4 Things No One Tells You about Working for Nonprofits

Jan 21, 2014 - Joe Matar

It’s that time of year again. Time to make (and then quickly break) career resolutions.

If you’re like many unhappy employees, you may have set a goal to find more meaningful work in 2014. The nonprofit sector might be just the place for you to begin your search. But if you want to make your resolution to transition from a corporate job to a nonprofit role one you can actually keep, you should do yourself a favor and get real about what it takes to make a successful switch.

Here are four things you need to know about shifting to a career in the nonprofit sector in 2014:

1. Building relationships is at the core of any nonprofit job

Whether you work face-to-face with people your organization aims to help or you reach out to potential donors, you’ll need strong relationship-building skills to succeed in the nonprofit world. No need to panic — your previous job experience likely gave you a good foundation. But now, it’s more than negotiations and networking conversations. A propensity for listening and a dose of compassion are key.

“Relationships matter, and listening is the most important part of every relationship,” says Steve Schwartz, co-founder of Upaya Social Ventures, who previously worked in corporate communications for hedge fund, investment banking and private equity clients. “No matter where in the world you're trying to do business — be it with dairy farmers in Uttar Pradesh or a business development prospect in the U.S. — listening to people and understanding their motivations must always come first."

2. Your corporate knowledge can apply to the nonprofit world

Yes, corporations and nonprofit organizations are quite different. But your corporate world experience can be a strength.

“The corporate sector does an amazing job turning their products into an emotional, engaging story, which draws in consumers, and thus revenue,” says Bryan Jersky, a former Burberry employee who is now Chief Grower and CEO of Healthy Planet USA. “Nonprofits, on the other hand, already have amazing stories, yet they tend to do a poor job communicating them, and thus miss a massive opportunity for potential funding streams. As a result, I've made marketing a key function at Healthy Planet, led by our Head of Storytelling.”

Translate the knowledge and tools you used in your corporate job and adapt processes and perspectives for your new role.

3. You might have to make some sacrifices

The pay you earn at a nonprofit organization may not measure up to your corporate salary, so you might have to consider some lifestyle changes.

“When I took the job at CURE International, it was by no means a lateral salary move, and [my wife and I] made the decision to downsize our home,” says Joel Worrall, Chief Technology Officer for CURE International and former Vice President of Engineering and Development at Mzinga. “To the outside world, that felt like a sacrifice. To us, it was a logical decision to value lifestyle over property… Four years down the road, we're both glad we made that decision when we did.”

But it’s not all bad news. Nonprofit salaries are improving, and many nonprofits are adding value for employees through generous benefits packages and organizational culture initiatives focused on improving employee satisfaction.

Added benefits or not, most people in the nonprofit sector find the opportunity to make an impact more meaningful than a fat paycheck. Or as Joel says, “I'm not trying to make someone — or [myself] — wealthy; I'm trying to save kids’ lives.”

4. Be prepared for a boost in job satisfaction

Even with smaller budgets and fewer resources, many find working in the nonprofit sector to be extremely rewarding.

Sara Pardys, communications manager for Zonta International, transitioned to the nonprofit sector from her corporate work in public relations and internal communications — and in the process, her outlook on life became much more positive. “Every day, I'm able to look at Zonta's members and the people we've helped and know exactly why I'm doing what I'm doing. That feeling is priceless,” she says.

When you’re working with a mission in mind and are able to see the impact of your organization’s work on the community, your job is more than a paycheck. It allows you to tap into your passion and purpose. (Click here to tweet this thought.)

So if you’re ready for a change in 2014, a career switch to the nonprofit sector could be just what you need. Keep these tips in mind as you make the move — and discover how the transition will not only change your career for the better, but may also impact your life and the lives of others.

Lisa Brown Morton is the President and CEO of Nonprofit HR, the only HR firm in the country that works exclusively with nonprofits. Reach her at lmorton@nonprofithr.com.