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.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.