Changing Sectors: Moving from the Corporate to the Non-Profit World

As a student of history I can remember reading of persons, out of power, who were able to launch an idea, and relaunch their prominence, with a letter to The Times.  Who knew that Letters to the Editor still garner responses?

In this month’s issue of Fast Company a letter of mine was published in which I mention that, daily, individuals working in the for-profit sector contact me about moving to the non-profit sector.  The reason is always the same, “I’m fed up with the rat race.”  I laugh and explain that all they will be doing is changing one set of frustrations with another and that in any case, it is a very difficult thing to do.

Of course, in the Letter I was not able to explain how to actually make the transfer.  Judging by the number of responses I have received, perhaps it would be of service to explain just how to change sectors.

This is totally fictitious but totally accurate.  If Jack Welch were to apply to be the executive of a non-profit, they would look at his resume, say that he only had one employer, has no non-profit experience, and throw the resume away.  I have given that example to numerous non-profit board members.  They all react the same: they laugh and nod in agreement.

Non-profits like to hire people who have non-profit experience.  They do not like to take risks.  Hiring corporate professionals is a risk.  It’s silly.  It’s stupid.  It’s true.

The key, therefore, is to find a way to overcome their concerns.  If you are an IT professional, you’re lucky.  Most non-profits don’t know enough about IT to reject corporate candidates.  After all, a computer is a computer, a monitor is a monitor, a cable is a cable, and software is software.  What does it matter if you worked for Crain’s or for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation?  Who cares?

But that’s as far as it goes.  For everyone else, marketers, communications professionals, accountants, program directors, executives, etc., not having worked for a non-profit will be held against you.  Even if you have a proven record of effective decision making and leadership, they won’t want to take the risk.  Results don’t count.  I’ve had highly successful sales people rejected for fundraising positions.  You might think that skills are transferrable, but too few non-profits agree.

So how do you lower the resistance of non-profit boards and executives to hiring persons with no non-profit experience?  Volunteer.  If you have been providing pro bono services to a non-profit, that non-profit’s executive will be able to sing your praises, lower the prospective non-profit employer’s resistance, and hopefully get you the interview.  Then it is all up to you.  Focus on mission.  Give examples of innovations.  Let them know what you can do with a small staff and a tight budget.

Good luck!