Reader’s Question about Making a Career Change from the For-Profit to the Non-Profit World

Judith Cushman All Posts by Date, Effective Resumes 0 Comments

judith cushman associates career advice transitions career changes for-profit non-profit“Not everyone—even comms pros who’ve risen to fairly high rungs on the corporate ladder—wants to keep progressing to increasingly higher level jobs with greater levels of responsibility. Sometimes they want to switch to a position that’s more meaningful like a nonprofit and has less stress and lower compensation, especially if they envision retiring in five to ten years or suddenly have an empty nest. But how do you pursue these jobs without being labeled overqualified or “throwing in the career towel?”

Answer:  There are several assumptions that need to be challenged before this question can be addressed and I do that in the 8 points below.

  1. Adjusting career goals and deciding not to pursue greater levels of responsibility in the for-profit world (e.g. climbing the corporate ladder) is a legitimate, respectable and acceptable decision. There is nothing negative about that decision.
  2. Work can be meaningful in either the for-profit or not-for-profit world. The assumption that work is more meaningful in the nonprofit arena reflects a personal value system and not the options that exist in the workplace.
  3. Working in a non-profit organization can sometimes be more stressful than in a for-profit company. In some non-profits funding is precarious and staffs are too lean and overburdened. There are a series of events and activities that demand evening and weekend work. This is in addition to the normal daily work week since volunteers and donors are free after normal business hours and require attention.
  4. It is generally the case that non-profit organizations offer lower compensation than comparable positions in for-profit organizations. Publicly held companies, for example, offer end of year bonuses and stock programs that can equal 30% of salary. Non-profits simply do not have comparable programs.
  5. The assumption that a successful corporate executive can bring added value to a non-profit organization and be an outstanding contributor is simplistic and incorrect. Just because an executive has learned how to successfully fit a corporate culture where the end point is profitability and growth (generally speaking) does not mean s/he will adjust to a different set of expectations. The focus and goals of a non-profit organization are very different and the politics are complex.
  6. If a successful executive has a change in career direction, there is no problem in describing a desire to explore new options. I do not see that as a negative and moreover do not see that as ending a corporate career track, should the individual want to return. It is only if an executive has been in the non-profit environment for over (about) 7+ years, that s/he would find it difficult to rejoin a corporate/for profit workplace.
  7. To avoid being called overqualified or throwing in the career towel, be comfortable and secure about your decision to make a career shift. Don’t be influenced by those remarks. There is no reason to take those comments to heart. They reflect prejudices on the part of the individual making those comments. If you have a strong desire to contribute to an organization that does work that is meaningful to you, that is a legitimate reason to direct your career to support the non-profit. Many colleagues will respect you for the decision and confide that they have wanted to make that decision.
  8. Finding a paid position in a non-profit organization should be approached by taking a series of steps to reduce the risk of failure. Recognize the complexity of the transition and look for volunteer opportunities to participate in organizations that pursue goals you align with. Seek project work that taps your professional capabilities and determine if your level of knowledge is appropriate to the needs of the organization. Develop a sense of how the organization sets priorities and if the contributions you wish to make are in line with the mission and the leaderships’ goals. What is said publicly may or may not be reflected in organizational behaviors. Look for signs of stability.

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