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Considering transitioning to a Non-profit?

As executive placement professionals working exclusively in the non-profit sector, we receive a number of calls each week from people inquiring about how to cross the bridge from the corporate to the voluntary, charitable, or non-profit sector.

If you’ve decided to make the journey, here are some suggestions about how to begin and how to make the trip a successful one.

To ensure your career transition is successful, you need to make a commitment and invest in the journey. Individuals of all ages and in all types of positions will need to put some concentrated time, effort, and financial resources into crossing the bridge.

You should know that non-profits, like any other workplace, vary substantially in their financial resources, working environments and organizational culture. If you make the transition, keep in mind that a non-profit may not necessarily be the kinder, gentler place that you may think it will be. Non-profits may have different pressures than the ones you may be accustomed to, but they are still pressures.

Once you’ve decided to make the journey, here are some steps you can take to ensure that it goes as smoothly as possible.

  • Make connections – Non-profit organizations, whether they are hospitals, universities, disease/health organizations, or arts groups, are about people. Speak to people who you know working in non-profits as employees or volunteers and make contact with professional associations.
  • Educate yourself – Once you’ve made contact with individuals in the non-profit world, learn more about how their organizations work, the challenges they face, and the positions available within them. This will give you a better understanding of what types of jobs and organizations are out there and what direction you would like to pursue. The Internet is also an excellent source of information and some useful websites are under Additional Resources
  • Show your commitment – Non-profit organizations are also about commitment to a cause. Donating your time and expertise to a non-profit will not only help you make connections with other professionals and demonstrate your commitment to prospective employers, but it will also help you decide if the non-profit world is for you.
  • Get credentials – If you are like most individuals who are contemplating a change to the non-profit world, you already hold one or more degrees. Depending on your particular situation and the type of job you are applying for, you may need to get additional credentials to be competitive in the labour market. For example, if you are currently in communications and want to move to a position in fundraising, the CFRE designation or courses at a community college may be necessary.
  • Look critically – Once you’ve decided on the type of job and organization you want and you’ve taken some courses and updated your skills, you are almost ready to embark on your job search. At this point, you need to take a critical look at your resumé and cover letter, and/or enlist a friend or professional resumé writer to help you. Sadly, we see numerous resumés from individuals who fail to address the employer’s needs as outlined in the job ad. This is a critical flaw that may land your resumé in the rejection pile even if you are qualified for the job. Non-profits are busy organizations, and whomever is doing the recruiting will likely not have much time to review your resumé, so make sure it’s organized, to the point, and highlights the skills and experience you have that are relevant to the position you are applying for.
  • Keep learning – This is a time of challenge and change for Canadian non-profits with increasing competition for resources and higher expectations for openness, professionalism, and clear financial management. Make a commitment to invest in your professional development. Take courses, read industry and business publications and join applicable professional associations to keep your knowledge and skills up-to-date.

Drucker, Peter F., Managing the Non-profit Organization: Principles and Practices. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. (ISBN 0-88730-601-2)

Greenfield, James M. ed., The Non-profit Handbook, Third Edition. Toronto: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 1997. (ISBN 0-471-15658-2)

King, Richard M., From Making a Profit to Making a Difference: How to Launch Your New Career in Non-profits. River Forest, IL: Planning/Communications, 1999. (ISBN 1-884587-17-8)

Nanus, Burt and Stephen M. Dobbs, Leaders Who Make a Difference: Essential Strategies for Meeting the Non-Profit Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999. (ISBN 0-7879-4665-6)

Lord, James Gregory, The Raising of Money: Thirty Five Essentials Every Trustee Should Know. Cleveland: Third Sector Press, 1990. (ISBN 0-939120-02-X)

Wagner, Lilya, Careers in Fundraising. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2002. (ISBN 0-471-40359-8)