1. Nonprofits have all the same types of jobs as the for-profit sector—and then some. Just like businesses, nonprofits need accountants, web designers, managers, editors, and I.T. specialists, so there’s a good chance that whatever you do now has a counterpart in the nonprofit sector. On top of that, nonprofits have additional roles too, like volunteer organizers, fundraisers, and grant writers.
2. Nonprofits have fewer resources. Often—but not always—you’ll find nonprofit organizations have less money for salaries, plush office space, staff expansion, training, and other resources that help an organization run smoothly. It’s common for nonprofits to be understaffed, so you might be expected to wear several different hats. And if you’ve been working in the for-profit sector (as opposed to being straight out of college), you should probably expect a pay cut.
3. Passion matters. Like any employer, nonprofits screen candidates for skills and the ability to do the job well. But they also look for people who are really interested in their organization in particular—someone who specifically wants to work there, or on the issue they work on. They often look for employees who won’t see work as a 9-to-5 job, but who will really care about what they’re doing. That means they’ll be more likely to put in extra hours, go the extra mile, or make do with limited resources.
4. But passion will only get you so far. If you have passion for the issue but lack the skills to do the job well, that passion won’t take you very far. Be prepared to show you have the experience and skills to excel.
5. Your cover letter is key. Your cover letter is always important, but especially so for a nonprofit job. Use it to talk about why you care about the issue and the organization.
6. Drop the jargon. Make sure your resume doesn’t contain jargon that won’t make sense outside your industry. (You should do this for any job, of course. But particularly when applying at nonprofits, industry jargon can mark you as someone who won’t adapt well to the culture.)
7. Speak the language. Nonprofits have different terminology than the for-profit sector. For instance, you’re seeking work with their organization, not with their company. (Nonprofits aren’t companies.) They deal with donors, not shareholders or customers, and they often have an executive director rather than a CEO.
8. There’s a different bottom line. In business, the bottom line is financial. For nonprofits, it’s about having a positive effect in the world. You’ll be expected to share that perspective too, which can often mean longer hours at lower pay.
9. Make it clear up-front that you know what you’re getting into. If you’re moving into nonprofit work from the business world, hiring managers will appreciate knowing that you’re prepared for the differences you may encounter, particularly when it comes to pay structure.
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10. Don’t believe the myths. While some nonprofits fit the stereotype of having a more laid-back, less rigorous culture, that doesn’t apply to all organizations. There are plenty of fast-paced, demanding nonprofits; in fact, there’s a growing movement in that direction. And that's good news for everyone who cares about making a difference in the world.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.