Making the Transition to the Nonprofit Sector

The opinions/views expressed by the author is theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or position of Endeavour.

Author: George Oliver, President, BGO Consulting and Endeavour Advisor

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I am often asked for my opinion and advice about making the transition from working in the private sector to working in the nonprofit sector. I was inspired to make the transition because I was finding that volunteering was a lot more satisfying on many levels, including learning new skills, being exposed to other perspectives and meeting and/ working with new people. I was also finding that I could use a broader range of the skills I enjoy using in the nonprofit sector because if I wanted to do new things they were happy to have me do them (unlike the limits of having a specific role description in a private sector organization). Lastly, I could quickly see real results from my contributions.

If you’re thinking of working in the nonprofit sector, here’s some advice for making the transition:

Do:

  • Volunteer at a nonprofit to find out if it’s a good fit with your skills and abilities, and to see if it might be a good career choice. Avoid trying to change the organizational culture. One big fear the existing staff and volunteers have about you will be confirmed if you do.
  • Listen more than you speak, especially in your first year. You have much more to learn from the nonprofit than it has to learn from you.
  • Attempt to get a position requiring a functional skill; your chances of success will be much greater.
  • Get fundraising experience; it’s the most in-demand skill and regardless of the official role you land, in the nonprofit world “we are all fundraisers”.

Don’t:

  • Use ‘jargon’ and acronyms. You will build resistance if you do. Speak in the language of the nonprofit world. Language is meant to be a tool for creating understanding.
  • Think that nonprofit managers are not skilled at management. Nonprofit management is VERY difficult. The environment is extremely complex, ambiguity is the norm, and uncertainty over funding is always present. There is frequently little time for longer-term thinking and it is rare that managers have access to training in management because there usually isn’t the time or resources.
  • Think that just because you’ve managed a business or have an MBA that you can ‘save’ the nonprofit organization. It is presumptuous to think that or make that assumption. And thinking that way will limit your success.

For those wanting to read an excellent book on the subject please see: Laura Gossner Otting, Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector: Shifting Your Focus from the Bottom Line to a Better World, (New York: Kaplan, 2007)

Are you considering transitioning to the nonprofit sector or have you already made the transition? Do you have other do’s and don’ts to share?

George Oliver is President of BGO Consulting. He has managed his management consultancy for over 16 years. His practice focuses on healthcare, broadcasting and the non-profit sector in functional areas that include operations, project management, business planning and organization development.

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