his career, he had spent a short time working for the United Way. Years later, as he thought about what to do next, he recalled the satisfaction of that work. “I can honestly say that there was nothing else I had done that had more meaning, more of a sense that the work I was doing was really making a difference in a significant way.” When the opportunity to become the Campaign Director for the United Way of Burlington & Greater Hamilton arose, Rewi was glad to get involved.

Culture shock

One of the biggest differences between working in the private versus the nonprofit sector is that of workplace culture. This is true in many different ways: decision-making processes, different kinds and sheer numbers of stakeholders, the differentiation (or lack thereof) of roles, budgets, access to and use of data and technology, or even simply an individual's motivation for working within the sector.

Making a shift between sectors, or having someone come into an organization from another sector, is essentially a cross-cultural experience and one that isn’t right for everyone. “It’s not an everyday occurrence for someone to make this transition, especially at a senior level,” says Hutchinson. “It’s better for some people to stay in the corporate sector and earn well, be good philanthropists and volunteer their time on boards. Others are better suited to making the transition.”

The same is true for organizations, says Hutchinson. “A charity can have a great candidate and bring them in for all the right reasons but simply not be ready to accept change, even if they recognize it as necessary.” Sometimes, this can happen when a board of directors with an older management style hires a new CEO with a more agile, collaborative approach. Other times, Hutchinson says, boards fail to clearly define their organization’s purpose, impact, donors and future direction before they look to hire new leaders.

Sometimes it’s simply a question of resisting change. “There are always folks who are initially resistant to change,” says Rewi who has been with the United Way for a year. “They’ve seen CEOs and directors come and go, many of whom have grand ideas for change, so they can be understandably jaded in terms of getting on board with new leadership.”

Hutchinson says there is often an invisible barrier of entry for people wanting to transition into the nonprofit sector. An unspoken fear among charitable sector leaders, he says, is that business people are “scary” or threatening. People in the charitable world may worry that someone from the corporate world will implement extreme business efficiencies or fire half the staff.


While it’s easy to imagine, for instance, a businessperson coming into a nonprofit without a full grasp of the subtleties of the sector, it’s equally true that a nonprofit organization can misjudge a new private sector candidate.

Jill (not her real name) experienced this when she interviewed for a senior role at a nonprofit. Jill had worked in the financial industry and had extensive experience as a nonprofit board member and volunteer but the person who interviewed her was only concerned with her specific fundraising experience, rather than her transferable skills. Now working in gift planning, Jill believes organizations need to look at “the skillset and fit of a potential candidate” rather than simply their previous experience. Burk offers a similar example in her book, Donor-Centered Leadership where she suggests that the candidate reference their accomplishments in a way that demonstrates their application to the nonprofit, but also that those hiring consider the advantages of such a candidate’s credentials, even if they are not typically seen in the nonprofit world.

While many skills are transferable, not all roles are interchangeable. While fundraising or senior leadership are often seen as the clearest points of entry to the sector — with fundraising being not unlike sales — Hutchinson believes that organizations need to ask more questions when hiring. “What are the sales skills they bring?” he asks. “What level of executive were they selling to? What were their relationships with clients like? A major gifts fundraiser or planned giving officer often ‘sells’ to someone with a very affluent profile. It’s important to ensure there’s a good cultural fit and that the transition is facilitated well.” Burk agrees, adding, “Often people with experience in managing client groups, especially wealthy clients in banks, can transition extremely well into planned giving. Such people already have skills like how to open a conversation with donor they haven’t met before, how to read between the lines, and they have the maturity and finesse to be readily accepted by donors.”

Hutchinson emphasizes the importance of doing due diligence — on both the candidate and organization’s part — in order to make sure there is a good fit.

Nancy Ingram, partner in Foot in the Door Consulting, suggests that potential candidates looking to switch into the sector do their homework to prepare themselves — from learning the language of the organization to seeking sector-specific accreditation. But it is also true that nonprofit organizations can play a role in this process.

Opening the door

In her research, Burk has observed that people who have a more difficult time transitioning often find that the nonprofit sector (and particularly fundraising) “appears to be a closed shop.” Of her own experience, Jill says, “I’ve found in switching from the corporate to nonprofit that there’s not a lot of understanding between the two.”

Burk advises, “Given the need for a huge influx of talent just to address the current need — let alone future need — nonprofits need to be willing to accept people from outside.”

Here are some ways to open the door to private sector job candidates:

  • Make use of an organization’s great asset: its database. Hutchinson advises, “Tell your stakeholders who already know and love your organization that you need talent. Suggest if they know someone who might be interested in getting involved, you would welcome a conversation.”
  • Have a variety of people vet resumes and participate in interviewing candidates. In Donor-Centered Leadership, Burk offers 200 questions an organization can ask when talking with a potential candidate or helping someone transition into the sector.
  • Rather than simply interviewing potential senior level staff, have top candidates describe their approach to their first days in their role. This approach, Jill says, demonstrates a candidate’s knowledge of the organization, their passion and that they have done their homework. It also allows the successful candidate to hit the ground running.
  • Setting clear expectations for a new hire is especially important for someone coming from a different sector, where there will necessarily be different experiences and expectations, says Rewi.
  • Set up systems to allow what Jill refers to as “cross-pollination” to happen successfully. This can include regular meetings, checkpoints, talking about the transition and helping new people fit in.

Like all employers, says Ingram, nonprofits look for the best person for the job: the person with the lowest learning curve needed. As shifts occur in the nonprofit sector, however, organizations can help talented people coming from the private sector make a smooth transition to use their skills for good in the charitable world.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Photos (from top) via All photos used with permission.

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I am a bit surprised that more emphasis was not made exploring private sector candidates who have extensive not for profit volunteer experience.

When I entered the philanthropic sector in 2004, I had over 20 years of fundraising experience with a number of organizations. Recruiters in those days discouraged a sector switch. Most had zero private sector experience and gave little to no value to volunteer experience.

Thankfully that has changed.

Tom McCauley
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