You’ve been serving on the board of your favorite nonprofit for years, and you’re thinking about the next step in your career. You look across the table at the organization’s executive director and think, “Maybe I should do what she’s doing.”
The truth is that we in the nonprofit sector have great jobs. We come to work, ply our trade and the world—hopefully—is the better for it. Certainly, occupations in the corporate and government sectors can be equally fulfilling, but as corporations downsize and government tightens its belt, the third sector can seem like an increasingly attractive option.
Or perhaps you’re at the end of a career and you’re not ready for retirement. Demographic trends indicate that people from the Baby Boomer generation are living longer, thriving and seeing the years after age 50 less as a time to retire than as a time for transition. Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures (www.civicventures.org), calls the next step in careers for Baby Boomers “encore careers.” Civic Ventures runs a program in 19 cities called Experience Corps and works with community colleges to provide programs that transition people from the corporate sector into a “purpose-driven life.”
Making the transition
As you ponder a transition into the nonprofit sector, there are a few strategies you may want to consider. Your first step will depend on your qualifications. Talk with people you respect in the field and find out how to connect the dots between your resume and the appropriate nonprofit job description. If you’re a manager or executive, a leadership position may be appropriate. Experience in sales might translate into skill in fundraising. A journalist might find his or her niche in nonprofit marketing or grant writing.
Next, you’ll want to meet with people who have jobs that line up with their skills. Your nonprofit contacts will be able suggest people from within their networks. Remember that nonprofit executives are generally very busy people and may be challenged to find time to see you. If this is the case, an email exchange for advice and additional contacts may be an option.
If you live in a community with a university level academic program focusing on nonprofit management, you may want to take a class or two to find out more about how nonprofits operate. Even if your community doesn’t offer such a program, many online opportunities are available. For example, Regis University in Denver (www.regis.edu) offers an online master’s degree in Nonprofit Management with no residency requirement.
Another option is to expand your volunteering activities before diving into employment. Perhaps you’ve served on a board, but have you served food to your organization’s homeless clients? You’ll also want to consider volunteering beyond the organizations you know well. A great resource is your local volunteer center. (Here in Denver that would be Metro Volunteers [www.metrovolunteers.org].) Numerous organizations offer invaluable training and experience in exchange for gifts of time and expertise. Such experiences can sometimes lead, directly or indirectly, to that first nonprofit job.
A benefit of volunteering and taking classes in nonprofit management is that both can help dispel myths about the nonprofit sector that many jobseekers hold. There are two myths in particular that I would like to address here: The first is that a nonprofit job may seem like the perfect way to ease into retirement. You step back a little, take it easy, and along the way you do some good. What could be better?
Not much—except that you won’t find that kind of soft landing in any nonprofit I know. The hours are long, the work is endless and the pay generally doesn’t compare favorably with a corporate salary. You will find joy and purpose in your work with nonprofits, but you’ll rarely find time to work on your golf game.
Another misconception is that corporate business savvy automatically transfers to the nonprofit sector, and you’ll be able to help your organization run more smoothly and efficiently in a matter of weeks. While nonprofits are indeed businesses with the need for effective operations and processes, there are differences in the two worlds that can offer a business leader the opportunity to learn and grow. The reality of mission-driven fundraising is one example. Selling a mission –often one that has intangible results—can be more difficult than selling a product or service.
Despite the long hours and challenging work, I hope you’ll consider the nonprofit sector as the perfect place for the next step in your career or for your “encore.” Accomplishing the missions of nonprofits requires the deep wells of energy, talent and resources that leaders like you can provide. Everyday, I learn something new from my colleagues, find inspiration in the community, and see the results of good people doing good work. I do think the grass is greener in the nonprofit sector—and you may, too.
by Rebecca Arno, vice president of communications for The Denver Foundation (www.denverfoundation.org).