What Does It Take to Move from Business to the Nonprofit Sector?

By: Allison Jones | August 25, 2012

Allison Jones is an Editor at Idealist.org, a nonprofit that connects people to the opportunities, resources, and community they need to take action and create a better world. She also blogs at allisonj.org where she helps Millennials find careers that make a difference. You can reach her at allison [at] idealist [dot] org or connect with Idealist on twitter @Idealist.

Recently, Idealist.org released Voices from the Sector, our job seeker and organization reports that surveyed 3,000 job seekers and 1,000 nonprofits to get a sense of who's hiring, who's looking, and what the trends are in compensation and employment. The data shared by organizations demonstrate optimism as the country bounces back from the recession. In fact, 48% of nonprofits are making new hires this year and the top three positions are in direct-services, fundraising, and administration. With so many opportunities available, it feels like a great time to explore a career in the nonprofit sector.

What are direct-service, fundraising, and administrative jobs, anyway?

Direct-service jobs are generally what most people envision when they think of nonprofits: working with students as a guidance counselor; helping homeless individuals find jobs and places to live; or being a social worker. These jobs are distinct from, say, supporting-services jobs like administration and fundraising, where your goal is to secure and manage resources to keep the organization and its programs running smoothly. I'm grossly over simplifying here, but think of it this way:

  • The tutor works with students, a form of direct-service.
  • The administrator manages the tutoring program.
  • The fundraiser secures funding to make sure the tutoring program and its staff have all the resources they need.

They, along with people in finance, marketing, and executive leadership all work together to ensure students can participate in an excellent program.

Why consider these jobs?

Direct-service jobs allow you to see an organization's mission in action and are a great entry-point to the nonprofit sector and social causes. This is because direct-service jobs often touch on multiple elements that keep an organization running and keep a community engaged (like designing an effective program, managing relationships, and leveraging resources effectively). If you love interacting directly with people, getting your hands in a bit of everything, and seeing the results of your labor, you may be drawn to direct-service work.

Support-services jobs, such as those in administration and fundraising, allow you to focus on the big picture: connecting with supporters, volunteers, and employees in ways that further the long-term vision of the organization. Like direct-service work, you get to work with a variety of people while keeping an eye outward, toward the sector and larger trends that affect your work.

What do I bring to the table?

As a business student or business professional, you bring a diverse array of skills that can make you a competitive candidate for many of these positions. You might have hard skills that easily transfer: project management, for example, can make you a successful administrator, while speaking multiple languages could be useful in a direct-service position. You might also have soft skills that help organizational culture and teams thrive, like identifying problems, setting goals, developing rapport, and managing groups.

The key to landing the perfect nonprofit gig is to understand the organization, your motivation for making the switch, and being able to emphasize fit. So, if you're ready to explore these opportunities, keep the following tips in mind.

Show you actually care about the organization

This is from hiring managers themselves: 86% think it is very important that job seekers understand their mission. As previously mentioned, direct-service work is the mission in action, so it's safe to assume that passion for the organization is especially important in these roles.

Not sure how to demonstrate passion? Be knowledgeable and engaged. Try volunteering on a board (many Net Impact chapters facilitate such opportunities), or joining an association like Net Impact or the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network to connect with folks who are already in the sector. Or subscribe to key publications like the Chronicle of Philanthropy to stay on top of sector trends.

Focus on fit

Not all nonprofit positions are the same and certainly not all organizations are the same, either. With over one million nonprofits across the United States, focusing on everything from education to the environment to health care to homelessness, there is a place for everyone. Yet so many options can be daunting, and even confusing, for folks new to the sector. Net Impact's Field Overviews are a great place to learn about how nonprofit work instersects with different issue areas.

How do you ensure fit? By understanding what you're good at, what you value, and where you'd thrive so you can easily weed out or actively pursue the right kind of opportunities. To get started, we recommend Idealist's self-assessment resources [And don't forget to explore the Passion Mosaic and Career Significance Navigator tools customized for Net Impact -Ed.].

Remember the basics

Killer resume? Check. Thoughtful cover letter that demonstrates why you're a good fit? Check. Tapped into your network about potential opportunities? Check! Though nonprofits may value passion for their mission and the sector is known for its volunteerism, there are several myths about the nonprofit sector that may prevent job seekers from finding meaningful careers (hint: we're not all granola munching tree huggers, although there is nothing wrong with that!). As Donna Callejon, Chief Business Officer of GlobalGiving cautions: Businesspeople often come into the nonprofit sector thinking it will be easy. It's complex to raise a budget each year, manage time against funder requests, and still stay on course.

Ready to dig in?

You're in great company. Check out the stories of other business students and professionals like Haydee Moreno, who made the move from Wall Street to a Main Street nonprofit financial institution. There is a rich community of people looking to combine their business experience with their passion for social change.

And don't forget to tap into the best job boards available! Idealist.org and the Net Impact Job Board are both free, and could just connect you to your next opportunity.


Namii Wyvern


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Working in non-profit sector can actually be very beneficial as it can offer you great experiences. It will teach you the working principle of an organization and how it operates to meet the goals.
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