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Six Steps to Help you Transition from Corporate to Nonprofit 

May 2020

Thinking about leaving your corporate career and taking a job at a nonprofit? While working in the nonprofit sector is immensely rewarding, it comes with a unique set of challenges. Recent interviews on the Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership podcast have allowed us to learn about three nonprofit leaders who have successfully made the leap between these sectors and benefit from their experiences and insights. 

We interviewed Kristin Beck, Executive Director of Social Venture Partners Charlotte, and Tina Admans, founder and president of the Los Angeles Chapter of Minds Matter, who both left successful corporate careers at Fortune 500 companies to serve in nonprofit positions. We also gained insight from Will Jones, who has worked in both nonprofit and for-profit sectors as the current CEO of Thompson after previously working as a consultant for the software company SAS. 

Whether you are still discerning whether a nonprofit career is in your future, or are ready to dive into your career change and start making moves, these six tips from our nonprofit experts will help you determine whether a nonprofit transition is right for you and will help you leverage your valuable corporate experience to jump start your new career in the nonprofit sector. 

"I really wanted to find something that fueled my heart as much as it was helping me build skills and find new experiences." Tina Admans

1. Take time to step back and reflect. 

Before you start planning a major career transition, make sure that you take space from your current job to clear your head and reflect on what you want out of the next turn on your career path, and how a nonprofit role would help you meet those goals. Both Beck and Admans considered taking a sabbatical a crucial step to their successful nonprofit transitions. 

Beck decided to take a step back for "space to think and explore" when she realized that she needed to make a career change. 


"I just felt like that next level of management in my corporate setting was not really something I aspired to...I really was looking for something that was going to challenge me and something that I felt like had a bit of a higher purpose or more meaning behind it. I didn't know what that looked like," said Beck.

During this time, be flexible and explore options you may not have considered before. "I didn't have such rigidity to my plan that I missed out on what turned out to be the dream job I never knew existed," said Beck.  

Admans also found that a sabbatical was an invaluable step in determining that a nonprofit career change was the right step for her.  During this time, she found it valuable to reflect on what she most valued in her last jobs to determine where she should move next. 

"I really didn't do anything for a good six months besides, reconnect with me and what was important to me. [I] did some self reflection on looking at the variety of different jobs that I've had...and there were a couple of key themes. Building teams, building community, both trying to become a better leader as well as helping others...and I knew I really wanted to get back to my community in some way."

If a full sabbatical isn't feasible for your schedule, dedicate a few days of PTO or a few hours on the weekend to step back and reflect on your values and career goals, and to consider how a nonprofit career could align with these important factors. 

2. Do your research. 

If you decide that a nonprofit career is in your future, you still need to do a little more work before jumping into job applications. Although most nonprofits will love to benefit from your valuable work experience, you want to make sure that you are picking the nonprofit industry that moves you. 

"Passion is something we almost can't coach for, and that's something we can hire for. We love the passionate person that comes with a business mind," says Will Jones.

 Are you most passionate about children? The arts? Community health and human services? Take the time to research and connect with the local nonprofits that align with your personal interests.

Bonus tip: As you start reaching out to these nonprofits about potential opportunities, make sure you communicate that your passion is a key catalyst for your career change. Nonprofits want to see that you will be invested in their cause instead of just looking for a change of pace or a "retirement job."

"If you want to impact something in the community... and you could bring your tools, your skill set, your history, your experience to that, we [the nonprofit industry] are going to welcome you with open arms, but it's got to be for the right reason." Will Jones

3. Enroll in a course. 

Taking a course or enrolling in professional development will give you an extra edge to jump start your career change.  These courses will teach you the basics of what to expect from the nonprofit sector. 

For example, Beck completed a Nonprofit Business Essentials Certificate at Wake Forest University. In addition to introducing her to the ins and outs of the nonprofit industry, it also gave her an extra boost of confidence. 

 "It just opened my eyes [to the fact that] that a lot of the skills, experience and management techniques that I had learned over my career were very applicable and very much needed" said Beck. 

If you don't have the resources to invest in a full blown certificate program, consider taking professional development courses or webinars, or a post-baccalaureate class in a local nonprofit management program to learn more about the not-for-profit landscape and the skills you will need for your new job, as well as learn some new knowledge to bring to the table when you start. 


4. Build your nonprofit network. 

Connecting with people that serve in the nonprofit sector will be invaluable for you both on the job hunt and when you start your new position.  You can build your network by volunteering, serving on boards, and going to networking meetings. Check out organizations like your local Association of Fundraising Professionals chapter, LinkedIn networking groups, affiliate groups, and alliances and councils in the nonprofit industry to seek out networking opportunities.

Use these meet-ups to connect with people in the industries and positions you would like to work in, ask them insightful questions, and mention that you are looking to move into the nonprofit sector. These connections will be able to give you valuable advice to help you find that next position.  Once you've landed your dream job, you will be able to leverage your broad network of connections and colleagues to build partnerships and make a greater impact in your position. 


5. Pivot your corporate strengths. 

When Admans first started in her nonprofit position, she felt uncomfortable with board meetings and fundraising, despite the fact that she thrived at building teams and cultivating community in the corporate world. The new terms and structures that are unique to the nonprofit sector made these aspects of her job feel like unfamiliar territory.  A friend made a life altering suggestion that she commented that Admans should "stop thinking of it as fundraising, and think of it as building community with a donor base." 

When you are preparing for interviews and updating your resume, take an inventory of the corporate skills that you can highlight that make you the perfect candidate for a nonprofit position. To stand out from the crowd, be sure to highlight experiences with: 

  • Relationship building
  • Data analysis/management
  • Managing projects or teams
  • Strategic Planning
  • Communications and marketing 
     

Pro Tip: Consider adding a summary line to your resume that explicitly mentions your desire to transition into the nonprofit sector.  

 

6. Prepare yourself for hard work. 

Although extremely fulfilling, a career in the nonprofit industry will present different challenges that you may not have faced before. In addition to having fewer resources and less up-to-date technology, you will also face a learning curve as you learn the ins and outs of a new industry.  Also, since nonprofit organizations typically have smaller team sizes, you will be expected to wear several hats in a nonprofit role.

If you are passionate about the mission of your organization, however, transitioning to a nonprofit career will allow you to do meaningful work with like-minded people that support a cause you believe in and keep learning new skills everyday. Your corporate experience will be an invaluable asset to the right nonprofit, and with the right attitude and preparation, you'll be able to hit the ground running in your new nonprofit career. 


Additional Resources:

 

Listen:
Fortune 500 to Nonprofit Founder & CEO
(Tina Admans) Episode #36, Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership Podcast 

Making the Jump: Corporate America to Nonprofit Executive (Kristen Beck) Episode #31,Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership Podcast 

How Do You Blend For-Profit and Nonprofit Leadership Lessons? (Will Jones) Episode #18, Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership Podcast 
Why I Moved From Corporate to Nonprofit with guest Bill Abrams
. Episode #16, Nonprofits are Messy Podcast


Read: 

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
Move
by Patty Azzarello

The Leadership Challenge
  by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

New to the Nonprofit World? Here are 5 Ways to Hit the Ground Running
, PMA Consulting