Career Advice: How to Transition from the For-Profit to the Non-Profit Sector

The first step in making the transition from working for a for-profit to working in the non-profit sector is to ask yourself a series of clarifying questions. Your action plan will lie in the answers.

Most importantly

  • Why do you want to work for the non-profit sector?
  • What would you like to get out of working for the sector? Your motivations will determine what kind of organisation you will aim to work for, and what role within the organisation will be best suited to you.
  • What role could you play in a non-profit?
  • What are your strengths, skills and aptitudes and how can you apply them to the sector?
  • How will your for-profit experiences translate into the non-profit world?

Operational roles — marketing, fundraising, human resources, finance, PR — are areas where you can more easily and directly transition. However, if your goal is to get involved in the technical delivery of programmes or policy and research, for example, it is crucial to clearly define your intended niche and identify which areas of expertise you’d need to develop further.

Laying the groundwork

Look at how you can contribute, get involved in the sector and gain the experience that will enable you to make the transition:

  • Volunteer/Intern/Traineeships/Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) offer the opportunity to gain exposure to how the sector works and will help you to discern what, specifically, you want to do and what you want to learn more about. Consider volunteering or working abroad — many NGOs are international and require experience in a broad range of geographical areas.
  • Get involved in trade associations and local chambers of commerce. Most chambers and trade associations lobby their governments through white papers and provide responses to upcoming government legislation. Getting involved in this area can build your professional credibility.
  • Explore opportunities with your current employer for social engagement. Is your company involved in the community? Does it support a local charity? Your company may have a Corporate Social Responsibility lead who is responsible for how the company engages on social issues.
  • If you have in-demand skills, consider offering pro-bono services. Many NGOs are interested in pro-bono services, so talk with local organisations that interest you to find out what they need and whether you can provide it to them.
  • If you have significant senior management experience, you may be a good trustee or Board member, guiding and helping to formulate policy for a charity without being involved in executive functions.

Cultural Fit

The for-profit sector and the non-profit sector, broadly speaking, may have different organisational cultures, managerial and hierarchical styles. Especially if you are transitioning into a senior position, it is important to invest the time and energy to get to know the organisation, how they communicate, and how their hierarchy is structured.

  • Are you able to share and vividly display a genuine sense of mission? Can you make decisions in a collaborative environment, influenced by shared values and passionate purpose?
  • How do you communicate? Are you open? Curious? Respectful?

Functional expertise and cultural fit are the make-or-break factors in making the transition from for-profit to the non-profit sector. In order to build a road map into your new career, consider how you will fit into the culture, how your expertise can benefit the sector and what skills you need to cultivate.

If you are a non-profit organisation we can help you fill your executive positions.