December 21, 2009

Move to a Nonprofit? First, Ask Yourself Three Questions

Wayne Luke, Bridgespan partner and head of the firm's executive search services, discusses motivations for switching to the nonprofit sector.

By: Wayne Luke

(This weblog post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website.)

You've assessed your skills, you understand the importance of cultural fit, and the idea of switching to the nonprofit sector still holds strong professional and personal appeal for you. What's next? It's time to look closely at your motivations. To do that, you'll need to answer three critical questions.

  1. Why do you really want to make this move? Switching sectors is a big deal. It's a bit like Alice in the looking glass, in that it's often difficult to climb back through once you've started the journey. So you need to be crystal clear about your reasons for doing so. In the current economy, for instance, it might be easy to see a move to the nonprofit sector as a way to expand your job-search options — another "port in the storm" so to speak. Don't do it. Trying to be something you're fundamentally not, solely for the purpose of cash flow, is a choice you'll live to regret — particularly when you have to work with comparatively scarce resources, practice more collaborative decision making, and strive to align mission and action. Chances are, any nonprofit organizations to which you apply would smoke out your game plan, anyway, and would not be particularly anxious to welcome you into their ranks. Nonprofits are quite adept at seeing through false motivations.

  2. How do you feel about your current nonprofit involvements, whether as a volunteer or board member? How does the work make you feel? Energized? Frustrated? Do you easily and naturally relate to the people you meet, both other volunteers and those representing the organizations? Have you reached a point in your life where the impact on people's lives through what you do is more important than the professional platform from which you do it? How enthusiastic are you when you talk about the nonprofit organizations you support? (You have volunteered, right? Your record as a volunteer shows how you've chosen to spend your spare time and reflects if you're genuinely interested in working with nonprofits. So if you haven't volunteered, that's a sure sign of something.)

  3. What do others think of your plans to switch sectors? This may be the hardest part of the process — asking and really listening to others' honest opinions of you. Find people whose judgment you trust and who have a clear perspective on you and your talents — for instance, co-workers, family members, and friends. Ask them about where they see you being most effective, fulfilled, and motivated. They'll help you see yourself in a different light and offer objective assessments of whether or not you should dive into the nonprofit pool. It's amazing how insightful and frank people can be if you're only willing to ask. Had it not been for the urging of friends, colleagues, and family members, I would have never changed careers at age 40. And their urgings led to a decision that yielded a level of career satisfaction and growth I could have never imagined on my own.

So listen well, both to yourself and others. As it was with me, those answers might just send you on a journey into a rewarding new phase of your career and your life.

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