Career Advice for Nonprofit Professionals

I have a friend (I'll call her "Kathy") who came to me completely baffled.  She was offered an opportunity to work part-time with a nonprofit organization. She was offered the position directly by the organization's board because the relatively young organization had no Executive Director. When the offer was made, the Board Chair described her role and indicated that someone else was also going to be hired to coordinate some of the other fundraising functions (I'll call the other person they were offering a job "Jennifer"). Jennifer had never worked for a nonprofit, had never worked as a fundraiser, and had no fundraising training whatsoever. She had come from the business world where she had worked in operations and logistics (not in a senior level position) for a fortune 500 company. The Board Chair told Kathy that Jennifer had "tons of logistics and operations experience which you don't have."  

Kathy was stunned. She had worked for a  national charity with a walk-a-thon event. She had coordinated multiple (dozens) of special events geographically scattered. She had recruited, trained, and resourced planning committees, coordinated meetings, and ensured that committees stayed on schedule. She had coordinated the delivery of t-shirts, banners, registration brochures to dozens of event sites and managed to make sure hundreds of volunteers knew how to handle money, ensure safety, and manage risk. She had scheduled events and staff when multiple events were held on the same day (in different cities) simultaneously. She had dealt with difficult volunteers, enforced unpopular policies, and had difficult, "crucial conversations." She had done all these things while also selling sponsorships, making sure sponsors were recognized properly, and planning the following season's galas (which also had committees, volunteers, printing, invitations, timelines, sponsors...). For anyone to say that she lacked project management or logistics experience was insane.

In the nonprofit sector, we nonprofit professionals apply for positions in the nonprofit sector. We have experience with nonprofit jobs.  Because we’re nonprofit professionals with nonprofit experience, applying for nonprofit jobs, we assume that the people who are reviewing our resumes understand what our titles and positions mean and entail.  They don’t.  Even if we list our accomplishments, they don’t get it.  Too often, board members are hiring or sitting on the search committees that hire us. Those board members are almost always business people who don’t understand what’s involved in our jobs.

We call what we do things like event coordination, volunteer management, special event planning. Business people call the things they do things like project management, operations, or logistics. It’s the same set of skills applied to a different set of projects. We have got to translate our skills and experiences into the languages that board members speak or we’ll always lose out in hiring.

Perhaps we will still not come out on top if our resumes are compared to those of business people--not because we are less qualified, but because business people more highly value the skills and experiences of other business people over the skills and experiences of those of us in the nonprofit sector. See Vu Le's very funny (and very true) blog post, "Dear Business Community, Stop Thinking You are Better Than Us Nonprofit Folks." As Vu Le frequently writes, the business community has an annoying superiority complex.  

At least, though, we'll stand a chance of communicating because we’ll all be speaking the same language. This should help level out the job seeker playing field a little—we can hope. Then, perhaps, very talented professionals like my friend Kathy won’t have board members ignorantly saying to her “you don’t have any experience in that.” 

Become bi-lingual, my friends.  Speak business and nonprofit. Even if you’re applying for a nonprofit job.

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