As anyone in the nonprofit world can tell you, the job searching tactics our for-profit friends use rarely yields the results we hope for. For those of us who have been in the industry for a while, we understand that’s because so little of how the for-profit world conducts its talent sourcing aligns with nonprofit recruitment practices. For instance, we don’t usually have a cyclical hiring calendar. Our priorities are always shifting, and the limits of our resources sometimes shrink our talent pool. For the eager young applicant looking to break into the field—and sometimes for the experienced manager looking to continue his or her career—these and other characteristics can be insurmountable hurdles to finding work in our industry. Believe me, as someone who has worked for numerous nonprofits and who currently works as a consultant to the industry, I have certainly done my time on the job hunt. But what most people view as hurdles, I see as essential elements to be factored into a job search strategy. If you do it right, those elements can actually be helpful to you. More on that later though...
For starters, let’s look at the nonprofit hiring outlook for this year. Indications are that the sector is going to be on a hiring spree in 2015. Unlike other industries, nonprofits actually grew throughout the recession and that growth is expected to continue throughout the recovery. According to the 2015 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, some 50% of nonprofits plan to add new positions this year, compared to only 36% of for-profit companies. That’s huge. So really, there’s no saying “there just aren’t any nonprofit jobs out there.”
Since we know the work is out there (or at least it soon will be), how do you go about landing a job? Basically anyone will tell you that the way to find a job is to know exactly what you’re looking for and hone in on it with laser focus. I don’t fully buy into that tactic. Have you ever had a nonprofit job where you weren’t expected to be a jack-of-all-trades? I know I haven’t. Much of what we do in this industry requires flexibility. In fact, it’s probably our defining characteristic: we do more with less. This means that the most successful job candidates will not be specialists (except, of course, for legal, medical, or possibly finance positions). Instead, high-performing generalists are the nonprofit’s lifeblood, and while some hiring managers may acknowledge that fact, nearly all of them will factor it into their hiring decisions, even if only at a subconscious level.
People will also tell you to look for a place where you can grow—where you’ll have some longevity. Again, that’s not really something to be too worried about. How many Gen X-ers and Millennials do you know who have been with the same employer for five or more years? I don’t know a single one. The same survey showed that 20% of all nonprofit turnover is due to an organization’s inability to promote. Whether it’s because smaller nonprofits just don’t have much of a ladder to climb, or that more senior employees aren’t making way for younger ones to move up—both very real possibilities—the effect is the same: junior and mid-level employees looking to “move up” have to consider “moving out.” Not out of the industry, but out of an organization or its area of focus.
So what about those hurdles I mentioned before? How do you turn them into job searching assets? By following these four tips:
Tip #1: Don’t look for job security.
Every job you will ever have is temporary. Getting and keeping a job should not be the end goal. An employee that doesn’t grow and advance offers little to an employer in the long-term, and an employer that doesn’t offer opportunities for employee growth will be plagued by high turnover, low productivity, or both. Since most of us younger professionals aren’t going to spend our lives working for one employer, long-term job security should not even be a consideration in your search. Instead, look for jobs that will give you the chance to improve upon your professional weaknesses while still maximizing your strengths. If you do, then you’ll have at least one more professional strength to market yourself with when you look for the next job, and demonstrated ability is much more appealing to a prospective employer than lengthy tenure.
Tip #2: Be flexible.
It’s good to have passion, but don’t be married to your cause. Successful nonprofit professionals can move from one organization to the next, regardless of what they do. It might be nice to work on an issue you care about, but just as you have to have transferrable skills, you also need transferrable focus. Most of us are in this industry because it gives us the opportunity to help others and make a difference in our community. Even in a large metropolitan area, how many nonprofit organizations are there that fulfill the same mission? Not many. If you limit yourself to the missions that tug at your heartstrings, you’re limiting the number of job opportunities that are open to you. So don’t be afraid to leave the organization you’ve become comfortable at or to apply your skills to a different worthy cause. Besides, you can always volunteer with the organizations you’re passionate about.
Tip #3: Serve on a Board.
Working in a nonprofit, you learn pretty quickly to approach different situations from different angles. One perspective you never get to learn about as a staff member, though, is that of the board member. It’s one thing to manage a program, run a capital campaign, or provide a specific service; it’s a whole other thing to have oversight authority for all of that. Sitting on a board gave me a view of nonprofit management that I had not seen in all my prior years as a staff member. Budgeting, strategic planning, community outreach, and program evaluation all took on different meanings. But more importantly, being on a board showed me how to be a more supportive and effective staff member.
Tip #4: Job searching is your job.
If you’re unemployed, you have no excuse not to spend all of your time looking for work. If you have a job, you can’t let your search interfere with your work, but you still need to devote as much of your waking free time as you can to the effort. Distractions happen, and you have to allow yourself a little rest here and there. If you’re in the market for a new job, though, you have to keep your eyes and ears peeled at all times. That means taking every opportunity you can to network. That means writing cover letters when you want to go on a Netflix binge. That means checking for updates on the job boards every time you check your email. It means volunteering at the organizations you want to work at, blogging on your professional interests, and contributing to various forums where you can get your name out to potential employers. It means putting in 40+ hours a week (in addition to whatever you’re doing to pay your rent) to get exposure and sell yourself. None of these tips are guarantees for success in your job hunt, but they’ve helped me keep myself busy in the nonprofit sector for years. Most of the YNPN audience is part of a generation that has always known that their careers would be marked by constant change and uncertainty. This is especially true in our industry. Even if you haven’t embraced that fact, you can leverage it. When you do, the organizations you work for, the causes you champion, and your career itself will be that much better for it.