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Careers

How to Switch Careers:
Rewards Not Profit

What you need to know to break into a new industry, land a government job or join a nonprofit.

In 2008, large nonprofit organizations were hiring senior managers at a collective rate of 49,000 a year. The sector slowed when the economy tanked. Still, some signs are encouraging. A quarterly labor-market survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 24% of nonprofits surveyed added workers in the third quarter of 2009, the highest rate of all sectors surveyed. And the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit-advisory firm, projects long-term shortages of up to 640,000 managers by 2016, as workers retire and organizations grow larger.

Nearly three-fourths of nonprofits surveyed by Bridgespan said they value for-profit experience. Skills most in demand include project management, stretching scarce resources, flexibility and adaptability.

That skill set certainly fits Jody Sherman’s job at Harlem United, a community-based organization serving people who are homeless and who may be HIV positive, mentally ill or struggling with substance abuse. Sherman, a 48-year-old New Yorker, left her job negotiating contracts for hospital services at a large insurance company. After working with reinvention guru Mitchell, Sherman applied for a position at Harlem United. She didn’t get it. Instead, last August, Harlem United offered Sherman a newly created position, tailored for her, running a federally funded health program. “That would never happen at a big corporation,” says Sherman. In the private sector, “if you don’t fit the job description to a T, you’re out of luck.”

Given the economy, the hottest nonprofit job is fund-raising. The careers page at the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Web site (www.philanthropy.com/jobs) recently listed 262 fund-raising positions. Jobs that translate well from the for-profit sector include senior positions in marketing and finance.

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Job boards such as the Chronicle’s can yield good leads. Other helpful Web sites include Bridgestar.org (Bridgespan’s recruiting arm), Idealist.org, which includes listings of nonprofit job fairs, and OpportunityKnocks.org. The National Council of Non-profits runs its own job board (www.councilofnonprofits.org) and links to state nonprofit-association listings, many with their own job boards.

Fortunately for job seekers of a certain age, nonprofits are favorably disposed toward baby-boomers. Visit www.civicventures.org for more on fellowship and training programs to help boomers land nonprofit careers.

The best way for applicants of all ages to get a foot in the door is to volunteer. “Volunteer experience should be included on your résumé if it’s not there, it’s a red flag,” says Cydnee Dubrof, a Bridge-span senior director.

Salaries at nonprofits are rarely generous. Even if that’s not an issue for you, you may have to prove it’s not an issue to those doing the hiring. Be prepared to show that you’re passionate about the mission and that the job isn’t just a port in a stormy labor market.

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You’ll get ahead if you can bring a business discipline to a nonprofit’s operations. But authoritarian-style execs need not apply. Nonprofits are typically collaborative and consensus-driven; you’ll have to show you can motivate diverse groups over whom you might have little authority.

“Fitting in” is paramount. You may be asked to attend a corporate social function. “It sounds goofy, but it’s true,” says Sherman. “If your personality is a fit, the job’s a fit.” When you do click, it can mitigate the sting of a smaller paycheck or the long hours of nonprofit work. Says Sherman: “Everyone here is so dedicated, you don’t feel resentful at pitching in.”