In 2011, I was working as a social media consultant, primarily with nonprofits with Tim Smith approached me about joining him at Food for the Hungry. He had just accepted the role of Chief Development Officer and wanted to bring me along as his Digital Director. Though I had worked at a nonprofit and worked with several nonprofits through consulting, I was hesitant to join him at FH. I had some experiences at nonprofits that made me pause and after having spent most of my career in large corporations and consulting, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to make the shift.
I remember sitting in an organizational strategy class at Ohio State during my MBA days and we got to a class session about nonprofit strategy and I remember thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me, I just don’t think I’ll ever work at a nonprofit.” I’m glad I still paid a little attention that day!
Now that I’ve worked at Food for the Hungry for over five years, I’m more fulfilled at my job than any I’ve ever had. Working at a nonprofit is a different experience than a corporate gig, but the fulfillment is a different nature.
In my early career, it wasn’t abnormal for my director to give me several raises a year or to receive a quarterly bonus. Many times these would be 15-20% of my salary. If you work at the right company, see significant growth, and are among the top contributors, you are likely to have a similar experience at a for profit company. In the nonprofit space, this isn’t likely to be the experience.
But, knowing the difference I’m making is worth it. Meeting the people we serve and seeing them lifted out of poverty is worth it. Hearing the thanks, experiencing their lives, and connecting with people who do this because of the passion for the people beats any bonus.
If you’re considering a shift from a corporate job to one at a nonprofit, you should follow these three keys:
1. Find a Cause You’re Passionate About
I couldn’t work at just any nonprofit. I need a cause I’m passionate about. I’d recommend the same for you.
Corporate America jobs can be long hours and very stressful. Lots of travel, meetings, goals to meet.
Life in the nonprofit space isn’t any different, especially if you’re in fundraising. You see, you have a lot riding on your performance. If you miss your goals it means people don’t get served and (sometimes) people are out of a job. The difference is in the fulfillment of the job.
I really enjoyed my days working and solving problems at a large organization. I worked in an IT department and the fulfillment from seeing someone have their issue resolved and be able to get back to their job was tremendous. When I was consulting with medium and large organizations around Columbus, I loved solving their problems and making their day to day business lives easier. I firmly believe you can find fulfillment in a corporate job. But for me, the fulfillment of a nonprofit job is different.
Find a nonprofit you believe in. When times are tough, you need to rest on the cause you’re fighting for. You need to know it’s worth taking a little less salary to change the lives of the people you serve.
2. Be Willing to Learn
The first time I worked at a nonprofit, I struggled translating what I did as a consultant to what we did. You see, the team there moved at a slower pace than I was used to in consulting. The chief over my department was a very deliberate man and liked to “soak in” things before acting. Sometimes decisions would take weeks. It was frustrating and took me several months to learn to slow down, present all the information and put the project on hold while a decision was made.
I am very glad for the experience I had at that first nonprofit job.
When I joined Food for the Hungry, I knew change was going to take time and I had a lot to learn. My first few months with the organization was spent working with different people and teams to learn their needs, struggles, and expectations. I was firm when I needed to be and was decisive to encourage that in my team. Some strategic directions took a long time to manifest (years in some cases), but I knew if I presented the case and demonstrated how it could be successful that we could eventually get there.
You must be willing to learn. Working in a nonprofit is not only different culturally than most corporations, but the specific skills for a nonprofit are different.
For example, direct marketing fundraising in nonprofits is based in over 50 years of experience and knowledge and though you should always try to experiment, what they’re doing works. I’ve been blessed to have partnered with BBS & Associates at FH for the last several years. Their willingness to teach fundraising has helped expedite my education.
Be willing to ask questions and accept the answer without debate. Be willing to see how people do their job without assuming that it isn’t the best way to get the job done. Push people, but understand why they do what they do.
3. Find a Mentor
Find someone inside the organization or inside the industry to be your mentor. A mentor can help guide your path and be someone you can trust to bounce ideas off of. The mentor can help correct you when your assumptions are incorrect and confirm things for you when you’re in doubt.
I’ve been fortunate to have one of the top fundraisers in the nonprofit space as my mentor the past five years, Mike Meyers. Mike is now the Chief Development Officer at Food for the Hungry and has spent his entire career in nonprofit fundraising. His detailed understanding of how nonprofits work and how donors think has helped me learn the art of fundraising. His experience managing people has helped me navigate managing my team.
Find a mentor who is willing to invest in you. No matter your level, you should have someone you trust to share with. Every successful “Chief” officer has a mentor they rely on for advice and counsel.
Good providence in your transition from corporate America to nonprofit work. I believe you’ll find it fulfilling and a source of energy.