Fast Company

Nonprofits? Not a Recessionary Refuge for Job Seekers

Job-seeking refugees from the for-profit world shouldn't go running to the not-for-profit sector.

Applying to business school. Eating comfort foods like mac and cheese. Wearing red lipstick. Regifting. These are some of the more well-known trends during economic recessions. Another one? A flood of people deciding to make career changes, choosing occupations with meaning.

Recently, I have been deluged with no fewer than a dozen emails and calls each week from friends, friends of friends, and strangers wanting to talk to me about "breaking into the sector." The gal who blew out my hair the other day friended me on Facebook; now her cousin keeps sending me messages asking about openings. (I'm not even counting the ridiculous number of LinkedIn requests I've been fielding.)

I take these meetings out of the goodness of my unnaturally large heart, which should be considered a handicap. People start saying my office is "charming." I ask, "What kind of thing are you looking to do?" They reply, "Oh, anything in the not-for-profit sector. I just want to make the world a better place." This is like me by saying, "Oh, anything in the for-profit world would be fine. I just want to make money."

News flash: We're not a bunch of dummies in Birkenstocks who sit around watching Oprah all day. Your résumé's expensive paper stock does not tell me anything about your office abilities. Your matchy-matchy suit and accessories don't tell me that you understand our business model. Your Harvard MBA won't make me drool. Twenty percent of my staff graduated from Ivies -- and we're not the smartest people on the team.

I understand that you're used to working long hours at Lehman Brothers. Not-for-profit people work crazy hours too -- without the promise of overtime pay or the possibility of a car service to take us home at 10 p.m. when we finally turn the lights off. (FYI: We turn those lights off by ourselves.)

Your years of running award-winning campaigns for major brands while you were a top ad exec are impressive ... if I wanted to create a Super Bowl ad. But when was the last time you built a brand with a budget of zero? That pro bono campaign you did on domestic violence tells us you have a heart, but says nothing about your ability to survive in a sector without B-list celebs dying to work with us, or vendors who owe us favors, or new hires cutting their teeth on PSA campaigns.

Please stop thinking that "we'd be lucky to have you" when you have no experience in our world. I had braces, I brush my teeth every day, and (sometimes) I floss. This doesn't mean I can perform root canals. (That analogy assumes you've even spent time doing work related to our space. I'm shocked by how many people wanting to "make the switch" have never even volunteered anywhere.) Over the last few years, several major not-for-profits have hired executives from top corporations like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs -- and those executives have failed miserably and sometimes quite publicly.

Working in the not-for-profit sector is a career. It isn't a sabbatical from your "real" job. We have skills. We require training. (There are master's-degree programs dedicated to this work.) We know how to scrimp, land barter deals, and cut waste. Plus, we're used to being paid less than we're worth.

It's not news that the downturn has hurt the charitable world. Chicken dinners are sparsely attended. Mergers and bankruptcies affect corporate giving. Hiring is in a deep freeze, as witnessed by the lack of listings on Idealist.org, the main source of not-for-profit openings. (Please write that address down, people. I am not a one-woman referral agency.)

The real story in this economy? Consider yourselves lucky if you're able to nab a not-for-profit executive for your for-profit business.

Nancy Lublin founded Dress for Success and is CEO of the not-for-profit Do Something.

Read more Top Jobs 2009

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32 Comments

  • David Williams

    Yeh it's so difficult at the moment, it's taught me something though this recent recession, you need to isolate yourself with skills to survive in the job environment

  • Staniel Byme

    I just heard a report that 80% of the recent graduation class are unemployed. These are record numbers! A shocking statistic to say the least. Graduates need to start thinking of alternative ways to get started in the business world. The famous actor Vin Diesel could not get hired. So he saved up money and made his own film. Critics liked it and people in the industry started to notice him. The rest is history. All it takes to get started is a domain name for your website and a free logo. A new business idea does not have to cost a fortune. You can get started and get noticed very easily.

  • Jake Seliger

    Working in the not-for-profit sector is a career. It isn't a sabbatical from your "real" job. We have skills. We require training.

    And the number one skill many if not most nonprofits value is grant writing: just as for-profit businesses tend to value most highly personnel who bring in money, most nonprofits do as well. I discuss the grant writing issue in this post on consultants versus employees for nonprofits.

    Those who want to learn more about what grant writing actually entails might want to see the rest of the site.

  • Katie Naeve

    While I agree with the other comments that us non-profiters should not alienate the for-profiters, but rather welcome them happily into our field, I very much enjoyed the credit the author gave to those of use that are in this field. I work in this field because I care deeply about the social outcomes it brings about-not for the cash it puts in my pocket (obviously). Though just because the non-profit salaries are not competitive, does not mean the workforce or field is not! Not too long ago I applied for a somewhat entry-level, not-for-profit position at a great organization I interned with (for free) for 6 months, and for which I had great internal references. Hundreds applied (to make $35K in NYC), and I came in a close 2nd to a woman who spoke far more (relevant) languages, and had an ivy masters...I was amazed I got as far as I did! ...thats just to put it in perspective. Of course for-profit jobs are very competitive-but so are non-profit. And, thankfully, for-profit institutions fund many non-profit endeavors-but the non-profit endeavors they fund keep your world as great as it is, and are committed to making the world better for those individuals that for-profits have the luxury of ignoring.

    The author's point, I believe, is that for-profiters should make the switch because they care about the career path, not because they think it is easy or the only option in this economy. As many commenters noted, the former does indeed happen quite often. But the latter does too, and I am as tired as the author of laid-off 3-figure friends "thinking of getting a job in your field" (as if it is that easy) and for-profit others laughing at the cushiness of my field.

  • Saket Khanna

    Hi Nancy,

    Thank you for your article on overheads in non-profits.

    I had once attended a volunteer event for Katrina victims, taking donations
    for a renowned non-profit.
    During our training we were specifically asked not to answer questions
    around overheads, and the numbers were not shared with us. This troubled me
    since, and I favoured non-profits with very low overheads.
    However, your article has been an eye opener, overheads can mean better
    support or higher efficiency going forward. Charities need better metrics
    defined for measuring their success.

    Regards,
    Saket K,
    Likebucks LLC,
    www.likebucks.com

  • Jardena DiGiorgio

    Wow, you've somehow made us all feel bad about ever thinking about doing something good. Is this how you encourage people to serve mankind? If we should all feel bad about wanting to do something good, then does this mean we should feel good about wanting to do something bad?

  • meshal ahmed

    in fact i didn't work in the non-profit sector.
    But I hope that in future I hope that I would be present in this sector.

    But between then and the other by trying to offer assistance to this sector and I volunteer to do so, he was a great help to do something not intended for profit, a beautiful feeling ..
    I wish you a happy day ..
    And happy to read these words ..

    Regards

  • Warren Hunsberger

    The key is DOING what you are passionate about! The world doesn't need any more technically proficient mechanical men/women in the for profit OR not-for-profit sectors. Yeccchhhh!!

  • Richard Krasney

    Wow, how I DO LOVE a good rant! We all need to vent once in a while and I think that the non-profit sector is such a good place to do it. You might like to see the rant I posted "You Call Yourself a Social Entrepreneur?" here http://tinyurl.com/bau5dv

    I loved this rant so much, that I promise to write a blog entry about it today. I help successful folks figure out how to make the financial leap into doing more meaningful things. Often this includes social entrepreneurship related activities, thinking about volunteer or opportunities to give money/time, starting a private foundation, or something else that is not about self, rather doing for others. Without further clarification from Nancy Lubin, I'm afraid she's done a real injustice to herself and possibly alienated good people who wanted her help to move to a more meaningful career.

    My blog post was designed to inspire people to "Do Something", just as Nancy says, but unfortunately, after reading this, I'm not inclined to do anything for "Do Something". Stay tuned.

  • Roni Ram

    I bridge the two sectors currently as a nonprofit board member & staff member, and a consultant for a number of forprofit corps. I've been routinely frustrated by the sentiment that nonprofits aren't real jobs, or that they could be a break or "refuge" during a down economy. But... Ms. Lublin... this is just plain ridiculous. While you're a natural when it comes to writing rants, you've revealed an ugly and intolerant part of your character in this piece. You've lost my trust, at least, in your ability to effectively and ethically lead any organization, nonprofit or forprofit.

  • Anne McElvain

    I have spent most of my career in startups, but for 2 years I was the IT manager for a not-for-profit social services agency in Chula Vista. They do amazing work there and pay their people well, and their grant writers are aces at getting grant support for modernizing IT equipment. I don't see any distinction among my work environments: both for-profit and not-for-profit groups drove their teams with clearly-defined mission statements and the kind of visionary leadership that inspired their teams to put in mega hours and tons of dedication with nearly zero budgets and massive creativity. Most of us had Master's degrees and very specific skills that were developed from our time in the trenches. However, the kind of bitterness you are experiencing here seems extreme. I was really put off by your condescending tone. In reality, good candidates come from all walks of life and pedigrees, as do poor candidates. I would hope you would put general postings on your sites that were helpful, reminding people to pick up a copy of "What Color is My Parachute?" or something to get back to basics, and to approach any potential job with the same zeal they did when they were 22, working feverishly in the career center at college, desperately practicing how to package themselves for the career of their dreams. Basically, with a lot less contempt, you can still get it across that these people who were high-fliers until their recent layoff just need to jettison the ego-identity they indulged at the top, and remind themselves that now that they are out, they are back at ground zero.

    Anyone who has ever done customer service knows that you have to please the customer, and rattling off their pedigree-laden resume will never do that. Any job hunter needs to remind themselves that the hiring manager is like a customer, always thinking, "What's In It for Me?" (Remember everyone's favorite radio station is WIIFM.)

    You can deflate their outsize egos with kindness and leadership. The bitterness and condescension smacks of someone who has allowed her frustration to escape prematurely and unpackaged. I wish you joy and balance and peace, and a return to your generous spirit. Put some nice suggestions on your facebook and delegate to your assistant the task of responding to repetitive banal or lazy questions, or set up an autoresponder. But don't let the pressure get you down. Best of luck to you!

  • N G

    Nancy Lublin, where exactly do you volunteer. How much are you scrimping to pay yourself $178,228 in 2007 (over 5% of the organizations budget)? Oh I see it is by paying your Associate $30,000/year. You must be wonderful to work for. It shows how bad the economy is that people even bother to call you!

  • faryl

    Wow. As soon as I read this that was my first reaction. And after re-reading it, it's still my reaction. Wow.

    I'm hoping you've had a bad day and forgot to have the presence of mind to step away from your computer and re-read what you wrote before hitting the "publish" button here.

    My parents paid for me to go to an Ivy League school and I spent most of my life trying to find a job that earned enough to (in my mind) justify their investment.

    I put in 16-20 hour days working at one of the top four public accounting firms. I also busted my tail at an internet startup with similar hours. We may have had some perks - but we also worked hard for our clients, our employers and ourselves. I don't think that the fact that we were making money makes us any less deserving of recognition - financial or otherwise. That ride to our car was out of concern for our safety - do you begrudge someone that?

    All that aside - after being laid off two years ago and going from a 6 figure salary to a zero-dollar income, I've often thought that the silver lining is I now feel free to choose a job based on what I want to do - where I think I can make the biggest difference in the world - and not on financial compensation. Granted, I don't have a family to support, so that gives me the added freedom of choice.

    To me, being able to work at a non-profit would be a luxury - not based on a misconception of it being an easier job - but based on being able to follow one's heart instead of chasing a dollar.

    Nancy -my prior employment aside, the fact is you WOULD be lucky to have me work for you - I am ambitious, bright, creative, energetic, outgoing, warm, compassionate and a hard worker. And I've been blessed with a life that allows me to bring my business experience to the table as well.

    With all due respect, unless anyone's in the market working for a woman with an overwhelming chip on her shoulder, who either doesn't have the self-awareness to realize how judgmental she sounds (or possibly doesn't care) my guess is you've pretty much resolved your problem with this post. After reading it, I have a hard time understanding why someone would apply for a job working for you.

  • Adele Rosenberg

    Are you serious? Not only have you alienated and taken aim at an entire segment of the population, but you are doing it in a way that only supports your obviously oversized ego. "I take these meetings out of the goodness of my unnaturally large heart, which should be considered a handicap". You can't be serious. I happen to work in the non-profit sector, and we certainly aren't the divisive, bitter people you make us out to be, nor do I feel that my friends who have switched over from the for-profit sector are the kind of people you are making THEM out to be. These friends never had someone else "turn out the lights" for them, or have a fancy car service pick them up. They are simply people, looking to work in a different sector, bringing many transferable skills to the non-profit world, just as I would bring mine to the for-profit world. This rhetoric reminds me of the bi-partisan bashing that most if not all of us are sick and tired of, because it doesn't yield any solutions, only more problems and more misunderstanding. This article is in poor taste and has such an air arrogance that I am left with nothing but a bad taste in my mouth.

  • Judi Margolin

    I've been working in the nonprofit sector my entire career, and I really don't see that much of a distinction. The organization I work for is relatively large but there are many "mom and pop" businesses that have much in common with small one-person-shop nonprofits. I think it's a great thing to be able to sleep at night because you spent the day having an impact on an audience that needs your help, rather than helping rich people get richer.
    All that aside I would like to point out another source of up-to-the-minute information for those seeking jobs in the nonprofit sector - the Job Corner on the Foundation Centers' PND (Philahthropy News Digest). You can visit it at http://foundationcenter.org/pn... or sign up for the free weekly e-letter that announces new job postings.

  • Judi Margolin

    I've been working in the nonprofit sector my entire career, and I really don't see that much of a distinction. The organization I work for is relatively large but there are many "mom and pop" businesses that have much in common with small one-person-shop nonprofits. I think it's a great thing to be able to sleep at night because you spent the day having an impact on an audience that needs your help, rather than helping rich people get richer.
    All that aside I would like to point out another source of up-to-the-minute information for those seeking jobs in the nonprofit sector - the Job Corner on the Foundation Centers' PND (Philahthropy News Digest). You can visit it at http://foundationcenter.org/pn... or sign up for the free weekly e-letter that announces new job postings.

  • Judi Margolin

    I've been working in the nonprofit sector my entire career, and I really don't see that much of a distinction. The organization I work for is relatively large but there are many "mom and pop" businesses that have much in common with small one-person-shop nonprofits. I think it's a great thing to be able to sleep at night because you spent the day having an impact on an audience that needs your help, rather than helping rich people get richer.
    All that aside I would like to point out another source of up-to-the-minute information for those seeking jobs in the nonprofit sector - the Job Corner on the Foundation Centers' PND (Philahthropy News Digest). You can visit it at http://foundationcenter.org/pn... or sign up for the free weekly e-letter that announces new job postings.

  • Judi Margolin

    I've been working in the nonprofit sector my entire career, and I really don't see that much of a distinction. The organization I work for is relatively large but there are many "mom and pop" businesses that have much in common with small one-person-shop nonprofits. I think it's a great thing to be able to sleep at night because you spent the day having an impact on an audience that needs your help, rather than helping rich people get richer.
    All that aside I would like to point out another source of up-to-the-minute information for those seeking jobs in the nonprofit sector - the Job Corner on the Foundation Centers' PND (Philahthropy News Digest). You can visit it at http://foundationcenter.org/pn... or sign up for the free weekly e-letter that announces new job postings.