Ready to ditch your for-profit gig for a nonprofit job? Keep these 3 tips in mind

Need advice on how to find a job or excel in the one you have? Send us your question and we might answer it here on the blog.

Photo credit: Tupungato, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Tupungato, Shutterstock

From a reader:

I am really looking into getting a job in education but have no experience within the field. I have been in fashion for some time now but want a career that involves helping others more so. Basically, how can I translate my experience in fashion to a career helping others?

Dear Wannabe Sector Switcher,

Hands down this has to be the most common question we get. So many people are feeling the itch to ditch the corporate cubicle and make their living in the social sector. But, it isn’t as easy as many think. Just because you have a passion to end hunger or teach students from disadvantaged communities, doesn’t mean that you have what it takes to get a job in a nonprofit environment. As a two-time sector switcher myself, I know this firsthand.

Here’s what helped me:

Figure out what you have to offer and it better be more than passion

Of course, you want to have a genuine interest in the cause, sector, and the organization. However, no matter what your cause may be there is no shortage of people out there who care about it just as much as you do. So if all you’re selling is passion, your resume might end up in the “do not call” pile. Just like in any industry, nonprofit organizations are looking for people who bring a certain set of skills to the job at hand. Can you write persuasively? Are you a whiz with spreadsheets? Have you managed projects from A to Z? So in addition to being clear about why you want to make the switch, identify what your specific skills are and how they can benefit the organization and the cause you’re targeting.

Consider consulting or volunteering to build skills and learn about the sector

If while doing your search, you realize that you might not have the skills organizations are looking for, there might be an opportunity for you to build those skills through volunteering or pro bono work. For example, nonprofits always need great grant writers so volunteering with an organization in this capacity will give you a chance to develop those skills.

Or, package your skills in a different way to get your foot in the door. So, you’re interested in fashion, right? Offer to teach a fashion design or sewing class at a youth-serving organization. This will give you the tangible education experience you are looking for while doing it in a space where you are highly knowledgeable and have a sincere interest.

Volunteering can also give you a realistic job preview to ensure that the work is what you really want to do while exposing you to the ins-and-outs of the nonprofit sector. Plus, hiring managers prefer candidates with some nonprofit experience (whether as employees, volunteers, or interns) so it helps to get your hands dirty as much as you can, well before you try to switch sectors.

Network, network, network

The first time I made the move from for-profit to nonprofit, a friend of the family passed my resume to someone working at a nonprofit they were familiar with. The second time I made the switch, the person managing the hiring process for the position I was interested in was someone I had served on a task force with several years earlier. So comb through your contacts and see who might know someone in the sector you are trying to break into. Don’t have any family or friends with connections? All is not lost. Create a LinkedIn account and look at friends of friends. Or volunteer in order to build relationships. Nonprofits are no different from for-profits in one important way: a high percentage of jobs are acquired based on relationships.

Let us know how it goes!

Need advice on how to find a job or excel in the one you have? Send us your question and we might answer it here on our blog.

Qiana Williams is a senior human resources manager for a global retailer where she is responsible for all aspects of the implementation of HR strategy for more than 200 employees domestically and internationally. Prior to this role, she navigated the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, tackling the various aspects of HR. Qiana has played an active role in her community through board service with organizations such as City Year – Columbus, Communities in Schools of Central Ohio, HandsOn Central Ohio and the United Way of Central Ohio.

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    • Michael
    • September 5, 2013

    I was beat out for a job in a nonprofit by a person who emphasized her passion and admittedly was not very good at networking. Advice like this is so 80’s. Nonprofits are unfortunately becoming more and more political in their search for candidates.

      • Kathy Szaj
      • September 6, 2013

      While your answer addressed nonprofits in general, your response does not really apply to K-12 teaching. Switching to education is different. People who have a passion for learning how to reach are always being recruited (despite news of teacher layoffs in various locales).

      If your reader wants a job in education, s/he needs to define what that means. In schools? In the classroom? What level? If s/he wants higher ed or teaching in other nonprofit settings, those are a different kettle of fish with different requirements.

      If s/he wants to be a classroom teacher, passion can indeed be enough–for starters. What does s/he imagine herself doing? With whom? Generating what kind of outcomes? What do you/could you love teaching? (Someone in the fashion industry may have design thinking skills, visual aesthetic skills, mathematical [e.g., geometry] skills; entrepreneurial skills, etc. Take an honest inventory of your skills–industry-related and other. Which would you love doing more of? Which do you *not* want to do more of?)

      Numerous programs ardently seek teacher-wannabes who have the passion–and a college degree in almost any discipline. They will put aspiring teachers through an intensive one-year master’s degree program in education that includes state certification and supply plenty of opportunities to learn-by-assisting in various classrooms.

      S/he may want to take a look at “fast-track” programs such as:

      TNTP (The New Teacher Project)–
      Teach for America–

      New York:
      New York City Teaching Fellows —
      New York City Teaching Collaborative —
      New Visions for Public Schools —
      Note: Many states seem to have similar programs. Google or another search engine will be your best friend to find them.

      General info on alternative teacher certification programs:

      To the aspiring teacher(s): if you yearn to teach, follow that yellow brick road! We need gifted, inspired, caring, yet challenging teachers who wholeheartedly believe in and commit themselves to the multidimensional growth of others.

      P.S. Yes, I am a l-o-ong-time teacher. I began as a secondary ed teacher; developed and facilitated an elementary school arts/literacy enrichment program; and for the last ten years, I’ve been teaching in grad school.

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