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Getting a Job in the Nonprofit Sector: Making Your Move from Corporate

“Definitely consider making the transition from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector. Your skills are transferable, and it definitely feels good to do good. But don’t assume that it is exactly the same; social impact is a lot harder to measure than profitability, and the capital raising process (i.e., fundraising) is more complicated and less streamlined than in the for-profit world,” explains Stephanie Cuskley, who was recently named CEO of NPower.

“Definitely consider making the transition from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector. Your skills are transferable, and it definitely feels good to do good. But don’t assume that it is exactly the same; social impact is a lot harder to measure than profitability, and the capital raising process (i.e., fundraising) is more complicated and less streamlined than in the for-profit world,” explains Stephanie Cuskley, who was recently named CEO of NPower. Previously, Cuskley had an esteemed career with JPMorgan Chase; she also serves on corporate boards.

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A few who made the transition in 2008 include Luis Ubinas, President, Ford Foundation, formerly at McKinsey & Company; Gail McGovern, CEO and President, American Red Cross, formerly at A T & T and Fidelity Investments; and Jon Fish, Chief Financial Officer of Ad Council, fresh from CKX, Inc.

People who made the transition a few years earlier include Anitra Gerald, VP and COO, East River Development Alliance, formerly V.P of Operational Risk Management, JPMorgan Chase; Ariel Zwang, CEO, Safe Horizon, who started her career at BCG; Deborah Vesy, President & CEO, Deaconess Community Foundation, who built franchises for Weight Watchers and was an audit manager for Ernst & Young; Mike Curtin, CEO of DC Central Kitchen, who held management positions with the Hay Adams and McCormick and Schmick’s and then ran his own restaurant; and Natalie Leek-Nelson, CEO & President, Providence House, who had been Director of E-Commerce for a Midwest division of MCSi.

Their advice about seeking a job in the nonprofit sector:

  • Zwang: “To make your resume appealing, list significant volunteer experiences or board memberships. Such experiences are crucial evidence of a person’s commitment to nonprofit work.”
  • Gerald: “Invest the time in educating yourself about the sector; getting an MPA from NYU was useful for me. Volunteer with organizations doing work that is aligned with your career interests. The nonprofit sector is very diverse; speak with friends and friends of friends who work in the sector so that you get a good sense of the variety of organizations and roles that exist.”

Their advice about making the transition:

  • Curtin: “Bring everything you’ve learned in business, or in life, to the nonprofit world. Just because we label organizations “nonprofits” some people think that the normal rules of business and commerce don’t apply. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When I had my restaurant, I was continually asking, ‘What will make people come to my brunch, my dinner, my happy hour instead of the other guy’s?’ Now I’m asking. ‘What will get people to support our programs as opposed to someone else’s?’ The answers are really the same: better product, better service, better message. I’m still in the entrepreneurial world. I’m just working on a different product that happens to be changing lives. I always felt very good about selling food and an entertainment experience; but now I’m selling something that can change lives forever.”
  • Vesy: “I have found that my financial and operational experience has proved invaluable in my ability as a foundation funder to establish meaningful relationships with and provide assistance to nonprofits which have to simultaneously balance the heart (mission) and mind (business model) of their agency. My background as a CPA in public accounting taught me how to, via a review of financial statements, understand the entirety of services and programs offered by a nonprofit, as well as assess its financial health. In addition, my experience running a for-profit business brings an ability to empathize and appreciate the joys and challenges of managing personnel, operations, and balancing budgets. I cannot imagine being effective in my position as a foundation president without these experiences and skill sets.”
  • Leek-Nelson: “Unlike many corporate businesses, decision-making at a nonprofit does not occur by one person at the top. Rather, it’s a constant building of consensus, collaboration, and concession by the board, staff, donors and clients to effectively reach decisions and define strategy. This can be time consuming and frustrating but has profound power in its diverse analysis and rich solutions. In my experience, this is the most elemental difference between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.”
  • Leek-Nelson: “If you like to roll up your sleeves, try many different things, manage multiple tasks, assist other members of a team, welcome to a nonprofit! If you like routine, watch what’s on your plate or in your job description without ever leaving your silo, this is not the place for you. It’s about being an agile team player with a commitment to the nonprofit’s mission.”

My advice about making the transition:

Where to look for nonprofit jobs:

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About the author

Korngold provides strategy consulting to global corporations on sustainability, facilitating corporate-nonprofit partnerships, and training and placing hundreds of business executives on NGO/nonprofit boards for 20+ years. She provides strategy and board governance consulting to NGO/nonprofit boards, foundations, and educational and healthcare institutions. Korngold's latest book is "A Better World, Inc.: How Companies Profit by Solving Global Problems…Where Governments Cannot," published by Palgrave Macmillan for release on 1/7/14

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