Getting in the door: The nonprofit dilemma

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When Blair Sanderson decided to pursue a second career, he did what many do in the same position: he went back to school. He strategically invested the next two years studying social service work, within the stream of immigrants and refugees. He studied hard, got good marks, engaged with others, asked the right questions, got the right advice. In short: he made sure that upon his graduation last April, he left the school a highly qualified prospective employee.

Then the hard work began. It’s probably safe to say that searching for a job has become one of Sanderson’s greatest challenges so far. After months of endless application forms, drafting and re-drafting resumes and cover letters, a stream of leads and some interviews, Sanderson has no doubt refined the art of door-knocking. Yet, the elusive job still remains out of his grasp.

And he’s not alone. The reality is there are many Sandersons out there. Whether looking for that first gig out of university or your third, whether making a career switch or trying to work your way up in the sector, finding a nonprofit job is proving a most difficult feat.


It’s why Christa McMillin and her partner, Nancy Ingram, launched Foot in the Door Consulting last year. Offering a range of services, including coaching, needs assessments, customized resumes, cover letter reviews and interview preparation, the sector veterans are hopeful their extensive experience screening and hiring employees will prove valuable to others.

“One of our driving motivations is the health of our civil society in Canada,” says McMillin, explaining how the already volatile sector is being threatened further because professionals are turning away from nonprofit careers due to the difficulty getting in the door. “We’re losing good passionate, motivated people.”

The good news for the sector is Sanderson isn’t going anywhere. He’s determined – and hopeful that a good job is on its way. In the meantime, he’s spending his days volunteering part-time at three different nonprofits in his newfound field of interest. Gaining skills, experience and contacts, he’s following the strategy of an increasing number of prospects. He’s also constantly scouring job sites, engaging in informational interviews and meeting with HR representatives at different agencies to cull useful advice.

It’s a tough slog, to be sure, one that Jason Shim remembers well. When he graduated in 2007, with an undergraduate degree in religious and cultural studies, Shim was self-admittedly naïve about his prospects. “I said, ‘oh now I have a university degree, I’m going to get a job for sure’,” he recalls. After the first three months of unemployment, Shim signed up with a temp agency that helped him find a variety of administrative jobs. “It was survival, it paid the rent,” he explains.

It took nine months before Shim finally found something he wanted, despite starting his job search well before he graduated. “It was a real slap in the face,” he admits. Interestingly, he credits a self-taught hobby in web hosting and design, as much as his degree, for the opportunity. He’d eventually leave that position for a few months’ of travel but it was his unique skills and experience – “a mix of liberal arts and technical stuff” – that helped him find another job upon his return.

Though, if you hear him say it, it really came down to being in the right place at the right time. “I attribute it more to luck than skill,” he says, explaining how bumping into an old colleague got the job wheels in motion. Perhaps so, but Shim’s experience is probably most aptly summed up by this definition of luck: the convergence of opportunity and hard work. As he explains, “my continuous networking made me luckier in terms of being able to find a job. I stayed in touch with people and I wouldn’t have the job without that.”

Why so challenging? The externals

With so many of his unemployed or under-employed friends based in the nonprofit sector, Shim ponders aloud why they’ve all faced so many challenges. “Sometimes I think the sector is seen as a catch-all,” he offers, adding tongue-in-cheek, “it’s become the arts program of the professional world.” It’s also the natural place for arts majors to gravitate, a program that happens to graduate the most students. That’s a lot of prospects.

McMillin remembers the competition always being fierce. She relates how, when searching for a job in the 90s, she thought a degree, passion and desire to make a difference would be enough to secure a post. It wasn’t. That said, the competition has gotten even steeper today, she says, due to a plethora of specialized programs and the fact that master degrees are a dime a dozen.

What’s more, due to challenges at the federal level, which trickle down to the provincial and community levels, financial obstacles have intensified too. “The workload of organizations hasn’t decreased but the ability to take on more people to do that work is a factor.” Add to those challenges the average low turnover rate in the sector. Indeed, despite all the obstacles, it appears many people don’t want to leave. “People in the sector stay because it matches values, they find it personally and professionally fulfilling,” McMillin says. On its own, it’s a great sign, but for those trying to get in, it makes the goal that much less attainable.

Challenges from within

Of course, it’s always possible some of the challenges facing candidates are internal not external. Franz Schmidt, director of the career planning and development program at the YMCA welcomes a range of job seekers each day. They come to him searching for answers, for clues, for career clarification. Offering comprehensive assessments, personality, aptitude and vocational interest tests, Schmidt looks at patterns that emerge, then helps them find a career direction that makes sense.

Sometimes it’s about truly knowing who you are and what you want, he explains. “The most important thing is being really clear about what part of the sector you want to be in.” To gain clarity, talk to people working in organizations you have your eye on. Feel out their values, their culture. Keep asking yourself if this is right for you.

It’s all part of the reality check that McMillin offers her clients. “People often get blocked in the applications stage, she says, explaining why refining resumes and cover letters have become so vital. “They don’t know how to sell themselves or they’re applying for jobs that they have no chance of getting.” A reality check ensures they’re focusing their time and energy strategically.

Part of that reality check process, of course, involves guiding people to answer the questions,"why do you want to work in the sector? What inspires you?" Some candidates, for example think international development work is all glamour, offers McMillin. “But it’s not; there are emails, spreadsheets, reports etc.” She then offers the anecdote of one individual who, sure he wanted to work in the sector, went to visit a nonprofit office – and then changed his mind. “We have to manage expectations,” concludes McMillin.

For his part, Schmidt says he seldom witnesses anyone changing their mind about wanting to work in the nonprofit sector, with the exception of people entrepreneurial by nature. “They’re here for the wrong reasons,” he states, explaining they need stronger financial incentives. As he reiterates, “It’s so important to be clear about what you want to do.”

The experts offer these additional job searching tips

  • If you’re coming from another sector, make sure you adopt the “nonprofit language.” “There’s the social language, language of relationship-building,” offers Schmidt. “You can’t refer to the organization as ‘the company’,” adds McMillin. “You need to speak like them.”
  • Similarly, make sure you understand the “raison d’etre” of the sector, that you’re no longer working for a simple bottom line, and that decisions are more complex.
  • Network, network and then network some more. “Be proactive, interested and available,” McMillin says.
  • Got to workshops and other educational events.
  • Do as many informational interviews as possible; get to know the day-to-day of that job.
  • Do your homework on the organization you’re hoping to get a job with, understand their vision, successes and challenges. “Get a sense of what’s really important to them,” offers Schmidt.
  • Volunteering is a good way to get into the sector and develop new relationships, some of whom may have an impact on hiring people.
  • For those starting out, find a coop or internship in an area of interest. Schmidt relates how he once accepted an internship he despised but that offered him strategic opportunities - he got a job out of it. “You’ve got to do stuff that’s not that much fun.”
  • Don’t leave important information off your resume, thinking you’ll explain it once you get into the interview, says McMillin. “You need to mention all your achievements in the resume or you may not get a chance for that discussion.”
  • Keep in mind that sometimes voluntary experience is more relevant than paid experience. So give it its deserved weight in your application.
  • Don’t hold out for that one, perfect, full-time job. Accept short-term and part-time positions or contracts. Otherwise you may be waiting a long time. Besides, contracts help get your food in the door. “Then you network, show interest and get concrete work experience. It may lead to another job,” McMillin offers.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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