5 Common Pitfalls When Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector

If you’ve started this year determined to make a significant change in your life and become involved in a noteworthy cause, then you’re probably thinking of quitting your corporate job and joining a nonprofit. While this may sound easy in theory, there are a few obstacles along the that you’ll want to be aware of.

To make sure that you’re prepared, let’s explore some of the most common pitfalls associated with a sector switch, and develop solutions.

Dealing with skepticism

When you’ve worked your entire life in a corporate environment and then suddenly decide to transition to a nonprofit organization, you will inevitably face a great deal of skepticism regarding your intentions and your ability to cope with such a responsibility.

One of the most important questions you will be asked is: “Why do you want to work in an NGO?” This is the moment of truth, and will influence the way you are perceived later on and tip the scale either for or against you.

There are many ways to answer this type of question, depending on your personal experience. Perhaps you’ve lost a family member and now you want to be involved in a cancer prevention organization, or maybe you’ve done some serious soul-searching and realized that maximizing a company’s profit is not what you want to be doing for the rest of your life.

Whatever the case may be, be truthful about your intentions and make your story relatable. As long as you’re putting the right motivation behind the move and you’re not simply doing it to ease your conscience, then you should quickly diminish all skepticism.

Proving your worth

Even though you’ve had an excellent track record throughout your career and have managed to distinguish yourself as a specialist in your field, becoming an employee at social-impact organization involves a particular set of skills. So, when you’re looking for a job in this sector and you do manage to land an interview, you will have to convince the recruiter that your corporate experience can easily be transferred to their activity and that your unique skills can help them advance their goals much faster.

If you have experience in project management, for instance, this can easily be used to your advantage when it comes to landing a job at a nonprofit. This illustrates that you have excellent people skills, you know how to organize your time efficiently so as to meet all the necessary deadlines, and conflict management is your middle name. Regardless of the industry that you’re transitioning out of, these three skills are essential for any project manager position, so if you do a great job at conveying this, your chances of succeeding will definitely increase.

Downgrading your lifestyle

You may already be aware of this fact, but I have to remind you anyway. If you plan on working in the nonprofit sector, the financial compensation may not be what you’re used to after some time in the private sector.

If you’ve grown accustomed to an expensive lifestyle, have a high mortgage to pay, put your kids in the best private school possible, and spend every holiday traveling to exotic destinations, then making some adjustments in your future expenses may be a reality you’ll soon need to face.

Make sure to do your homework properly and research the exact salary you should expect for the type of job you are aiming for, as this can vary greatly depending on the organization, your position, and your level of expertise.

Dealing with the frustrations

Let’s say you’ve been working for five years as a communication specialist in the private sector. You know exactly what you have to do in order to be successful, you have all your objectives set out and you get to see first-hand the impact you are having within that particular company.

Working in a communications role at a nonprofit can be an entirely different experience from this perspective. Even though you are given a clear job description, the results of your work might not come so quickly and you may only get to see them after a long period of time. This means you will have to be patient and keep pressing on, regardless of how frustrating and challenging it might seem.

Since there can be many financial constraints related to a nonprofit’s activity, you will have to be resourceful in your job and find creative solutions to your problems, without a strong budget backing you up.

Detaching yourself emotionally

Since nonprofit organizations have to deal with serious social or community issues on a day-to-day basis, this can become overwhelming at times.

Detaching yourself from a social cause can be much more difficult than getting over a negative ROI or a dealing with a challenging client. Deep human stories leave a strong emotional impact on most people and this is especially true for nonprofit employees.

If you’ve decided to become involved in a social cause, it’s likely that you are able to easily put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding what they are going through.

Oftentimes, the psychological impacts can be significant, so it’s important to build a clear defense mechanism to prevent that from happening.

Even though working for a nonprofit has its challenges, it is also a highly rewarding experience. Having the chance to impact people’s lives in a positive way is a gift that not many people get to explore.

So regardless of the obstacles which you are about to face, be proud that you have chosen a meaningful career and thankful for all the positive changes you’re going to affect throughout your journey.

About the Author:

Amanda Wilks



Amanda Wilks is a part-time consultant at Job Application Center and a dedicated writer with a main focus on career building and job hunting. She is passionate about helping people transition into meaningful careers and reach their full potential.


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  1. I’ve worked in non-profit most of my professional life, and these are my two biggest pet peeves about people who come from the corporate world because they suddenly feel like giving back:

    1. They [complain] about their salary, or stew and get resentful. Little comments about how poorly they’re being paid, and demanding more upon hiring. If you ask for the max, that’s the max. I don’t have more. You think you deserve more than I do? You don’t. You think you’re smarter than everybody else here? You’re not. Do the math and don’t make me responsible for your finances.

    2. They think they can “do it all” but they expect the resources of a corporation, something they completely took for granted before. I worked with some big hot-shot from a lucrative business who wanted the products of a fully-funded 5-person marketing team and acted like a big victim because what we had was 1/4 of a person’s time who was an outreach coordinator in addition to a bunch of other jobs. That means you have to plan further in advance. You have to do your part. Don’t go to a small org and expect the resources of a major company.

    I’ve had enough experiences over the last 15 years to make me suspicious of people who come from corporations and want to slum it with the NGO’s for a while. They tend to lower morale, suck up resources, and move on after getting trained up because they couldn’t figure out their personal accounting. Your little soul-searching mission is actually making things worse. Get humble – don’t think you’re superior just because you’ve decided to take a “pay cut” and that you’re “worth so much more.” Nonprofit isn’t the place for coddling your ego. It’s not about YOU. It’s about the mission.

    So yes. I’m a hiring manager and I’m very suspicious. I’ve been burned by people who don’t understand the sacrifice of working for (especially small) nonprofits. I strongly suggest volunteering somewhere and really asking about what the staff person does. Look at their incredibly long list. Realize they do it alone sometimes. Nonprofit work can be truly amazing – I get paid in so much more than money. But I find not that many people really have the grit to make that financial sacrifice.

      • Anna
      • June 28, 2016

      So much anger and frustration. Are you really changing something for good?

    • Tara
    • July 14, 2016

    Actually, I appreciate the honesty of Sherrie’s comment. It is impossible to be passionate and detached at the same time!

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