How to Get a Job in the Non-Profit Sector

Websites like Idealist.org have seen a big boost in job postings recently.

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There’s reason to be optimistic about hiring in the non-profit sector.

In a recent post for Forbes.com, Kerry Hannon shares information about a new Idealist.org survey of 3,000 U.S. nonprofit organizations. "Organizations are planning on hiring more people. Of those who replied, 42 percent plan to hire new positions and nearly half will fill positions that become vacant. Program or service staff are top of the list. ... Administrative, communications, accounting and finance personnel, and technology experts are on the to-be hired scrolls too.” She notes that Idealist, which specializes in non-profit postings, “has had a significant jump in job postings in 2011.”

[See 50 Best Careers for 2011.]

If you are interested in making a switch to non-profit work, 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. She explained how current trends affect how non-profits and their boards hire and what skills job seekers wishing to transition to non-profit jobs should highlight.

Non-Profit Hiring Trends

Gassner Otting explained the following, seismic changes in non-profits in the past five to 10 years that affect hiring practices for non-profit organizations:

1. Non-profit boards have become more focused on metrics, results, and accountability for money spent and invested. As boards have begun to include more venture philanthropists, they are looking for leaders who have a demonstrated track record of delivering a return on their investment. Further, changes in the economy mean contributors to non-profit organizations may not consider themselves “donors,” so much as investors. There is a keen focus on results and being able to demonstrate what impact the organization has on the community it serves.

2. Some non-profits have begun to diversify their revenue streams by actually earning their own income. For example, Haley House, a homeless shelter in Boston, runs a café staffed by people who live there. Residents learn job related skills, and the profits funnel back into the shelter. As non-profit organizations think about turning to this “double bottom line” model, their boards want to hire people who know how to run an organization that earns money.

3. Money available from the government for social innovation allows some non-profit organizations to scale their programs for a larger audience. For example, an organization may be identified as doing a great job providing mentoring to young people, and be offered funds to grow the program to serve clients in another city. As a result, non-profit organizations may seek employees who can help qualify and scale their programs.

Gassner Otting 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. Gassner Otting 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.”

Gassner Otting 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, the non-profit world is a very large sector, 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 working 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.

Miriam Salpeter is a job search and social media consultant, career coach, author, speaker, resume writer and owner of Keppie Careers. She is author of Social Networking for Career Success . Miriam teaches job seekers and entrepreneurs how to incorporate social media tools along with traditional strategies to empower their success. Connect with her via Twitter @Keppie_Careers.