Career Q&A: Making the switch to nonprofit

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I currently work with a for-profit private company but realize I get a lot more fulfillment and enjoyment out of the volunteer work I’m doing and would like to spend my “9-5” time contributing to something I’m really interested in. I am thinking about trying to find a job with a nonprofit organization. What should I keep in mind to make this switch?

This is a big move and we applaud your initiative to become one of the two million people employed by a nonprofit or charity in Canada!

Like any career change or job search process, you need to do your research and spend some time and energy examining your motivations for making the switch. Here are some things to keep in mind as you move closer to making a career in the nonprofit sector a reality.

Don’t think it will be easy. We have clients who have worked with the government and private sector companies think that it will be easy to get a job with a nonprofit. They assume that the required qualifications and selection process will be somehow less rigorous. There is an increasing professionalization of accreditation in the sector as more universities and colleges offer degrees, diplomas and professional development certificates in various aspect of nonprofit management. Working in the nonprofit sector should not be considered a “fall back” option and you should expect a demanding recruitment and selection process. People are nonprofits’ best resources and they want to ensure that they hire the best right person for the job.

Competition in this sector is tough. According to the HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector more than half of the employees at nonprofit organization have been with their employer for over 5 years, almost one-third have been there for 10 or more years, and 95.7% feel a strong degree of commitment to their organization. Turnover is minimal and this is due in part because working for a nonprofit organization offers more than a paycheque. As it sounds like you’re discovering, working for a mission-driven organization offers the opportunity to align our personal values with our professional goals.

As in the public and private sectors, the current economic climate means that budgets are tight, and in some cases organizations are not in the position to hire staff (even as workloads are becoming increasingly burdensome). Also keep in mind that according to Imagine Canada over half of nonprofit organizations are run entirely by volunteers.

You will also need to demonstrate that you “get” the organization(s) you apply to. Some of this is reflected in the language you use. For example, when we worked with an NGO, we once interviewed someone who kept referring to our “company”. This did not resonate with us – we’re an organization, not a company! – and we cut the interview short. Nonprofits also usually speak about stakeholders, not shareholders. These are the people – clients, donors, community members – that are affected by the organization’s programs.

Appreciate that nonprofit organizations work to serve a triple bottom line in a way that even the most CSR-progressive businesses don’t or can’t (CSR stands for corporate social responsibility). This is sometimes expressed as “people, planet, profits” and refers to the social, ecological and economic goals by which organizations measure their success. Nonprofit organizations must demonstrate fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets, but the driving force isn’t (always) the dollar sign on the bottom line.

Be prepared to articulate your motivation for switching sectors in your information interviews, cover letters and job interviews. You can tell potential employers exactly what you told us in your question above: you are seeking work more aligned with your interests and values. Speak honestly and from the heart about what motivated you to make this switch, what you hope to gain and what you have to offer. And be specific: tell them why you want to work with this particular organization, how the mission of the organization aligns with your own interests and values, and exactly what about your skills and experience makes you a good fit.

Speaking of will need to demonstrate how the skills you bring from your private sector background will meet their specific needs. Organizations need skilled, experienced people with a commitment to and understanding of their specific cause. Make sure you actually have the required qualifications and make it easy for the recruiter to see this.

Finally, be realistic about what the work entails. Remove the rose-coloured glasses and know that working in the nonprofit sector is, well, a lot of work. It can involve working to near-impossible deadlines, having to stretch often scarce resources, keeping irregular hours as you work around volunteer schedules, wearing many hats regardless of your official job description is, and carrying the responsibility that lives are sometimes quite literally dependent on the work you do.

Also know that working in this sector is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. You will have opportunities to work with like-minded, dedicated people who are passionate about the issues they are working on, to make a tangible difference in people’s lives and to see the impact your work has on society whether it is protecting animals, feeding needy people in your local community, or seeing the institutionalization of policies that protect the environment or promote social equality. And nothing compares to the motivation of getting out of bed in the morning and feeling like your job is not work. Good luck to you!

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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