by Laura Gassner Otting

Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector: Shifting Focus from Bottom Line to a Better World

Jul 09, 20076 mins
IT Leadership

Innovation is the name of the game in today's nonprofits.

From every walk of life, at every age and from every professional background, employees in the nonprofit sector wake up each morning to promising, fulfilling and demanding careers, working for issues in which they deeply believe or on behalf of causes they truly love. Some have spent their entire careers in the nonprofit sector. Some are considering the change in midcareer. No longer satisfied just to increase the bottom line, they also want to build a better world. While the transition from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit sector may seem easy in theory, many career changers find that it is quite tricky in practice. Some find themselves flummoxed by foreign lingo, unfamiliar yardsticks of success, antiquated technology or drastic differences in the pace of the work, while others are simply overwhelmed by the sector’s vastness and mission-driven culture. However, with a little assistance in their transition, most find the move into the nonprofit sector to be one of their best life decisions and have wondered, as will you, why they didn’t do it sooner.

The Nonprofit Sector of Today

The nonprofit sector of today is a dynamic, vibrant and vast place, filled with every conceivable kind of person and organization and addressing any need you might imagine. Its employees hold PhDs, MBAs and GEDs and perform work that spans the highly lucrative to the drastically underpaid. The volunteers we remember are still doing their important work—they are the lifeblood of many nonprofits, after all—but they are now more of an army mobilized to accomplish annual campaigns, not the office staff relied upon for daily support and strategic direction.

Innovation is the name of the game in today’s nonprofits. Sure, they still serve the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but today’s nonprofits no longer resemble the organizations of yore. In an exceptionally competitive market for scarce fund-raising dollars, nonprofits increasingly leverage resources for double or even triple plays. Providing beds to a tired and cold family in the middle of winter is a great and noble endeavor, but teaching the mother or father of that family to bake and run a small but profitable café—then funneling those profits back into the purchase of beds and food to benefit more families—is entirely another. This “triple bottom line”—feeding and housing the poor, job skills training and earned-income generation—is the emerging trend in the nonprofit sector, and career changers will likely find their easiest transitions in nonprofits that have embraced this approach.

Finding Your Place in the Nonprofit Sector

There are approximately 1.9 million nonprofit organizations registered with the Internal Revenue Service. Millions more probably exist that are either too small or too informal—those with an annual budget of less than $5,000—to be counted. In total, nonprofits have a combined revenue of $621.4 billion, which represents 6.2 percent of the nation’s economy. An estimated 11.7 million people, or nearly 9 percent of working Americans, are employed in the nonprofit sector. With a sector of such vast breadth and depth, career transitioners need to take a strategic approach to finding their place.

Pinpoint Your Cause

Do you care about saving the whales or teaching children to read? Would you rather fund economic development in villages in sub-Saharan Africa or develop a food bank in your own community? Are you more passionate about creating opportunities for increased access to education or discovering an alternative fuel source?

While many come to the sector wanting generally “to do good,” you likely have a preference among the vast number of needy causes.

Determine Your Approach

The tactical approach of a nonprofit defines both how it raises and how it spends money, just as the tactical approach you wish to take to solve your motivating social cause will define your job search.

Consider the problem of the teenage mother. A nonprofit might do direct service, such as running nutritional counseling workshops or prenatal health care. Another nonprofit might advocate on behalf of young mothers, perhaps lobbying state governments for greater food stamp distribution for those purchasing infant formula. Or a nonprofit might raise or distribute money to be used directly by its constituents, such as giving out day-care vouchers for high school mothers working toward their GED or funding programs that teach mothering skills. Finally, a nonprofit might act as a membership association, gathering together groups of similar individuals for something mutually beneficial, such as pooled health insurance premiums or diaper collections and toy exchanges.

Assess Your Skills

Finally, exactly what are you qualified to do? This is where most job seekers fail. They rely solely on how others have defined them in terms of their day job but forget to look at the broader picture. You likely have gathered skills at work that are readily inventoried, but what about the rest of the hours in your day? What have you done for your child’s school? How have you volunteered in your place of worship? What have you learned along the way through your involvement in neighborhood committees? Have your hobbies or leisure activities lent you expertise relevant to your new career?

Targeting Information Technology Positions

Given that nonprofits tend to lag far behind their for-profit counterparts in structures and systems, it probably won’t surprise you to know that many nonprofits lump administrative, financial and operations functions together in one or just a few individuals. This is where the attraction of the nonprofit sector to generalists is the strongest. That said, larger nonprofits have begun investing more and more in their infrastructure, and the result has been a more professionalized view of the administrative, financial and operations functions of their organizations.

Nonprofits more and more are bringing IT experts in-house, an acknowledgment that their work is becoming increasingly data and technology driven. The crossover of skills in this area is clear, although corporate transitioners may be shocked at the rudimentary technology they discover on their nonprofit desk. Career changers will find that, despite a few new compliance rules to learn, their most natural transition happens in the operations, administration, finance and information technology areas.


Laura Gassner Otting is the author of the new book, Change Your Career: Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector (Kaplan Publishing, May 2007). She is also the founder and president of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group and served as a presidential appointee for the White House Office of National Service, a program officer for the Corporation for National Service, and as a member of the Clinton-Gore transition team and 1992 election team.