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  • Pat Libby

So you want to work for a nonprofit? How to switch sectors.

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

This blog is for sector-switchers – those of you who work in the public or private sector and think how much fun it would be to work for a nonprofit organization.

I’m writing as an executive search consultant for nonprofits who is knee deep in piles of unqualified applications for a CEO job – the vast majority of whom are from people who have never had any kind of connection with a nonprofit organization.

Just today I’ve read resumes from a high school football coach, the VP of an engineering firm, an aerospace engineer and the VP of an ambulance service – none of whom listed a single nonprofit affiliation.

You can’t make this stuff up! It’s enough to drive someone to drink (but since a major portion of this particular CEO job involves overseeing a well-regarded substance abuse program, I’m abstaining).

I'm pretty sure I know what's motivating these folks to switch sectors.

They’re thinking “Wow, it would be so incredibly cool, so meaningful to have a job where I’m creating good every day.”

And it’s true. Working for a nonprofit does give you that special feeling. But it’s also true that working for a nonprofit is very different from working in either the public or private sector.

Think about it for a minute: Would you hire someone who is a CEO of a nonprofit social service agency to be the CEO of a for-profit construction company who had no construction experience?

If you answered “no,” then why does the reverse seem logical to many, many people?

It’s likely because there is a misperception that nonprofit work must be somehow easier than public or private sector work since it generally pays less.

Now, I’m not going to begin to debate that here because that’s a topic for a whole other blog. So I’ll just cut to the chase:

In order to land a job at a nonprofit – especially at a CEO level – it helps tremendously if you know something about nonprofit organizations!

So how do you gain that knowledge?

1. You can volunteer.

When the word “volunteer” is mentioned, folding envelopes comes to mind. However, nonprofits need all kinds of volunteers – they need people who are comfortable using social media, good at strategic planning or organizing events, have expert marketing and writing skills, are willing to tutor kids, give museum tours and do 10,000 other things. Pick an organization that is meaningful to you and see what types of opportunities are available. That will give you first-hand insight into how a nonprofit works.

2. You can serve on a board.

Many nonprofits are looking for board members who can commit themselves to advancing the work of an organization on an ongoing basis. The old saying goes that board members donate talent, time and treasure (the latter meaning cold hard cash) in their commitment to the cause. You can read more about nonprofit boards in my other blogs.

3. You can take a class.

There are many certificate programs in nonprofit management that you can enroll in either in person or online. I prefer the in-person programs because they allow interested people to connect to one another and to the faculty which may lead to new opportunities. If you are very ambitious, you can enroll in a graduate program in nonprofit management – there are more than 300 across the country!

4. You can subscribe to this blog and to other blogs about nonprofits.

If you’re pressed for time (and who isn’t these days?), a blog can give you a quick snapshot about the world of nonprofits and the type of issues that nonprofits are wrestling with.

5. You can subscribe to magazines that specialize in nonprofit management.

My personal favorites are The Nonprofit Quarterly, The Chronicle of Philanthropy and Stanford Social Innovation Review – each of which will provide more in depth information than can be obtained in a blog.

When I read a resume that has no nonprofit experience listed on it, I can’t help but think that the person sending it is in La La Land (and I’m not referring to the hit movie). If you want to switch sectors, you need to make the effort to learn about nonprofits.


Pat Libby is a San Diego nonprofit consultant and philanthropy consultant. Her executive search consulting services have been helping organizations find leaders for more than three decades. Find out more about Pat's services here, and contact her today for a free consultation.

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