Corporate to Changemaker: 7 Lessons for Sector Switchers

main.jpgI did it. I made one of the most elusive career moves out there: I switched from private to nonprofit sector.

Before I talk about my nonprofit journey, let’s go back a few years: spring semester freshmen year at college. I was a student at the University of Wisconsin and the newest recruit of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) Fraternity. TKE exposed me to the world of volunteering, which served as the backbone for my interest in the nonprofit sector.

After the shower of grad caps, I randomly landed in the telecommunications industry for more than four years–where I often found myself daydreaming about a career in the nonprofit sector. I asked for advice from mentors, friends and co-workers. Some believed I should volunteer while I worked my corporate job. Others told me to follow my dreams. In December 2008, I lost my telecom job and came face-to-face with the very question I was pondering: continue to work in telecommunications or embark on a fulfilling career in the nonprofit sector? 

I quickly found out such a transition, especially during rocky economic times, was not easy. Here’s how I made the switch:

Consider graduate school.

The first step for me was to enroll into graduate school. I chose Hamline University’s Master in Nonprofit Management program because it focused on practical applications, as opposed to theory. I wanted to apply what I learned in class the next day, a skill that would contribute to my overall goal of being an executive director. As a recent graduate, I can say earning my masters was one of the best decisions I have made, personally and professionally.

Build relationships.

Building relationships in the sector was key to transitioning from the corporate to nonprofit sector. I got involved with YNPN, attended Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ events and conferences and the Minnesota Rising Un/Conference. I quickly learned of job and volunteer opportunities, and met many like-minded people.

Make a personal inventory of your skills and interests.

Review your skills, goals and career interests so you are able to be strategic with your job and sector transition. My outside sales experience made me a natural fit in the sector via development or fundraising. Additionally, make a list of organizations that address issues and topics near and dear to you to watch for volunteer or job opportunities. Having a nonprofit wish list can help you to dream big, but be strategic about achieving those dreams.

Conduct informational interviews.

When I needed to learn how my sales experience transferred over to a particular field in the nonprofit sector, I went on several informational interviews with seasoned professionals. Not only did I learn what it took to become a successful development associate, but I got solid career advice, learned how to articulate my transferable skills, received more contacts from my interviewers and discovered job openings. Tedious? Yes. But remember you’re building your personal brand, network and most importantly, your job pipeline.

Get help.

Many people provided me great career transition advice, but there is one person who stands out: Clare Foley. Clare is an independent consultant who helps people with career transitions, reconstructing resumes and cover letters, and mock interviews. With her support, I went from having a good-enough resume and interviewing skills to a concise resume and excellent interview abilities. It’s important to have mentors or people in your corner who not only build you up, but can also be objective and frank.

Volunteer, intern or join AmeriCorps.

What’s the best way to get a job in the nonprofit sector without a lot of experience? Volunteer and intern. I volunteered at the American Heart Association as a grant writer and event sponsorship intern, and did a grants internship with the Courage Center. These experiences taught me that folks just needed to learn to trust me to make effective contributions. I had to prove that I was a collaborator and not someone looking to make the nonprofit sector more like the business world. Some professionals in the nonprofit sector may still believe this to be the case, regardless of intentions.

Without these valuable unpaid experiences, I wouldn’t have landed a job in the nonprofit sector. Therefore, keep an eye on the internships–in addition to the paid positions–on the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits' job board and make sure to read Pollen for job and volunteer opportunities.

Follow the golden rule.

I landed my first paid grant writing position three months ago at Memorial Blood Centers–which happens to be a former telecom client of mine. All of my volunteering and interning, networking, interview practice, job rejections, informational interviews, and hours of graduate school homework had finally paid off. I have never been happier career-wise, and this satisfaction spills over into my personal life. But now that I’m in the nonprofit sector, I’m making sure to help others attain the same dream. I’m always open to informational interviews or serving as a mentor.

All in all, don’t get discouraged and remain positive even when it’s difficult to do so. Don’t put your dreams and passion on the back burner, trust your gut and go do great things for the sector, yourself and the community.

What other tips can help someone transition from the private to nonprofit sector?  

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