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How to Swap Your Corporate Gig for a Non-Profit Career

Almost everyone I know who's been laid off has the same idea: "I want my next job to be meaningful." In their effort to turn a problem into an opportunity, they're now looking for positions in not-for-profits or in charities. But they all have trouble landing jobs, and many resignedly return to the commercial sector, frustrated and disappointed that their good will never translated to purposeful work.

What's the problem? Why is it so hard to cross from the commercial to the charitable sector?

  1. Many people think they want to join a non-profit as a lifestyle change. They imagine it will mean fewer hours, less demanding work and no one will get fired. They're wrong about all of this. Anyone interviewing with the expectation that non-profit life will prove easier won't get hired. "Our strength is that we don't have a bunch of saintly do gooders; we are ruthless capitalists in pursuit of change," says Jane Leu, founder of Upwardly Global. "You have to be ruthless when you're working for social change. We don't think what we do is a soft option. People who've come here with the idea that this is a nicer, gentler option don't do well."
  2. Non-profits can be skeptical that businesspeople know how to make something from nothing. Just because you've managed a $10 million marketing budget doesn't mean you know how to manage a $10,000 one â€"- with no staff. The examples you cite in an interview need to demonstrate entrepreneurship, not corporate muscle.
  3. Many not-for-profits don't know how to translate commercial skills into skills they need. They need the candidate to do this for them. So if you've been in sales, you have to explain: this is fundraising under a different guise. If you've been in marketing, this is the same as running campaigns. If you're being interviewed by someone who's never worked in the commercial sector, make the relevance of your experience utterly explicit.

Does this mean that crossing over to the not-for-profit world is impossible? Absolutely not. But it does mean you need to demonstrate that your interest is real, not just momentary or desperate. A track record in volunteering or managing volunteers may, in this context, be the most important part of your resume. And you have to get over the idea that bringing your expensive corporate skills is doing a favor to the organization you join.

In many ways, the not-for-profit world is much harder than the commercial world. Progress can be slower and far harder to measure. Your opposition and competition may be more numerous and far better funded. It's likely you will be tackling a problem that won't be solved in your lifetime.

This need not mean the change isn't right for you. But it does mean you have to think hard about the transition. What is it you really want? To change jobs â€"- or to change the world?

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