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Navigating Your Nonprofit Career

Whether you're seeking to enter the nonprofit sector, transitioning from the business world or trying to move up into a leadership position, we have the information and resources to help you advance your nonprofit career.

Entering the nonprofit sector

People successfully enter the nonprofit sector through a variety of avenues and at various times in their lives.  They may become engaged as a volunteer or community organizer, serve in a program like VISTA, AmeriCorps or an internship, or prepare through academic programs that focus on nonprofit management. Some people are just looking for a job and happen into the nonprofit sector accidentally.

The sector is fairly open to newcomers of any age.  Many people come into nonprofit work later in life after having careers in government, education, or business or after their families are grown.  They are often motivated to give back to their community or may want a radical change from the kind of work they did in their previous career.

Volunteering

Many people enter the nonprofit sector after volunteering. Volunteer experience in an organization can give you insight into issues and problems nonprofits are trying to solve. It can also help you develop skills that are relevant to working in the sector. Serving on a board of directors can give you a broad understanding on a nonprofit, a subsector like human services, arts and culture or education, and the financial structure of nonprofits.

Community activism, such as organizing your neighbors to support or oppose a government proposal can also provide a route into nonprofit work.

Nonprofit value volunteer work so you should always disclose your volunteer or community organizing background on job applications and refer to our experience and lessons learned from your volunteer endeavors.

Sector Switchers

There are many people who decide that they want to enter the nonprofit field because they are seeking an opportunity to have an impact on a cause they care about or they want to feel that they are helping others and making a personal contribution.

While the sector is quite open to these "sector switchers"  including older people who are crafting encore careers for themselves, it is important to be aware that there is significant specialized knowledge required to be successful in the nonprofit sector, especially in leadership roles. Many arenas such as accounting, technology, and human resources have specific rules, requirements and conditions that must be learned for a professional to be competent in the sector.

The funding model for most nonprofits is very difficult for people with a business background to understand. The simplest way to explain it is that businesses make more money when they sell more products or services. Nonprofit generally lose money with each additional service they deliver.  Unabated resource constraints and elongated decision processes complicated by board oversight can confound people from business careers.

Before you apply for jobs, if you are transitioning from business to nonprofit, heed the advice of this career coach: 5-Mistakes To Avoid If You Want a Nonprofit Job.

Career growth

Jobs for a specific job title are often quite different depending on the size of the organization.  About 75% of nonprofits have budgets of less than $1 million.  This makes determining a career ladder to a specific type of job difficult.  People often make lateral moves to increasingly larger organizations in order to advance their careers since there is little upward mobility in small nonprofits.

Want to move from being part of the program staff to becoming a supervisor? Or a manager into a director? Or a director into the executive director? Check out the Free Management Library's Leadership Development Planning page, a list of curated resources, reading material, and activities that will help you advance your career.