So You Want To Transition To Nonprofit
We know it's alluring. You've been rescuing dogs for five years, working silent auctions on the weekends, and serving on a board of a 'grassroots' nonprofit while working at your 'regular' job and now you've had an epiphany-'Why not just make nonprofit your career?" After all, you're smart, resourceful, and a hard worker. You have absolutely transferable skills, a lot of passion, and if you're going to work so hard, you should do it for something you love, right?
So you start out earnestly. You start floating your resume to nonprofits, first starting only with the ones that resonate deeply with you and then venturing a little further out of your comfort zone. No bites. And even the ones that do aren't close to reflecting the level of work you're doing currently. What gives? Why is the nonprofit sector so tough to break into?
We get it. In fact, a few of us here made the transition from the for-profit sector to the non-profit sector, so we're here to cheer you on. But before you get too settled into the idea, let us lay upon you some gentle (and not so gentle) truths about our fair industry.
1. Doing good work isn't easy
Whether you're working at a bird rescue, promoting a kids museum, or trying to build awareness for international humanitarian issues, there's a point at which it's more difficult than you thought it would be. Whether your grant application gets a no-response-rejection or the Board members you recruited show no interest in helping you with the latest event, you still have to show up, paste on a smile and just work through it.
2. Nonprofit is not "management lite"
We're not sure where nonprofits got the rap for being some sort of lite version of the for-profit sector, but the same exact principles in for-profit exist here. And experience matters. Nonprofits are going to have the same management meeetings, agendas, budget reviews and HR compliance issues as any other management job. Except, you get to do the same job you were doing before, but with far fewer resources (and less pay).
3. Transferable skills matter
Some skills are easier to see than others - accounting, contract management, sales and development. But some are harder to transition. Before you assume that your skillset could easily transition into the nonprofit sector, ask yourself if someone from the nonprofit sector could easily transition into your job. If the answer is "no," ask yourself what assumptions you are making about the nonprofit sector in general, and your target agency in particular.
4. Fewer Resources, hooray!
Imagine doing your exact same job, but for a cause you really love. Now imagine you're making about 60% of what you make today. Now imagine that the internet doesn't always work, the volunteer you were depending on for support decided not to come, and you're asked to create a new program budget with a broken pencil, a database built in 1978 and a 100 character limit. Ok, we jest, but it's not totally unfounded. Working in nonprofit many times means you get to try out your Macgyver skills a lot more often than you'd care for.
5. Alphabet Soup
DSS, CARF, JCAHO, OWB, HMIS, NAEYC, TAY - We love our acronyms here in the nonprofit sector. Because many of our organizations receive at least some federal, state or county contracts (ahem...government funding), we have to get pretty adept at navigating these names, and, of course, the bureaucracy and red tape that comes along with it.
6. There's no such thing as stability.
We know that ultimately this is true of ANY job in ANY sector, but stability is especially precarious here. Whether you are depending on private donors, corporate foundations or county contracts, at some point, one of those things won't come in, or may come in late. So there will be sleepless nights over missing payroll, missing budget targets, and having to cut services.
7. Everyone is REALLY passionate
There are lots of passionate people doing nonprofit work. But sometimes that same passion it takes to stay working for a nonprofit is the same overzealous reason why some fail to grow or run properly (we see this a lot in what we like to call "founder's syndrome"). With passion comes a certain agenda and priority in how staff feel issues should be addressed vs. how management chooses to address them. When everyone has a stake in the outcomes, expect more spirited discussions when it comes to almost everything.
8. Except when they're not
It's hard to spot the bad apple in the bunch until you're deep into the work and by then, it's already too late once you realize half your staff members only accepted their positions based on the "great benefits" and "easy" nonprofit jobs. The same rings true for some Board members, who show up only when it suits them or as a resume padder. It's tough to work with overly passionate folks, but much easier than trying to manufacture enthusiasm.
9. Don't paint us all with the same brush
Some nonprofits are tiny, with budgets under 6 figures, and some are big sophisticated corporations virtually indistinguishable from their for-profit counterparts. Some are mom-and-pop shops with limited resources, while some take corporate retreats to Hawaii (we're not naming names.) To assume that a nonprofit career will automatically be free of your for-profit trappings would be incorrect.
10. Sometimes, its just a job
While it can be amazing to work for a cause, sometimes the payoff isn't always quick. We all have that image of being the person who changes the world, but, it can take a while. In the meantime, there's not much glamour in sending out yearly appeals or managing grant allocations. It's not always fun to tell volunteer Board members that they HAVE to fundraise or figure out what to do with the used carpet someone "donated". In between the wins, sometimes the hard work is going to feel like...a job.
(p.s. Thanks to our friends at NONPROFIT WITH BALLS HAPPY HOUR for the help coming up with this list)