Interview: Finding an Executive Job at a Nonprofit

by Mark Miller

How to Transition from the Business World to the Nonprofit Sector

By Mark Miller


David Simms

Nonprofit organizations have been one of the few bright spots even as the broader economy has deteriorated. The sector will need to hire 640,000 new senior managers by the year 2016, according to The Bridgespan Group, a strategic consulting firm that works with nonprofits. And Bridgespan’s data shows that the total number of nonprofits grew at a 6 percent annual rate from 1995-2004. David Simms is managing partner of Bridgestar, an arm of Bridgespan that recruits senior managers from the business sector for nonprofit positions. asked David to offer his advice on transitions from the business world to the nonprofit sector.


Q: We hear stories about business executives making the transition to the nonprofit world, but are nonprofits really all that interested in people with managerial experience in the commercial arena?

A: All the data says there is a looming leadership deficit in nonprofits that will have to be filled. That’s not to say there aren’t talented people already in the nonprofit sector, because there are. But in terms of supply and demand, you have older boomers leaving to retire or simply to do something new. So there will be a lot of positions to fill.”

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Q: What kind of job-hunting strategies do you recommend for people looking to make the transition from business to nonprofits?

A: You don’t need to target only nonprofits where you have subject expertise, or even a pre-existing passion for the work. Employers are looking for people with functional expertise in areas like finance, technology, marketing and communications and general management. Nonprofits are really desperate for talent in all these areas, and private sector experience can transfer over very well. But business people do need to adjust their job-hunting techniques. Only 10 percent of nonprofit openings are posted on any of the online job boards. And most nonprofit hiring is local. The candidates generally aren’t interested in relocating, and most of the employers are too small to have funds available to pay for relocation. That makes local person-to-person networking the most important job-hunting tool. Friends serving on boards of nonprofits can be a great networking tool. Also think about your alumni association or your university’s career resources. Nonprofits will often notify them of openings.

Q: What's the best way to get started?

A: If you haven’t volunteered or served on a board, that is a great way to get educated about this sector. I also recommend doing a self-assessment process to determine if the move is really right for you. If you can’t work in a resource-constrained environment and roll up your sleeves to do whatever needs to get done, it’s probably not the right thing.

Q: Will the recession slow hiring by nonprofits? 

A: The need for the services of nonprofits will increase dramatically due to higher poverty levels, foreclosures and need for health and human services. But the flip side is that the pressure will increase sharply on revenue sources. Foundations tend to think of 5 percent of their endowments as the cap on what they can give. I'd love to see them step up and be part of an increased safety net by giving more during this downturn. Some will do it, but they're unusual. As portfolios go down, grantmaking will go down, too. Donations by high net worth individuals will be down, too. So it is going to be a challenging several years for society, and for the nonprofit sector.

by Mark Miller | Monday, April 20, 2009 | Career Change

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