Making the nonprofit leap: What you need to know

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For close to thirty years, Carine Strong was a hardworking employee at a large manufacturing company. She held various roles in her corporate career, the last as director of community and customer relations. Throughout, Strong was also a dedicated volunteer, driven by a desire to give back. And thanks to a boss who valued philanthropy, and a company with strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, Strong felt her values fit well within the corporate culture.

Values aligned

But then things changed. The company was bought out and the new owners cared little for CSR. With professional and personal values no long aligned, Strong accepted a package, took some time off, volunteered at a local thrift shop and made a big change: she joined the ranks of the nonprofit sector. Today, as director at Volunteer MBC (Mississauga, Brampton, Caledon), Strong calls the transition life-affirming. "Working for a company was all about money at the end of the day but, personally, I didn't get a whole lot out of it for myself," she explains. "Whereas this is like night and day."

Kathy Lilyholm's decision to leave the private sector had similar motivations. Currently manager of fund development at YWCA Vancouver, her prior job was as account executive for a solutions integration firm. She wanted to make a change but never considered working in the nonprofit sector, admitting to knowing little about it. What Lilyholm did know was she was no longer willing to, "exchange my life just for a paycheque. I wanted personal fulfillment along with it." When a friend sent her the YWCA job posting, she was in the midst of a sabbatical, trying to figure out how to better align her professional goals with her personal ones. She now had the answer.

Alignment is something Pam Chaloult would probably agree was the impetus behind her transition approximately 15 years ago. A shining star in the American world of television news, her leap shocked friends and family. But for Chaloult it made total sense. "I realized I was making a living off of other people's misfortunes and I couldn't do it anymore," she recalls. "I made a conscious decision to put my time and effort toward good." Her first foray into the sector was as marketing coordinator for Planned Parenthood, but getting the job wasn't easy. "They didn't want to hire me; they said I'd never stay." She did, and built up the organization's marketing campaign in the process.

Today Chaloult works as COO of Renewal and vice president of Renewal2 in Vancouver. Having the opportunity to work at the intersection between business and the nonprofit sector over the past 10 years has been especially exciting. "The lines are getting blurred and I'm really loving that innovation and the shift that's happening," she says. "And the business skills and experience I had really helped me in the nonprofit world." Though she had to make some huge adjustments in her transition, Chaloult has never looked back. "Having fulfillment and actually doing work that is bettering the world versus degradating it helps me sleep at night."

Beyond financials

Sleep is good but going from a corporate VP's six-figure salary to a nonprofit coordinator's $30,000 wasn't exactly easy, admits Chaloult. Initially trying to maintain her corporate lifestyle, she found herself in debt, the attempt taking its toll financially, mentally, and spiritually. But Chaloult eventually realigned to a much simpler lifestyle. "I realized I didn't need all the stuff," she says. "As I started to shift and make decisions to do more nonprofit work, my life started to shift as well. The things that used to be important - like five-star dinners every night - weren't."

Strong's pay cut was significant too; she currently makes about half of what she did before. Nevertheless, she deems it a worthy compromise. "You get to a point in life where money isn't the be all, end all," she says thoughtfully. "If I've made a difference in one person's life, that's more satisfying than getting any amount of money." Lilyholm agrees, adding, "When you're doing something you're really passionate about, that really aligns with your values, it sounds silly but you would almost be willing to work for free."

Passion is the driver for Jacky Eames too. She moved to the nonprofit sector after working for 20 years as a sales director at a radio station. Though she loved her career when it began, by the time she left, Eames was feeling disillusioned. A bout with cancer exacerbated the situation, causing her to question how she spent her time and what was important to her. "I think we all develop a social conscience at certain trigger points in our lives," explains Eames. Now, working in sponsorship at the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, her passion has returned. "I just love it, I feel renewed, exactly as I did when I was 21," she exclaims. She cautions others to pursue the sector only if they feel it in their heart. "You can't go into it thinking about a monetary or ego gain. You have to be driven by a commitment to what you're doing."

Eyes wide open

That said, as a single person without any dependants, Lilyholm admits her decision was easier. But the financial concessions may not be feasible for everyone. "I tell people you have to think about how it's going to impact your life." Do you have a mortgage, a family, car payments? Is your life already overextended financially? These are some of the questions you need to ask yourself before jumping headfirst, she says.

Alan Kearns would probably deem that good advice. Founder of CareerJoy, providing career counselling and other services, Kearns sees an overall trend of folks moving into the nonprofit sector as they search for meaningful work and an environment that is less cut-throat and more conducive to work-life balance than the private sector. But he cautions clients to know why they're making the change and to keep their eyes fully open. It's not just about quality of life; you need to be clear on the specific reasons you chose the sector, the position at hand, and what you're bringing to it.

Sometimes the biggest challenge is that people expect it to be something it's not, he says. "They expect a bit of a panacea." But people are people, he says. They're just in a different sector with many of the same issues. And while the nonprofit sector has become more professional and salaries have improved, the pay cut is still significant, a deal-breaker for some. If that's the case, you can get involved in other ways, not just as an employee, he offers. Or you can prepare yourself in advance - e.g. pay down debt so you're better able to make the transition. Also, keep in mind that if you can't negotiate salary, you can still ask for things like more training and vacation time.

Creativity is key

Learning to live with less is a challenge at the office as well. For one thing, don't expect the lavish workspace you're used to, says Strong. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy nice surroundings, she adds, explaining how she recently bought nice furniture at a second-hand store. Second, forget about the deep pockets of the corporate world that supported your professional pursuits in the past. "I had to learn how to be creative and get things done with less," explains Lilyholm. So did Chaloult. Used to working with an advertising budget worth millions, she came to Planned Parenthood and had difficulty justifying a $1,500 brochure. But, with passion and creative vision as her guide, she asked herself: "How can I do this in a way that will work and entail not just relying on cash out the door?"

Other differences

You can expect to experience plenty of other distinctions in a nonprofit leap. "I cannot believe how helpful everyone is in the sector," says Strong. "You would never get that in the corporate environment because it's so competitive; you don't want to give people ideas because they may take credit and run with it." Meanwhile, Lilyholm enthuses about her colleagues at the YWCA. "They're not only dedicated to helping the women and children we support, but genuinely concerned with my well-being and satisfaction." The supportive environment has helped her grow personally and professionally at a far greater rate than she would have achieved elsewhere, she adds.

Then there's the flexibility. Employers seem more understanding of personal issues that need one's focus. "And it's a much more relaxed attitude compared to a corporate environment where you punch a clock and you're expected to put in 24/7 type of hours," says Strong. That said, people still do work long hours - sometimes very long - with one significant distinction: "Here you do it because you want to," Strong concludes.

Perhaps so, but while passion fuels commitment, it can also blur boundaries. "Because it's mission-related, people will work 90 hours a week because they believe so passionately in the mission," says Chaloult. What's more, due to a more flexible structure, be prepared to take on tasks that go above and beyond your assigned role, says Lilyholm. On a positive note, she adds, "it gives you the opportunity to grow and learn and try different things."

Final tips

As the nonproft sector grows and becomes more professional, Chalout reminds anyone making the transition that the skills they've acquired in the for-profit sector will probably serve them well here too. "Remember that nonprofits are run very much like businesses," echoes Lilyholm. "Your skill set is still needed, it just may go by a different name." Kearns, meanwhile, advises people to network, know what transferable skills they have to offer and how to repackage themselves. And finally, all agree it's important to find an organization that supports your passion. "Personal fulfillment comes when your personal goals and values align with your professional responsibility," says Lilyholm.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at:

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