Nonprofit Careers

Part 5: How to Become a Nonprofit Professional

Transitioning from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector

If you are transitioning from the for-profit to nonprofit sector, I would recommend volunteering for nonprofits.  You will gain invaluable networking with the nonprofit staff and also with the other volunteers who are most likely movers and shakers in the nonprofit world.  Volunteer to work on an events committee where you will learn the ins and outs of producing a large charity event.  You will also be working long hours shoulder to shoulder with society ladies who are very well connected in the charity world.  This work could also lead to a potential Board position.

A word of caution, do not volunteer for a nonprofit and expect it to turn into a job.  Nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers to make the organization operate day-to-day, but this does not mean you should get paid for your volunteer job.  Instead, look for opportunities to gain experience to add to your resume that would be marketable when applying for jobs.  Also, look to network yourself with influential volunteers.

There are many wonderful nonprofit executives who made the seamless transition from the for-profit to nonprofit sector:

Michelle Arellano had a successful thirteen-year banking career as vice president when she joined the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest County Board of Directors where she served for three years as Treasurer, Vice-Chair, and Chair.  She was uniquely tied to the organization because she utilized the Clubs’ AM/PM programs for her two boys as a single-working mom.  When the Executive Director resigned, she put in her application for the position.  She saw an opportunity to put her business acumen, coupled with her in-depth knowledge of the Boys & Girls Clubs to expand the community reach of the club.  During her tenure, she successfully managed an operating budget that more than quadrupled to over $2,000,000 and expanded the number of youths served more than seven times to reach 6,000.  She also completed a $17 million capital campaign to build three new clubhouses and renovate the existing two clubhouses — ultimately transforming the organization from a local club to a regional youth development agency.

Karen Begin had worked in the corporate world for 8 years when she transitioned to a job with a nonprofit.  Although she did not have traditional fundraising experience, she shared her past volunteer work raising sponsorships with a theater and let her potential new employer that she could handle the job.  A “can-do” attitude can go a long way.

Often employers will look for a person with the right personality that will fit seamlessly into the organization’s culture. Being positive, smart, articulate, energetic, thoughtful, flexible, and passionate are crucial characteristics in most nonprofit environments. You can convey your confidence and positive attitude through words and body language.

As the current Development Director, Environment and Arts & Culture of at the San Diego Foundation, Ms. Begin recalls that in her first nonprofit position she: “ learned through trial and error, took classes and workshops, asked a million questions, used written resources, and had the benefit of several mentors.”

Consider asking a nonprofit veteran to be your mentor. Look for someone who has worked in nonprofits for a long time and can offer valuable advice from their experience.  In larger organizations, new employees are paired up with seasoned executives within the organization in order to build relationships for career success and reduces turnover and ultimately leads to a stronger more successful organization.  If you are not in a larger organization, you will need to find your own mentor.  Pick someone who will provide trusted counsel and you feel like you can honestly confide in.  Local volunteer organizations and nonprofit management professional organizations often have mentoring programs and can connect you to a mentor.  Mentors also tend to be well connected in the community and may be able to help network you.

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