Career Q&A: How to effectively represent your extensive nonprofit experience

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This month’s question was posted in the CharityVillage Community: If you've been working in the sector for your entire career (and it's been somewhat extensive), how do you best summarize your background without it being too overwhelming, and how do you fight age discrimination since some employers may look at an extensive career and make assumptions/hiring decisions based on age?

Before tackling this question, let us first congratulate you on having an extensive career in the nonprofit sector – this is something a lot of people are striving for! While you cannot control someone else’s assumptions and decision-making processes, you do have control over how you present yourself at both the written application and interview stages. Here are some points to consider as you move forward in your job search.

Above all, be honest. You have to feel comfortable and confident in how you present yourself. Ask yourself if and when you meet the people screening your application, will they be surprised? Whether we like it or not, our age – and therefore our level of experience or lack thereof – can be assessed in a glance and even in our voices. If you’ve tried to present yourself as someone in their early 30s with 10 years of work experience and you turn up at the interview looking like the 50-year-old you are (regardless of how great that looks on you!) and refer to the 25+ years of skills and experience you bring to the position, you may have already started the relationship off on the wrong foot.

We have personal experience with this. When we were hiring managers at an NGO, we shortlisted a candidate for an entry-level position whose application made it seem like he was a young professional with about 5 years of experience – perfectly appropriate for the position and the type of candidate we expected. When we booked the interview by phone, there was a little flag that his voice made him sound older than he presented on paper. This was confirmed when he arrived for the interview: he was in his late 40s and had a previous career. We felt slightly deceived and would have been more comfortable with the whole encounter if his cover letter explained he was switching sectors and saw this position as a foot in the door to working in the nonprofit sector.

That being said, there a few ways of packaging your experience so your resume is not too unwieldy and makes you stand out as a strong candidate:

  • As with any application by anyone with any level of experience, be strategic about what you include. Include the responsibilities and achievements from your past positions that are most relevant for the position for which you are currently applying. See a previous article on Determining your fit for a position for a tool to help you determine what to include in a particular application. If the position requires technical skills or knowledge, such as social media platforms, be sure to demonstrate you have this.
  • Try to keep your resume under three pages. More than that and you risk having some of your experience overlooked. This will mean some heavy editing (see point above!).
  • You may also want to consider using a functional vs chronological resume format. A functional resume presents experience by skillset category such as human resource management, research, advocacy, program management. These categories should be closely matched to the employer’s needs and mirror the job posting to the greatest extent possible. You then group your experience – noting the organization and employment dates as appropriate – under these categories instead of as position summaries in chronological order. As with chronological resumes, be specific and focus on achievements.
  • Leave off dates of your education. You can simply list the degree and name of the institution.
  • Consider listing only the last 15 years worth of experience on your resume. You can include a list of (only) job titles and organizations – with or without employment dates – in another section. In your cover letters and in the Summary or Highlights section of your resume you can include the fact that you have 25+ years of nonprofit programming and management experience, but provide details only about the most recent which are, frankly, likely to be the most relevant.

Be proactive in addressing assumptions in your cover letter and be prepared to address them in the interview. Questions your potential employer may ask when seeing the level of experience you bring to the position are:

  • Can we afford her? In other words, will your wealth of experience price you out of their salary scale? This can be addressed with a sentence indicating your agreement with the posted salary range if there is one or, if asked for salary expectations, noting an appropriate salary range based on your research that is in line with the type of position at that size of an organization. This may mean accepting a drop in salary and you may have to do some number crunching and soul searching before you submit the application to make sure you really can live with / on that amount.
  • Will he accept direction? This is sometimes more a reflection on those with less experience and less confidence in their management performance than it is on you. You may find yourself with a supervisor who is younger and less experienced than you, and this person may have more qualms about it than you. If you’re applying for senior-level positions, this may include members of your board of directors. Help them overcome this unease by emphasizing – and providing examples to substantiate it – that you are a team player, have worked effectively with diverse groups, are open to feedback and are eager to take on new or different roles in order to work with their organization and contribute to their cause.
  • Why this position? Why now? As with any application, you will need to articulate your motivation for the position. Allay any assumptions about your willingness to take on the responsibilities of the position, particularly if it’s a lateral move or a more junior position than those you’ve had before, by stating the reasons you are interested in working with them in that position.

Finally, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and various provincial Human Rights Codes prohibit discrimination based on age. It can be difficult to prove age discrimination at the application stage, but if you do feel you have faced discrimination because of your age, you should look into your province’s employment and human rights codes and seek professional legal assistance.

We wish you all the best in this next phase of your career!

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through

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