Corporate to Nonprofit: 15 Tips for Sector-Switchers

I have worked with at least a few hundred individuals who are hoping to make a career change from the for-profit/corporate sector to the nonprofit sector. There are actually a few great books on this topic, which I’ll reference at the end of this post, but here’s my quick summary of what I’ve observed in people who have been successful in making this change.

  1. First, it’s much harder than it seems. I’m not trying to discourage anyone, but the reality is that any career change–especially if you are trying to change more than one major thing at a time, such as your job function, industry/sector, or geographic location–is difficult. Many of the same tips apply to a corporate to nonprofit career change as any other career change.
  2. It’s not enough to want the change. Being deeply motivated towards the mission of a nonprofit is a minimum, “necessary but not sufficient” expectation that nearly all nonprofit employers have, especially mission-driven nonprofits. No one goes into the nonprofit sector because they expect fame, fortune, or a plush expense account. And, no one should attempt to enter the nonprofit sector because they think it will be “easier” or have a better work-life balance–or worst of all, lower expectations–than the corporate sector.
  3. Speaking of which, make sure your motivations are strong enough to make the change. Be realistic about the salary you’ll make in a nonprofit. Take a quick peek at the 990 tax return of the nonprofits you’re interested in or look at some salary surveys, and you’ll quickly see that the Executive Director or CEO of the nonprofit you’re interested in is quite unlikely to be earning anywhere close to what they’d make as CEO of a similar corporation. I’ve worked with some folks where their last salary exceeds the entire annual budget of the nonprofit they want to work for… so keep this context in mind.
  4. Understand that the scale is likely to be different. If you’ve been working for a major corporation, you might have managed a budget of millions of dollars and have the ability to easily access resources like a new computer, a new and highly-trained staff member, etc. Some of the very largest nonprofits in the United States–excluding major universities and hospitals–have budgets in the $100 million range or lower, and about 66.3% of nonprofits have annual budgets of less than  $1 million. Yes, that’s the entire annual budget, including salaries and benefits. Bragging on your resume is great, but bragging that you can manage a billion dollar budget begs the question–can you manage a zero dollar budget, too?
  5. Speaking of money, it’s not about money. No matter what anyone tells you, it is my deeply held view that you simply cannot run a nonprofit “like a business.” And if you come in to a nonprofit with this attitude, you will not only be scoffed at, you will also likely fail. Nonprofits are not measured by revenue generated. Money is a necessary resource to make the mission happen, but the money is not the metric of success (unless you want to work in fundraising, of course, and even then, the “sales” aspect is much more about long-term relationship building and persuasive communication skills, because you are “selling” something extremely intangible–the feeling that the donor has made a difference–and not something where they will see any actual financial return on their investment).
  6. Speaking of outcomes, measuring the outcome is quite difficult. There are people with PhDs in public policy and social science whose actual jobs are to employ complex statistical and qualitative research methods to determine if, in fact, the mission has been achieved. For instance, how is that you know for a fact that the tutoring program for kids from a marginalized community is the factor which got 15% more of those kids to go to college, 10 years after you’ve tutored them, and not some other factor? How do you know that your smoking cessation program was more effective than another one? How do you measure that your opera or art museum has brought people a deep and educational aesthetic experience?
  7. The culture is different. There are millions of nonprofits in the United States and each has its own culture, but you can generalize a bit that in many nonprofits, there is more thought given to social justice within the organization–and that everyone’s opinion matters, including the receptionist’s, the unpaid board of directors, and most of all the clients‘–much more than it might in a large corporation. So now that you know a bit about the nonprofit arena and how it may be different from the corporate world, how do you make the switch?
  8. Research the field. It’s not enough to say you want to work in the nonprofit sector because you want to make a difference. Research the many mission areas in the nonprofit sector and choose no more than one or two that appeal the most to you (my book can help with this).
  9. Volunteer, then volunteer some more. If you can, try to get on a Board of Directors, or at minimum do some substantial volunteering (or “pro bono consulting“) to gain actual skills in the nonprofit arena.
  10. Network. Nonprofits are typically in a small and tight-knit community, so find the professional associations in your area of interest, join them, go to their meetings, and volunteer. Have I mentioned volunteering? Many of the people I interviewed in my book landed in the nonprofit sector by starting out as volunteers.
  11. Revamp your resume. You’ll need to ditch many of the corporate words and swap them with nonprofit words. For instance, “sales” could be rephrased as “revenue development.” “Shareholders” should be changed with “stakeholders.” Swap out “corporation” or “business” with “organization.” And please, remove the really corporate lingo like “ROI.” (Note– this is where working with someone like me can be really helpful.)
  12. Be thoughtful about where you fit, skills-wise. Some jobs are much more easily transferable to the nonprofit arena than others; human resources, IT, accounting, and communications/marketing all are needed just as much in nonprofits as in corporations (and are different in nonprofit sector than corporate). Certain fields, though, especially in program management, require direct experience with the client population of the organization and/or the subject matter, so you may need to consider training or credentialing, possibly including graduate school.
  13. Think about where you fit, mission-wise. Have you been working in publishing? Consider a literacy-focused nonprofit. Working in pharmaceuticals? Try a medical research or patient advocacy nonprofit. Focused in finance? How about an economic development or financial literacy organization. Or, boost your experience in the mission area by volunteering.
  14. Make a long-term plan. Transitions don’t usually happen overnight. Look at where you are, and what skills and experience you’ll need to make the switch. Consider a “pivot” job– possibly a part-time or short-term job at a smaller, lesser-known nonprofit where your skills will transfer, and be ready to take a pay cut, with a long-term plan of boosting your resume to be able to make the switch in the long run.
  15. Be ready to counter objections. For those people who have dedicated their entire careers in nonprofit or government work, it’s easy to assume that a corporate-to-nonprofit career changer is simply a dilettante, or a “voluntourist” with no real commitment to the mission. Some may assume you will come in with an entitled attitude, or worse, that you are looking to work in a nonprofit because you pity the organization or worst of all, its clients. Some will fear that you will be too ruthless in cutting budgets and won’t care about people’s feelings (and yes, many nonprofits care entirely about feelings, because it’s an integral part of their mission). Thinking in advance about how to counter objections people may have will help you be prepared in the job search and interview process with a thoughtful and sincere answer.

Many people have successfully “escaped” corporate America. It’s one of my privileges as a career coach to help people create their game plan to land a deeply satisfying, meaningful next step in their career. With the right vision and strategy, you can make it happen, too.

Some recommended books: Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service

Change Your Career: Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector

The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector-Switchers



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