Finding a leadership position is always a challenge, especially for people who do not already have nonprofit experience. But it is possible. The nonprofit sector is frequently attractive to people who no longer want to work for a for-profit business or in other areas of the economy. I often hear from people who have lost jobs at corporations as a result of layoffs or who have reasonably secure jobs but simply want to apply their skills to mission-driven organizations. Similarly, I hear from people who are ready to leave government after a long career or a short-term political appointment, and from others who are about to retire from the military but not ready to stop working completely. In all of these cases, people are looking for work that is socially meaningful, even if it might include a reduction in income.
Finding a leadership position is always a challenge, especially for people who do not already have nonprofit experience on their resume. But it is possible, as several of my successfully completed searches confirm.
The following are the keys to breaking into the nonprofit sector at the senior level:
Focus on jobs in which the required skills are similar to those in positions you’ve held outside the nonprofit sector. Many of the clients for whom I’ve conducted searches for chief operating officer or chief financial officer recognize that people who’ve held similar jobs in corporations or elsewhere are great prospects. They correctly conclude that running an accounting department in a company is not unlike doing it in a nonprofit, even if some of the accounting jargon and rules differ. Positions in fundraising, on the other hand, are often perceived to have characteristics that do not exist outside the nonprofit sector, which makes it much more difficult to enter the sector via this path. But there are always exceptions. Some nonprofits recognize, for example, that successful fundraising draws on skills that anyone who has done well in sales or marketing has already mastered.
Be explicit about the most important skills you have acquired that can readily transfer to the nonprofit sector. This could mean talking about your sales and marketing track record when you pursue a fundraising job or about staff supervision experience for any senior-management role that involves overseeing others.
Look for nonprofit organizations with a history of hiring senior people from outside the sector. Obviously, these organizations—and the people there who have business, government, or military experience—are more likely to recognize the relevance of your skills than are organizations where the senior staff has worked primarily at nonprofits. The network you develop to find appropriate openings can help you identify these organizations and these people.
In your resume, cover letter, and conversations with potential employers, highlight any board or other volunteer experience you’ve had with nonprofits. Demonstrate that your interest in the sector is not a temporary one that might pass as soon as the economy improves.
Don’t generalize based on your experience with the first nonprofits you contact. I’ve led some searches for chief operating officer (COO) and other senior management positions where the clients strongly prefer candidates with business experience. And I’ve had other clients with similar openings who have preferred candidates with nonprofit experience, ideally in an organization with a similar mission. In both cases, I’ve seen organizations ultimately select a person who did not fit their initial preference. Searches are dynamic, unpredictable, and, most important, not over until an offer has been accepted.