5 Ways a Nonprofit Job Is Different from a For-Profit Job
Get Ready for the Unpredictable
Are you sitting in your corporate cubicle daydreaming about what it would be like to work for a nonprofit rather than stay in the for-profit world? Maybe that corporate grind seems too dog-eat-dog and you’d like to help save the world
As a career changer myself, I know just what that can be like. And as much as I've loved my nonprofit work, I did have to wake up to some hard realities about nonprofit organizations. Here are some of them:
Nonprofit hours don't always fit a business template. Fundraisers may need to seek out potential donors in the evening or on the weekend. Special events may need to be staffed on weekends or even on holidays. Clients may require service at odd hours.
Fulfilling a social mission is not like selling a product during specified "open" hours. On the other hand, most nonprofits are willing to give compensatory time off when your hours become overwhelming. That can be a nice perk.
The upside to unpredictable hours? Variety, variety, variety. There are so many tasks you might be asked to do at a nonprofit and your hours can seem strange sometimes, but it’s never boring. I particularly liked working an occasional weekend so I could take some mid-week time off. Plus, the setting where I worked often changed from office to outdoors or an interesting venue for a special event. No time to feel chained to a desk or confined to four walls.
Budgets that are often not even adequate much less luxurious
Efficient use of every dollar is typical of nonprofit work.
Your office furniture and computer equipment might be hand-me-downs, and the office location might not be exactly prime. Flexibility and a frugal eye are necessary for most nonprofit groups. It all depends on the type of nonprofit you work for and its size.
Institutional nonprofits such as hospitals or universities tend to be better financed than a small social justice organization working in the inner city. It's best to decide how important such things are to you before deciding to go for any particular nonprofit job.
Going from teaching to a nonprofit organization was an eye-opener for me. I had never had to deal with a budget before or really understood how to make one balance. At the first nonprofit I worked for, I learned fast about tradeoffs and finding the least expensive vendors. I learned how to recruit volunteers for many tasks that otherwise would have cost a lot. All of that knowledge worked to my benefit when I went on to other, larger organizations.
Reaching agreement within a group
Nonprofits depend much more heavily on consensus to reach decisions. Working with volunteers is very different than working with paid staff, for instance.
Nonprofits tend to be more open, democratic, and process -driven than companies that deal with products and customers. That can also be a blessing. Many people enjoy the flatter organizational structure in a nonprofit and being included in most decision making.
Nonprofits can create a more family-like atmosphere than most businesses.
All of that talking can be fun and instructive. Listening skills can be honed and persuasive methods can be learned. All of it will be useful as you climb your career ladder.
Dealing with multiple audiences
People working in for-profit are accustomed to one audience -- the potential purchasers and users of the products or services provided. But in nonprofit, there are multiple audiences with unusual relationships with the organization.
Donors, for instance, are not customers in the usual sense. Volunteers often do the work of paid staff but enjoy a very different relationship with the nonprofit. The people who consume your service or product may not act like the consumers of a product.
Dealing with these multiple stakeholders requires flexibility and the ability to compromise.
At the same time, it can be very challenging in a good way. It's pretty hard to get bored when you have to think constantly on your feet and outside the box.
Wearing multiple hats
Because staffing in many nonprofits is constrained, you may find that you have to do multiple jobs all at the same time. A fundraiser, for instance, may have to handle public relations and plan an event besides visiting with donors and creating fundraising materials.
All of this can also be fun and challenging. And there are plenty of opportunities to learn a broad range of skills. Nonprofit workers often find themselves becoming multi-skilled which can be very helpful in building one's career.
It is not unusual for people to start in nonprofit work and parlay those skills into a corporate job. In a nonprofit, you will meet many community leaders who serve on the board or as volunteers. Those folks can be excellent resources when you go job hunting the next time.
The bottom line
All of these differences between for-profit work and nonprofit can be challenging. But, if you make the change fully prepared, you might just find working in a nonprofit more rewarding than you think.
Good research is the key to jumping ship with eyes wide open. Many of us who have made successful leaps from one sector to the other found informational interviews to be our best bet, followed by working as a volunteer in one or more nonprofits before making a final decision. Should you look for a high-level management position, often an advanced degree, such as a Master's can help too.