How can I get started in a career giving back? - Generocity Philly


Sep. 8, 2016 10:30 am

How can I get started in a career giving back?

There's a handful of misconceptions about nonprofit work that needs to be confronted here. First of all: Just because you’re good at a for-profit job does not mean you’ll be good at a nonprofit job.

Lansie Sylvia.

(Illustration by Hannah Agosta Illustration, based on a photo by Jessie Fox)

How to Give is a biweekly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


For the majority of my career I’ve been working in corporate marketing. I was recently let go with a pretty hefty severance package. I didn’t feel fulfilled in my last job, so I want to work at a nonprofit and give back to my community through my day-to-day work (hopefully working with kids or something art-related). How should I get started?

I need to find my Zen for a moment here, because this is one of those misconceptions about the charitable sector that really steams my carrots.

Okay, that’s better.

I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way a few misconceptions slithered their way into the universe. Let’s clear them up before we dive into next steps:

MISCONCEPTION #1: If you can run a business, you can run a nonprofit.

Let me put this plainly: Just because you’re good at a for-profit job does not mean you’ll be good at a nonprofit job. Yes, there are transferable skills between sectors, but working at a nonprofit also demands specific expertise. People (like me) go to school for years to become experts at programming, fundraising, evaluation and more. It’s not a simple cut and paste.

MISCONCEPTION #2: Working at a nonprofit is fulfilling and glorious and your heart patters like ragtime because of all the lives you change each day.

Yes, there are emotional benefits to working at some nonprofits. And yeah, it’s amazing to see a person, animal or community changed for the better because of something you did. But there are also lots of days where you want to poke your eyes out. Nonprofit employees still need to submit expense reports and grit their teeth through meetings, just like in any other industry. Because working at a nonprofit is still working. Sorry, bub. A job’s a job.

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MISCONCEPTION #3: Getting people to donate to a nonprofit is basically the same as getting them to buy something.

Nope! Sorry! Science! When you decide to spend a little extra on that dress at J. Crew because you have want to look cute at your friend’s wedding, you’re actually using different parts of your brain than when you decide to give to that puppy charity you heard about at the reception. Different triggers lead to different actions. They require different techniques. Because … they’re different!

MISCONCEPTION #4: All nonprofits are the same.

Hooboy. This one gets me. Okay. You say you want to “work at a nonprofit.” Well, that’s great! But you kinda need to be a bit more specific. What kind of nonprofit do you want to work for? Would it be a foundation? A grassroots organization? Maybe a university, or a school, or a church, or something else altogether? Do you want to focus on policy and advocacy as well? How big is the organization? If you want to work with kids, what age group are you focusing on? You’re interested in the arts? Great! Would that be dance, theatre, visual, fiber, sculpture or something else?

You see where I’m going with this. Nonprofits aren’t a concept. They’re real, complex, multifaceted things. You’d never say, “I want to work at a company!” Naturally, you’d want to qualify that, give it some boundaries. The same thing goes for the nonprofit sector. 

Knowing all this, if you’re still itching to change careers, your severance package might afford you a nice way to do that. It sounds like you might have some time off — why not volunteer with a local nonprofit to get a feel for some of the differences and see if it’s the path for you? Wouldn’t hurt to beef up your nonprofit résumé. (Yeah, you gotta do that, too.) 

All too often, volunteers can get overwhelmed and prove unreliable for an organization. Knowing this, if you really commit yourself to being on a committee, helping to revamp a program or raising money for a nonprofit, you can easily stand out and earn yourself a great recommendation from the development or executive director. That’ll go a long way in your job search. Believe me.

You can also search out some executives in the fields that interest you and request informational interviews to learn more about their career paths.

So that’s the good news. Here’s the stink part: You might have to start at an entry-level position in order to get your foot in the door. Just like in the for-profit sector, hiring managers are going to want to see that you have relevant experience. Volunteering can help fill in some of those gaps in your résumé. Once you do that, you can take the next step and sign up for a nonprofit executive certificate program either in-person or online.

Finally, here are some of my favorite (and most readable!) industry resources:

Go get ‘em, tiger. Happy reading!


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