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Sector switchers — job candidates who have decided to move from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit world — are increasingly common. Many job seekers I talk to are seeking work that feels more meaningful and mission-driven. But it's not always easy to make the move. Candidates often struggle to frame their experience in a way that makes sense to nonprofit employers and sometimes find it difficult to break through the initial resistance to the fact their background is in a different sector.
In other words, making the leap from the for-profit to non-profit sector requires serious research and preparation as well as changes to the way you talk about yourself and your work. Below are five tips that will help ensure you make the move successfully:
1. Do your homework. Not every nonprofit is going to value and/or know how to leverage the business-world skills you bring to the table. Spend some time learning about the nonprofits in your region and what they do. For extra credit, research the backgrounds of their key leaders, looking for anything that might indicate the organization is open to hiring people from other sectors.
2. Network, network, network. Relentless networking is an absolute must if you hope to be a successful sector switcher. Using the research you've done on the nonprofit leaders in your city or region, create a networking list. Next, figure out who in your own network can connect you to the key people at the nonprofits you're interested in. Finally, prepare an elevator pitch for your own contacts that briefly spells out the kind of job you are looking for, why you are a good fit for the position, and what you are asking your contact to do (introduction? information about a particular organization? resume advice?).
3. Highlight your reasons for switching at every opportunity. One of the biggest hurdles sector switchers face is communicating their reasons for wanting to get into nonprofit sector work. "I want to give back" or "I want to devote myself to something that has meaning" certainly are valid sentiments, but they're probably not enough to convince a hiring manager during an interview that you're the right person for the job. Instead, connect your interest in switching sectors to the organization's specific mission, and make it clear that your transition is part of a well-thought-out plan and not just a whim.
4. Highlight the connections between your previous experience and the work you hope to do in your new career. This is easier for candidates with experience in a specialized function such as IT, finance, or operations. If you have a general management or product development background, it may be less clear why your experience is transferable. In that case, it's important you find a way to demonstrate the transferability of your experience and to frame it so that the nonprofit hiring manager is left with no doubts about your suitability for the position.
5. Be realistic about compensation. Nonprofit salaries have become significantly more competitive in recent years, but they are still lower, in general, than for-profit salaries. Take the time to research the compensation of the highest-paid individuals at any nonprofit you are interested in — information that's included in the organization's 990 tax return, publicly available at sites like and — to make sure your expectations around salary are realistic and in the ballpark.
Together with diligent effort and a little luck, the tips above should help you mount a job search that lands you in a position in the nonprofit sector that is both personally and professionally rewarding. And it doesn't get much better than that!
Molly Brennan is a founding partner at , a national executive search firm dedicated to the nonprofit sector.