Mission Driven: Transitioning to a Non-Profit Career

6 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

[Editor's note -- Are you looking for work with a purpose? This week the Reinvent Yourself series looks at what it takes to switch to a career with a charity or other non-profit organization. Because you can do well by doing good. -- Michelle V. Rafter]

If you're thinking of a career transition, especially if you are close to the traditional retirement years, there are many issues you'll want to consider before making a move. During this transition, consider: Are you actually in the sunrise stage of your career? A New York Times article by Eileen Zimmerman outlines a variety of questions to consider for people considering retiring.

Sunrise image by papalars via Flickr

Zimmerman quotes David D. Corbett, founder of New Directions, a Boston firm that helps senior-level executives with career transitions saying, "People retiring lose their job and title, which are often tied up with their identity," Corbett says. "It can also be isolating for many, not having work colleagues or a corporate infrastructure."

The article references Gary J. Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, who explains, "Traditional retirement may lead to a lack of intellectual engagement, which is crucial for good health ... If you think of the brain as a computer, physical and mental activity are essentially upgrading its hardware and programming." As Dr. Kennedy explains, if we don't stay engaged, cognitive processes slow down and depression often sets in.

Most people would want to avoid those unsavory fates. What can you do?

Marc Freedman, author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife and chief executive of Civic Ventures suggests planning ahead for a transition as early as your 50s. He recommends putting aside money to pay for additional education and being prepared to take on unpaid work experiences to get the skills you need to land a new opportunity.

What else can you consider if you know you don't want to relax and play golf?

In recent posts, I've been suggesting ideas for people who want to plan a change, especially to an "encore career," or a job combining purpose, passion and a paycheck. Have you considered transitioning to a non-profit career?

Think about Your Skills and How to Use Them

Laura Gassner Otting, author of Change Your Career, Transitioning to the Non-Profit Sector, and founder and president of Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, an executive search firm helping identify candidates for the non-profit sector, is an experienced authority on hiring in the "mission-driven" space. Her advice is useful for people considering an encore career, or for anyone thinking of making a change to meaningful work.

Laura offered the following advice to professionals hoping to transition to non-profit sector work:

  • Non-profits are looking for people who have a strong track record of leadership and the ability to influence their constituencies. She explained, non-profit leaders manage, "up, down, and sideways." They need to work with partners, funders and friends in the community and manage those relationships well, even though most of these people are not their direct reports.
  • It's important to be able to show you're able to keep people motivated and engaged. Non-profits seek employees who are good at delegating with kindness and empathy, while simultaneously demanding accountability. Recognize that people volunteer and serve with non-profit groups for different reasons. Strong leaders know how to bring out the best in everyone and how to leverage all available talents.
  • Demonstrating your ability to manage across a broad portfolio of responsibility is key to success in non-profit leadership. There are typically less people handling more jobs in non-profit organizations. For example, one person may be handling public relations and fundraising under an "external relations manager" title. Knowing how to encourage people managing a lot of responsibility is crucial.
  • Being able to show an impressive record of delivering a solid return on investment is not only for the for-profit community. Demonstrating a background showing how you can move the organization's mission forward is more and more important as non-profit organizations are attracting donors who see their roles as that of investors, not just check writers.

One thing that has not changed in non-profit hiring: They still expect people who bring a passionate interest in their work and mission. It's not good enough to say you want to "give back," you need to demonstrate a track record of interest and engagement in the organization's work. Laura explains, "Your passion and commitment for the organization and cause is the thing that sets you apart from other candidates." She suggests joining boards and getting involved by volunteering for the organization or other, similar non-profits serving the same community.

She notes, "Working for a non-profit is like starting a marathon. You have to be committed long-term, even when the finish line is out of sight. The need of those served can be seemingly endless, and you will have to do more for them with less, while still satisfying your many, varied constituents. A track record of dedication to the cause or constituency demonstrates an authentic commitment, and this commitment shows your future nonprofit employer that you will take their marathon seriously."

Laura suggests anyone with an interest in making a switch to non-profit work get active now in the causes that interest them. She reminds candidates that the non-profit world is a very large and suggests you think about where you want to work by answering these questions:

  • What issues do you care about?
  • What are the appropriate skills you have to help transition into the sector (e.g., legal, sales, financial management)? What's missing from your skills? Consider taking a course to fill in any gaps in your background.
  • What type of organization will help you thrive? Do you prefer working for an organization that's slow and steady? A fast-growing group? Maybe you'd love working with a startup, or directly for a founder?

Once you've identified your skills and made a match, you'll be ready to approach the non-profit market from a position of strength.

Be sure to read more tips in my recent post on making a change to a meaningful career.

Miriam Salpeter, MA, is owner of Keppie Careers and author of Social Networking for Career Success (Learning Express, 2011). She teaches job seekers and entrepreneurs how to leverage social media, writes resumes, creates websites (social resumes) and helps clients succeed with their goals. Miriam is an expert source for CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other media outlets. Learn more via Miriam's job search and social media blog and find her on Twitter, Facebook,Google+ and Pinterest.


Kaplan University provides a practical, student-centered education that prepares individuals for careers in some of the fastest-growing industries. The University, which has its main campus in Davenport, Iowa, and its headquarters in Chicago, is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission (www.ncahlc.org). It serves more than 53,000 online and campus-based students. The University has 11 campuses in Iowa, Nebraska, Maryland and Maine, and Kaplan University Learning Centers in Maryland, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and Florida.

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