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Best Ways to Get a Job at a Nonprofit

Useful advice from the author of 'Mission Driven'

When I speak to job seekers over 50 who’ve spent their careers in the business world, they often say they’d love to work at a nonprofit that would let them tap their skills and truly make a difference.

Heck, in the past week, I’ve even had unprompted conversations with my sister, brother and best girlfriend — all in their mid to late 50s — about the kind of work they want to do at this stage, as they prepare to transition from their corporate jobs. It all comes down to making the world a better place.

Maybe you, too, are eager to shift out of the corporate world and into the nonprofit sector so you can give back and leave a legacy. Your timing is excellent.

Outlook for Hiring at Nonprofits

The 2015 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey by the Nonprofit HR consulting firm found that 50 percent of the 362 nonprofits it queried anticipate creating new positions this year, up from 19 percent in 2009. Hiring is expected to be especially robust among public/social benefit, health, human services and environmental/animal groups.

Breaking down your entire career and the jobs that you have held will yield a fruitful dossier for your nonprofit job search.

— Laura Gassner Otting

“The nonprofit sector is burgeoning with opportunities for career changers,” says Laura Gassner Otting, author of the excellent new book Mission Driven: Moving from Profit to Purpose  and its companion guide, The Mission Driven Handbook: A Resource for Moving from Profit to Purpose.  “In fact, it is experiencing an influx of corporate career changers. Baby boomers are looking to make their final professional chapters about meaning.”

I’ve admired Otting for a number of years; in fact, she’s become a go-to nonprofit jobs expert for many of my columns and books. Based in Boston, Otting is the founder of Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group,  a national executive search firm that has helped place senior-level professionals at nonprofits ranging from The American Red Cross to Encore.org.

I just interviewed Otting for advice on how job seekers over 50 can find a place at nonprofits. Highlights:

Next Avenue: Lots of people in midlife want to be do-gooders, but are at a loss for where to start. What do you suggest?

Otting: One way is volunteering for a nonprofit. It not only allows a job seeker to appear credible in his or her job search, it also allows the person to determine if the nonprofit sector is a good fit.

AARP’s Experience Corps and the federal government’s Senior Corps have been founded with the express intent of providing significant volunteer experience with demonstrable results. Programs that provide long-term, direct service or where you can volunteer in central office administrative work are a good way of testing your mettle for this type of work, your dedication to the mission, and the level at which you’d like to do it.

Where can boomers go for guidance about working at nonprofits?

The nonprofit sector is standing up and taking notice of the baby boomers. In fact, many nonprofits have been created to help ease these energetic, active, and interested professionals into a second career in the nonprofit sector. In short, these groups make the beginning of a transition easier.

Encore.org, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, is leading the charge. Its recent research has shown that Americans in the second half of life — regardless of income, educational level, or race — want to explore options for the next stage of life; retool skills, obtain new training, or pursue educational interests; use their skills and experience in flexible work or service opportunities and make meaningful connections with their peers and their community.

The Next Chapter, an initiative of Encore.org, was created to provide expertise and assistance to community groups across the country that help people in the second half of life set a course, connect with peers, and find pathways to significant service.

Will corporate skills transfer to the nonprofit sector?

The transition to the nonprofit sector will teach any job seeker that professional experience, education, individual skills, and personal interests all become important and relevant parts of the mix.

None of these categories is mutually exclusive of another and each brings skills that will transfer well.

For example, people educated as lawyers don’t necessarily need to practice law on behalf of nonprofits. Lawyers learn to negotiate, mediate, research, and apply critical thinking. Some have managed law practices with significant budgets and staff and have had to rid themselves of any shyness about asking for money. A good lawyer will have developed the ability to talk to lay audiences and patience with bureaucratic systems. Combine that with the desire to change a community, state, or country, and you have yourself a pretty powerful nonprofit leader.

Laura Gassner Otting Author and Book Embed

That’s just one example. Breaking down your entire career and the jobs that you have held will yield a fruitful dossier for your nonprofit job search.

Any there any certificates or advanced training that will help people stand out from other candidates?

Education is only one part of the equation. Your passion is what can set you apart from other candidates.

Degrees that teach skills — such as programs on nonprofit management, fundraising, accounting and operations — though, are easily attainable and can make sense strategically.

This type of education provides you with a current nonprofit peer group, access to a career center,and a mind filled with the best nonprofit thinking of the day.

There are hundreds of programs ranging from certificates to full undergraduate and graduate degrees in almost every city in the country.

How should someone with a corporate career do a resumé rehab to get hired by a nonprofit?

There is a whole chapter in my Mission Driven Handbook dedicated to just the resumé rehab. But I can tell you that the biggest mistake I see from boomers is a discounting of a life of unpaid work.

A resumé is an opportunity to tell potential employers what you can do by showing them what you have done. But this is more difficult with corporate transitioners who need to write a resumé that details more about where they are going than where they have been.

Think about your career change to the nonprofit sector in terms of functional expertise rather than subject area expertise.

When is the right time to transition to a nonprofit? If you’re nearing 60, is it too late?

Your children may have left the nest, you may have a sick relative, you may be unable to stomach one more day of corporate profiteering or you may have benefited greatly from your career and can now write your own rules. Everyone has their reasons, and all of them are real and valid.

However, only some of them should influence your job search.

The timing must have everything to do with how a particular job, including the lifestyle and financial considerations that come with it, play into your life at this time.

Perhaps your company is downsizing, and this is a move you have always desired. Perhaps you are a board member for a nonprofit whose chief executive just announced plans for retirement. Perhaps you are just coming back to work after raising your children and because of that life-transforming experience, you realize that you cannot go back to the job you held before.

Realizing why this is the right time for you, for your family, and for your bank account is key to deciding which kind of job to seek.

But, as you can tell, there is no wrong time — only wrong amounts of preparation.

The key to the move is being able to answer three key questions:

  • What is the motivating social cause or cause(s) you wish to serve?
  • What skills have you gathered in your paid and unpaid work that can transition to the nonprofit sector?
  • Which types of environments allow you to best thrive?

Once you know the answers to those questions, you can begin your transition.

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