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July 26, 2011

Every so often I see a question posted on one of the LinkedIn Groups I belong to with questions posed about, “how can I transition into working in the nonprofit sector?”  These questions make me feel like the author’s believe there is a “silver bullet” or single best way to work in the sector. I feel there are many ways to get involved in working in the nonprofit sector. Plus, the sector is so multi-faceted that what may work for one person will be irrelevant for another depending on what you care about.

I have decided to put together a short list of 5 tips to consider when transitioning into the nonprofit sector:

1. Follow your heart — Be sure to align yourself with an organization or cause that you believe in. There are so many types of nonprofit organizations — arts, environment, food, health, housing, education — the list is long. You can always go to Guidestar and look at various form 990s to get better acquainted with the sheer diversity of nonprofit organizations. Being able to feel good about the mission of the organization you work for each day will be essential (and hopefully make the lower pay you receive more palatable).

2. Volunteer — It is always good to spend a little time with an organization before you commit to it. If you are thinking seriously about making a significant career change to working in the sector but have little experience in it, volunteering is a great way to go. First, it gives you a bird’s eye view into an organization’s culture and management. You can gain great skills, meet inspiring people, and even have  a little fun. There are tons of ways to volunteer too depending on how much time and energy you have available. You can participate in a fundraiser, serve on a committee, help with a community project, participate in advocacy work, help serve food to people in need,  and the list goes on. Consider the type of job you might be most qualified for or interested in pursuing and aim for volunteer opportunities that align with it. There are also tons of organizations that organize various volunteer events and you can link in that way such as Hands on Bay Area or Volunteer Centers.

3. Intern — Similar to volunteering, Internships often give you an opportunity to accomplish a time sensitive, task specific goal during your internship.  While there may be overlap between a volunteer experience and an internship since many internships are unpaid, what is often nice about an internship is the organization usually carves out time to make an intern feel as if they are truly part of the team. It is the closest you can come to working at an organization without becoming an actual employee.  There are many kinds of internship programs available and some are quite rigorous and prestigious (such as Coro Fellows). They can be a great way to accelerate your access to different nonprofit organizations and meet key senior level managers who may be in a position to hire you once the internship ends.

4. Commit to Learning — The nonprofit sector is constantly changing. In order to keep up with trends in the field, it is important to keep abreast of the literature, blogs, LinkedIn Groups, and relevant Twitter streams. Determine which publications are most essential to your particular cause or topic you care about and follow the conversation.

5. Network — It is good to get out and attend key industry conferences or networking groups as a way to better understand the culture of the sector. You can learn a lot in one day about the kinds of conversations you will get to participate in by attending such gatherings. For example, in the SF Bay Area, Compasspoint’s Nonprofit Day is a great gathering of a cross section of various local nonprofit organizations that come together to discuss trends and hot topics for the field.

Hope this info is helpful.