Thinking About Switching to the Non-Profit Sector? Four Essential Tips.

For better or worse, economic realities demand that most of us need to earn a living. Now, you’d have to agree that it would be wonderfully ideal if ours jobs encouraged us to get out of bed every morning, rather than further motivate us to lethargically mash the snooze button.

So what would help us look forward to the new workday? Well, it depends who you ask. Perhaps it would be intellectual stimulation. For others, it be may be interacting with interesting people. Some may cite a purely financial incentives. And the list goes on…

But for one group of Brits – over 600,000 of them – it’s trying to make the world a genuinely better place.

Over the past ten years, the not-for-profit sector has enjoyed a stunning rejuvenation. Operations are smoother. Campaigns are more creative. And more impact is being made. And funding? Well, funding could always be better.

Part of the sector’s development can be attributed to the  trend of recruiting staff from the corporate world. The organisation takes advantage of fresh perspectives, while the new staff enjoy tremendous satisfaction utilising their talents and experiences to benefit the broader community. And not just shareholders.

With a background in global marketing, Paul Bernstein, Managing Director of A.R.K (Absolute Return for Kids), has spent the past six years helping transform children’s lives. “I saw an opportunity to bring the business skills that I had from the commercial sector to a charity that wanted to do an enormous amount of good.”

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But mere corporate experience is by no means a guarantee that one will find a career in the non-profit sector. A potential candidate still needs to carefully and thoughtfully prepare a pathway.

Four Tips for Making the Successful Switch to the Non-Profit Sector

1. What cause(s) do you feel passionately about?

Of course, you’ll feel far more motivated working for something you truly believe in. As Paul Bernstein observes: “[at this stage], looking for the place that fits your values is really what people should be focused on doing.”

You’re also more likely to be successful in securing a job if you can honestly demonstrate your passion for the orginisation’s cause. When interviewing, Paul makes a point of determining the applicants ideological fit. “We’re really keen to see people’s passion. As a children’s charity it really matters to us that people believe in and want to achieve something really different for children.”

2. Don’t be tempted to try make the quick switch.

You’ll now be far more successful securing an interview by sending in your CV if you know contacts within the organisation. How do you make the connections? Try volunteering for a period of time. Not only will you build up a network, you’ll also get a taste for the organisation’s operations and culture. You can also think about how would you best plug into this organisation, if at all.

Additionally, you may be surprised to find out that working for a non-profit isn’t as enjoyable or meaningful as you thought it would be – and that’s a positive outcome.

3. Refresh your CV.

a. Tone down the corporate-speak. Nonprofits generally enjoy a more down-to-earth culture. As such, any attempt to dazzle your interviewer with corporate jargon will come across as pretentious.

b. Increase your CV’s emphasis on volunteer work and extra-curricular activities. Nonprofits want to see that you’re serious about community involvement. Paul Bernstein explains that extra-curricular activities and community involvement tell him about who the candidates are, what they believe in, and where their passions lie. But of course your professional achievement must still remain your CV’s focus.

c. Demonstrate your flexibility. As anyone in the sector will tell you, it’s often a case of ‘all-hands-on-deck.’ Your CV needs to demonstrate you’re capable of performing duties beyond your immediate speciality, and prove that you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty.

4. Understand your limitations as well as your understand your strengths.

Remember, just because you have a background in the corporate world, doesn’t mean that you have all the answers. Your interviewer will be well used to haughty corporate-candidates. Appreciate you’re entering into a new industry of which you may know very little about. Prepare a genuinely modest, focused and succinct answer to the inevitable interview question: ‘why are you interested in making the switch to non-profit?’ And mean it.

ARK is an international charity whose purpose is to transform children's lives.

While the prospect of utilising ones energies towards sheltering the homeless or campaigning for the ill may sound enticingly rewarding, idealists looking to make the switch must be aware that there are disadvantages. Do you research. And when you speak to people in the industry, ask what the down sides are. For one, they’ll be sure to warn you to be prepared to earn a level below your would-be corporate counterparts.

But Paul Bernstein and others weren’t deterred, believing career satisfaction isn’t governed by one’s pay cheque, but by one’s values. “[People need to think about] what is it that is going to get them out of bed in the morning.”

And for some, what ones gives to the world may be worth far more than what one receives back.

A free Innovate CV can help you get the job you always wanted. Find out how we can help you with your job search!


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10 Comments on “Thinking About Switching to the Non-Profit Sector? Four Essential Tips.”

  1. Erika Medina Rueda
    September 1, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    I am very impressed by your artice. I am trying to take a career path to a more meaninful sector.

    • Jenny Oppenheimer
      September 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

      A good article. I made the switch a couple of years ago and would add two other tips:
      1. Be prepared to accept a job that might not initially use your full set of skills. The benefit is that it is a foot in the door. As with other sectors, charities like to see that you have experience of working in the area and accepting a lower position also shows that your committment.
      2. Get a relevant qualification if possible. It doesn’t have to be a degree but just something to emphasise your interest.

      • September 6, 2010 at 5:22 am #


        Thanks for sharing, given your experiences.

        What differences have you found in the corporate and non-profit cultures? Do you think any differences are eroding, as time goes on?

    • September 6, 2010 at 5:23 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Erika! Good luck with your job search!

  2. September 7, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    Thanks – a really useful article.
    Another route into the 3rd sector from the corporate sector is through secondment or volunteering days. I am currently on secondment from BT to a charity called I CAN. I have learnt so much about the organisation, the issue and the 3rd sector so far. However, not all corporations are able to offer secondments but many will include volunteer days as part of their CSR policy. This is worth pursuing with the CSR Dept/HR Dept as these schemes are great for the charities and for the corporate emplotees involved in the scheme.

  3. Jo-Ann Harris
    September 8, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    Thanks for this very insightful article.

  4. Lindsey Firth
    September 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    I have recently been made redundant and after having had an involvement with a couple of charitable organisations on a voluntary basis, I am thinking of making the switch from the commercial sector, as a career, so this article is really useful – thank you!

  5. Mike Denny
    September 16, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    So many positives about coming into charity from the commercial sector especially in fundraising. So many obvious transferable skills. But yes, it is initially a big shock to the system and sometimes frustrating but I would not change it for the world and 10 years on no regrets.

  6. Liz Lesquereux
    September 17, 2010 at 8:32 am #

    Language is important here – the not for profit sector is really everything that isn’t privately or publicly owned, and I think it’s important to understand the range and scope of the sector – charities can be rich multi-nationals, social enterprises can make a profit (as long as they put the profit back into the organisation), voluntary organisations have paid staff……
    The ‘not for profit’ sector contains tiny and local groups set up for mutual aid and self-help, lobbying and campaigning organisations, large and small service providers (who may now be competing with public and private sector organisations to win tenders), charitable foundations which fundraise and make grants….
    The sector covers all elements of the human condition – all our hopes, fears and cares – around people, places, pets, plants and the planet.

    If you want to make the move, think about your skills and how you could best apply them to different kinds of organisations. Volunteer to be a trustee of a local organisation you admire or which is working on issues you feel passionate about.
    If you can, provide practical help to the trustees and staff – help with writing business plans, strategic thinking, fundraising, staff support, chairing good meetings….. you’ll be welcomed.

    But don’t assume that it will be easier or nicer than working in a commercial environment – there is in-fighting, competition and low staff morale – just as there is anywhere else. Times are hard everywhere and people are people.

  7. Hari Regmi
    October 1, 2010 at 2:31 am #

    I really appreciate the valuable recommendations especially applicable to career-changers.

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