The For-Profit to Non-Profit Career Switch

Would it surprise you to learn that a LOT of the folks I’m working with today (and I suspect the same is true of other career coaches) are expressing strong interest in the possibility of making a career switch from the for-profit to the non-profit sector?

Predictably, when things get tough in corporate world, a healthy contingent of private sector workers usually seek to “escape” to what they perceive to be the less fickle, political, and hard-charging world of not-for-profits.  Additionally, given the huge cohort of older workers currently in transition, it’s also likely that this trend reflects a shift in priorities among many professionals of the Baby Boom generation — and the desire of such individuals to find work they feel is more meaningful and will allow them to leave more of a legacy, versus just taking yet another “rat race” position to meet material needs.

At any rate, whatever the exact reasons might be, the observation remains the same: there seem to be quite a few folks at the moment who are currently seeking to transition from the private sector into the non-profit world.   To this audience, I’d pass along a quick list of five “do’s and dont’s” to consider in making this switch:

1) DO think hard about your underlying reasons/motivations before deciding to pursue a non-profit career.  If you’re running away from the for-profit world due to the perceived stress levels or a lack of success at getting re-hired back in that arena, you may well discover that the non-profit sector is an even MORE competitive area to break into, in many respects, and that the same politics and stress levels that exist in “corporate America” exist in the non-profit world, as well.  People are people, after all.  So if you really feel a call to shift your career into the non-profit world, for the right reasons, go for it — but don’t do it lightly or as an avoidance mechanism!

2) DON’T imply to non-profits that they’d be “lucky to have you” or that you can “fix them” by bringing in all of your terrific for-profit best practices.  Most executives in the non-profit world go to school for years to learn their craft — and won’t be terribly impressed by a person who comes waltzing into their world, not knowing the first thing about it, but who somehow thinks they’ve got all the answers.  Remember, the people who lead non-profits are responsible for pretty much all the same things that a private sector executive has to be responsible for — but typically have to execute their leadership vision in a resource-starved environment, based largely on volunteer help and the whims of grants and private donors!

3) DO lots of homework and figure out exactly where you fit in the non-profit world. What non-profit niches best resonate with your values?  What organizations are working on a mission you strongly support?  What actual paid roles exist in these organizations that would fit your skills?  Recently, I chatted with one individual who was focused on finding an “operations management” position within the non-profit world, but after some extensive poking around, we weren’t able to find much evidence that these types of roles exist in any real numbers within the non-profit sector — even after running a nationwide sweep!  So one of your first steps should be to actually get out and talk to some non-profits to learn more about their needs, organizational chart, and where you might best plug into their efforts.

4) DON’T assume that working for a non-profit is going to be a rose garden or that your days will suddenly become filled with purpose, meaning, and fulfillment simply because the organization you’ve joined happens to enjoy 501(c)3 tax status.  While some non-profits certainly boast an inspiring, mission-driven culture, employees at many other non-profits report the same feelings of “its just a job” as do their counterparts in the for-profit world.  So if you’re seeking meaning in your work, don’t automatically assume that working for a non-profit is the ticket.  There are many for-profit companies that can give you this feeling, too, if you hunt for them.  For some additional thoughts on this subject, take a quick peek here at an article I wrote several years ago about the Gates Foundation.

5) DO get involved and show a willingness to pay your dues. Many non-profits tend to hire directly from their existing pool of volunteers, supporters, and board members, since this gives them the chance to evaluate the fit of individuals with their organizational culture, as well as assess somebody’s talents in actual practice, along the lines of an internship.  So once you identify a few non-profits whose mission you can really get behind, don’t wait for a paycheck.  Get involved!  Find a way to contribute your abilities to these entities and start building up some “face time” with the powers-that-be in these organizations.

Last, and certainly not least, one of my acquaintances recently sent me a great article from the Stanford Graduate School of Business that outlines the distinct differences between management/leadership in the corporate sector versus the not-for-profit world.  You’ll find this article here and I’d highly recommend you read it, and take its advice to heart, if you’re a for-profit manager seeking to make the leap to non-profits — or vice versa!


4 Responses to “The For-Profit to Non-Profit Career Switch”

  1. Another great article, Matt.

    For those that reflect on their priorities/motivation for the change, as you’ve recommended and are determined to make the switch, the folks at have written a great, free, downloadable e-book – The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector Switchers –

    Enjoy your vacation!!


  2. Ginny: Much thanks for your input and kind words — and to echo your point, yes, Bridgestar is another terrific source of information about careers in the non-profit world! Anybody serious about working in that sector should definitely take advantage of Bridgestar and the many similar research sources out there like it. The topic of non-profit careers is enormous and my article was simply attempting to spotlight a few COMMON mistakes and misperceptions I often see people conducting as they approach that world, especially if they’re trying to transition into it from the private sector…

  3. Ginny Schlosser June 18, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks for writing these helpful tips for people considering making the switch. Another great source is the website. It’s full of articles, advice, thoughtful questions, etc. They also have a monthly newsletter that you can sign up for to keep the helpful information coming.

    I originally saw this post via the FENG newsletter, and I always enjoy reading your contributions there.


  4. Amen, Matt! Having just come from the not-for-profit sector, I can testify you hit the nail on the head.

    People are people is so true! You don’t necessarily run into the planet’s nicest folk who are there because they are wonderful, altruistic, dedicated-to-the-cause, and have halos floating above their heads (any more than you’d find the opposite in the corporate world). The pressures, expectations and stresses are every bit as great as in the private sector – sometimes even more because you’re working for the cause!

    And resources truly can be scarce, but that doesn’t necessarily matter with regard to the expectations.

    Despite the above, I don’t regret for a minute my two tours through not-for-profit – my heart was in the right place… but I’ll bet almost everyone who’s never been there goes in with rose-colored glasses that will come off pretty fast.

    Thanks for the insightful post! -Mark

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