I had to pause while reading a recent article about a spate of older workers losing their jobs because of the pandemic. One expert suggested handling such a setback by reevaluating career and earnings goals and considering switching into the nonprofit sector. The rationale was that while nonprofit jobs usually paid less they offered older workers other benefits such as reduced on-the-job stress.
As someone who has successfully navigated careers in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, I was disappointed in the message. Yes, for-profit types should consider sector switching, but I disagree with the suggestion that working in the nonprofit sector is some kind of late career walk in the park—or that anyone’s skillset would automatically be a good fit.
I was one of those for-profit types who assumed that the nonprofit world needed me and would welcome me with open arms. Fortunately, I did some research before leaping and realized that I needed both education and cultural immersion to be successful. I started by volunteering (including board service) and earning my master of nonprofit administration from Chicago’s North Park University (highly recommended program).
Even with my degree, it was tough breaking into the sector. I struggled for months just to get interviews. I kept networking and volunteering, which led to my first paying nonprofit job—a good learning experience but a terrible fit. My next job offered the fit I was seeking. The key was getting hired by an HR manager who had started in the for-profit world and saw how my background could help the organization. I’m still thankful for this experience, years after moving on to new opportunities.
With the benefit of hindsight, here are some honest thoughts about switching from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector:
- The work is often harder in the nonprofit world. “Nonprofit” is a misnomer because you actually have to achieve multiple types of “profit”—bottom line as well as mission delivery and impact. On top of that, the funding mechanisms are convoluted and inconsistent. And did we mention that people’s lives are often at stake? If you’re stress-averse, think carefully before switching.
- Many nonprofits are cautious about hiring people from the for-profit sector. Despite talk about getting more people with “business” experience, many nonprofits balk at the cultural differences presented by long-time corporate types. My graduate work and volunteer experience were essential for learning a new culture, language and way of thinking. Plan on investing the time and effort to bridge these cultural gaps if you want to make the move to the nonprofit world.
- Nonprofits could desperately use an infusion of talent and ideas from the for-profit world. The nonprofit sector is somewhat insular and risk averse. It could use an infusion of entrepreneurial spirit and a fresh approach to solving tough problems. But most nonprofits don’t need an “app” or someone to show them how to “run a business.” If those things are all you’re offering, stick to what you’re already doing.
Despite my tough talk, there is something else I want to make clear about switching into the nonprofit sector: It’s all worth it. Yes, it can be difficult to break in and challenging once you arrive, but an incredible amount of essential work happens in the sector. It’s gratifying to be part of it, and I’m looking forward to helping many more corporate expatriates make this professional journey.