On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Imani Doyle talks to two On-Ramps coworkers in coffee shop.
Candidate Corner: Transitioning to the social sector

by Imani Doyle (she/her/hers)

“Candidate Corner” is a Q&A series in which we answer questions submitted to On-Ramps by job seekers about the social sector. 

Question: How can someone with a for-profit leadership background transition into a nonprofit organization? 

Whether it’s by sitting on the board of a nonprofit or volunteering in some form, you need to make sure that you are demonstrating your interest in the social sector and have been in a space where you can see how your skills or knowledge are directly translatable. It helps to clearly highlight those kinds of experiences and interests in your resume. Putting an “about me” blurb at the top to quickly summarize the specific skill sets, interests, and qualities you bring to the table can help further emphasize your enthusiasm for the position. 

Your cover letter is another opportunity to sincerely express the personal and professional connection you feel you have to the organization and its mission. But be sure you’ve done your research on the organization and write with intention. If a recruiter is on the fence about a candidate and is wondering if they’ll be able to transfer their skills, they will likely look at the cover letter. If they’re able to get the sense that this person definitely has a connection to the mission, they’ll be much more inclined to move them forward.

It also helps to have informal conversations with folks who work in areas of the social sector that interest you. By telling someone that you’re interested in a transition and asking them if your skills from the private sector could be helpful to the work they do, you could get some insightful feedback on how to translate that on paper. We wouldn’t recommend jumping into formal networking right away though, unless you have a very clear connection to someone inside an organization you’re applying to who could then vouch for you.

Question: Why are social sector employers reluctant to hire candidates who may have transferable skills to a position and its functions?

It really depends on the role and its function area. Social sector organizations sometimes have limited resources. If they’re making an investment to work with us for a senior hire, that likely means they are more likely to bring in senior leaders that deeply understand the social sector via professional experience. For example, finance positions in the social sector require a very specific set of skills and knowledge about nonprofit finance and 501c3s, and some organizations are simply more likely to hire someone who already has that experience. The same goes for fundraising positions; the types of skills expected in that space are hard to directly match to private sector roles. Even if someone from the for-profit space has demonstrated in another capacity that they can rise up to the challenge, we see many social sector organizations thinking twice before making a hire coming directly from the private sector. 

That’s not to say this is the case for all positions. Roles that focus on technology, human resources and talent, and organizational growth—like a Chief People Officer or a Chief Growth Officer—tend to be some of the positions where hiring managers and/or a board committee are more open to a person coming from the private sector. Again, that’s where emphasizing your connection to the mission in your cover letter makes a difference, because it can help show that you will be genuinely committed to the work. 

For example, we recently placed a candidate who came from a career in big tech into a technical role at a nonprofit focused on racial equity and community advocacy. The candidate demonstrated the core skill set to do the role well, but what also really impressed us was their excitement by the opportunity to work for this organization specifically as a person of color. We also recently placed a private sector candidate, who had come from a management consulting firm, into the COO role of an LGBTQ+ advocacy nonprofit. The hiring team, some of whom had for-profit experience, was particularly taken with this person’s past work growing operational verticals internationally. But what really resonated with them was hearing the candidate’s own personal connection to the mission and how that fueled their interest in the role and organization. Sharing some sort of lived experience, in whatever way feels most comfortable for you, can help emphasize how you feel tied to an organization’s mission and help you stand out to a hiring manager.

Question: I have worked as CFO/Director of Operations for 21 years and I’d like to get a job in a charitable nonprofit. My tenure and current salary seem to be a hurdle for prospective employers. I’m willing to take a pay cut to do something meaningful for the last decade or so of my career, but employers are not buying it. Any suggestions?

Discussing the salary of a role is always tough, and can be more so when tenure is part of the context. Generally, it is in a candidate’s best interest to get compensation information from the hiring manager first before sharing their own. By doing this—especially if you don’t have a search firm to be your mediator—you don’t have to worry about someone immediately writing you off. It is also worth noting that cash compensation is but one factor in considering nonprofit work. Consider asking about fringe benefits, such as openness to a more flexible work schedule or additional time off. If a candidate is working with a search firm and states that they’re willing to move forward with a lower pay, we take them at face value and will share that with the client. We will also talk about it with the candidate and hiring manager on a regular basis, to make sure that everyone remains on the same page.

Making a concerted effort to share your enthusiasm for the mission can help aid your conversations about compensation. For example, we recently had a candidate accept a CFO position with an education nonprofit, after working for more than 10 years in a similar capacity for a major retailer. They knew the position was going to involve a substantial pay cut when applying, but still felt a genuine connection to the organization’s mission of empowering student literacy. To demonstrate that interest, they included a summary at the top of their resume highlighting not only their financial experience, but also the volunteer opportunities and training programs they took to learn more about the nonprofit space. That made an impact on our team as well as the organization’s CEO, who had also spent time in the private sector and thus had a better understanding of how the candidate’s skill set managing revenue generation and assessing financials could transfer to their own unique organizational model.

The Takeaway

At the end of the day, your genuine interest in the social sector has to come through all of your application materials. Demonstrating your excitement for the nonprofit space will go even further when you include some anecdote or element of personal connection, whether it’s by way of volunteer work, training, or sheer lived experience. Put in that extra sentence that shows the causes and communities you care about. If you don’t mean it, search firms and hiring managers will know.