Matching for-profit skills to nonprofit jobs

by Rebecca Worters

I think it's a great trend that people are really starting to feel their work should make a difference and that many are acting on that by transitioning to nonprofit jobs.

At my search services firm for nonprofits, we generally approach a potential for-profit hire by looking for analogous skills.

So for someone in a sales position, we might liken that to a fundraising position. We look at the sub-skills of each particular job to see if they match what the nonprofit needs.

There are a lot of skills that are transferrable, but a lot of the trick is in the way a candidate presents those skills.

If a candidate uses business terminology to explain what she's done, that's going to fall on deaf ears when applying for nonprofit positions.

I think the biggest barrier, even when a candidate presents skills in way that's understandable, is the unwillingness of many nonprofits to take a chance with a for-profit person.

Nonprofits know that there is a different culture in their organizations than in many for-profit companies.

For instance, it's hard to make fast decisions and do it in a hierarchical manner in a nonprofit.

Some people in for-profits may assume that they can come in and do that, which could quickly alienate the nonprofit's staff, donors, board members and bosses.

And you know, sometimes there's a certain arrogance that comes from the for-profit sector.

That's not true for everyone, but a number of people seem to have the attitude: "I've been running a $1 billion company; I can come in here and run this little organization with my hands tied behind my back."

What they find out is that it's not just about the mechanics of managing.

It's also about building relationships and including everyone in decision-making processes.

Rebranding the for-profit résumé

There are a number of things that someone thinking of making the switch to nonprofit work could do to better position herself in the hiring process.

  • Do your research. Just as in any job interview preparation process, you should get to know your potential hirer very well. People can get a good feel for what is going on in the nonprofit world by immersing themselves in publications that focus on the sector. Visit websites that have a wealth of nonprofit news and reflect a nonprofit culture.
  • Get educated. Take some courses in a certificate program that offers nonprofit classes. Many universities offer them in their continuing education departments.
    It's important to learn from people who have been in the sector. Taking classes also shows that you're really serious about making the switch. It's really obvious when someone gets laid off and says halfheartedly, "Oh, sure, I would be willing to take a job in the nonprofit sector."
  • Have realistic expectations. Don't expect to come in at the top if you're making a switch. And don't expect the same pay.

Executive hiring
Recently, many larger nonprofits are looking to for-profit firms when hiring for executive positions.

A lot of boards are made up of business people who have a perception that someone from the business world can come in and do the job well.

I think it's very important to check how board perceptions balance with the opinions of staff members: Does a particular for-profit candidate have the style we think would be successful?

Even if it's a change your organization is seeking, you still have to have a solid base of productive employee-executive collaboration in order to make that change.


Rebecca Worters is founder and director of Capability Company, an executive recruiting firm based in Raleigh, N.C. that works with nonprofits.

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