Are you made to work for a Not-for-Profit?

I am frequently approached by my clients on whether they should leave the corporate world and make the leap from the for-profit to the not-for-profit world.

My answer to these candidates is almost always “maybe”.  This weekend I was surprised by a totally different question from a client who also happens to be a friend of mine. She is truly passionate about her work in the not-for-profit sector but she is “over it” so to speak.


She wanted to know if I could tell her to stay or to go and I knew my answer would not go down well with her. It seemed like she has had an eventful and successful career over the last few years but working in the NFP sector meant that she was constantly at risk of losing her job.


I have never been employed by a not-for-profit, but I have always worked with and involved myself in a number of Not-for-Profits as either fundraiser, technical or operational volunteer or as a Coach. I also have a great deal of experience working with NFPs as clients in my various corporate roles over the years.  I have observed and learned a lot from 15 years of hands on volunteering in various NFPs and I also experienced first-hand what the key reasons are why so many talented people come and go.


Going from the for-profit world to the not-for-profit world is not necessarily straight forward. Here are 8 questions to ask yourself if you are contemplating this:


# 1  Have you checked the finances of the not-for-profit organisation?

You should look at the ATO statements or Annual reports of the NFP to understand their financial status. Doing this will show you the funding sources, the expenses of the organisation, and the salaries of the top employees. You will quickly get an idea of the financial stability of the organisation and whether they can afford to pay you!


What I learned from my experience is that I enjoy fundraising and assisting on various board positions, but I was frequently challenged by the pace and ambiguity of working in the non-profit world.


# 2 Are you passionate about the cause?

The word passion is overused in my opinion. I got the impression that most successful volunteer staff are values driven first and then they are “passionate”. In general, non-profit organisations are cause driven. The large exceptions are trade associations. If you are going to make the leap, find a cause that you identify with and that is important to you.


# 3  Do you understand not-for-profit financing?

You are probably thinking, “Why is he going back to financials and why do I need to understand this?” The reality of any business or NFP is that money affects most decisions, and it is easy to make a lot of assumptions. Knowing and understanding the principals of how NFPs raise and manage their finances will help you to assess your decisions before and during a career with a NFP. If you want to learn about the basics go to and check their newsletter and blogsite. They regularly have great insight and tips on the subject.


# 4  Are your skills transferable?

This is the tricky part. Many of my clients think their skills are transferable, but will the non-profit organisation think so? For example, you have years of marketing expertise and you might say to yourself that your marketing skills are directly transferable into fundraising. You assumptions are correct, in general. But will the hiring manager of the NFP think so as well?  You will probably be competing against people with experience in the NFP sector, which puts you at a disadvantage so the ‘transferability’ of your skills is important.


#5  Can you deal with snail pace and ambiguity?

Very often, the decision-making process in NFPs runs at a snail’s pace. Volunteer board of directors often run not-for-profit organisations, and they often depend on the deliveries and services of other volunteers. The pace can be painful for those of us that come out of the corporate world. In the NFP world, you will be challenged to deal with a lot of ambiguity where no one answer is the right answer. Can you work with that?


# 6  Can You deal with regular changes of your job description?

NFPs tend to be chronically understaffed and underfunded, even in the best of times, which means you will regularly pick up other peoples work and juggle numerous responsibilities for the same pay. Going into any job you’ll have to understand that what was described in the ad (or heck, the interview) is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will be expected of you, and this is certainly true of NFPs.


#7  Can you deal with the fact that it might not be permanent?

Most NFPs are typically funded through either donations or government grants (or some combination of the two). Regardless of which, you’re probably going to be dealing with what’s called a “program year” — the time you’re given to meet certain goals so that you can (hopefully) get a new round of funding and keep on serving the public. So, you won’t necessarily know if you’ll have a job twelve months from now.


#8  Can you deal with tough environments?

I know it’s an odd question, but too often, the people who I see trying to get into this kind of work state it’s because ‘they want to help people’.


That’s great and I believe most of my clients, don’t get me wrong, it’s just totally the wrong mentality to have when you’re in this kind of work. If your motivations are at all emotional you’re going to quickly find yourself miserable, worn out, or worse yet, left completely cynical and jaded by your experiences.


The reality for most NFP staff is that you’re going to be pouring your time, effort, and expertise into people who the odds are already pretty heavily stacked against. Add to that the high likelihood that you will be disappointed – over and over on a number of touch points. You’re going to have to deal with whatever comes your way; that is the harsh reality of NFP work. I’m not saying you have to be a invincible, you just have to be made of some strong fabric if you want to make it a success in the NFP world.  I’m also not saying that it can’t be rewarding – it definitely can.


So, these are the questions you need to ask yourself.  In my friend’s case – well my recommendation was to stay with NFPs as it would be a shame for the sector to lose all her expertise and her great work – but not as an employee! I suggested that she find a regular job to enjoy more stability and balance in her life and to return as a volunteer when she has time and passion for the cause.


Personally, I volunteer for the causes that I am passionate about. My work as fundraiser or committee member or coach is valued and I feel good about the contribution and the results. So, if you are considering venturing into the NFP world, review the items on the list before you start spending your time and applying for a position with an NFP. Take your time, think it over, and remember to hunt wisely!