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How to stand out when applying for a nonprofit job



Perfecting your nonprofit job application

You’ve been planning to make the jump for a while, scouring the internet for careers in nonprofits. Now, you’re ready to ditch the for-profit world, but how should you sell yourself to these kinds of organizations?

There are a few things that make successful nonprofit job applications different than those you would send out to a normal business. Here are several tips you’ll need to keep in mind while tailoring your resume and typing up your cover letter.

Show that you care

Nonprofit employers are looking for people with a passion for their mission. Ananda Valenzuela, managing director at Rainier Valley Corps in Seattle, says nonprofits care a lot more about mission alignment and passion for what they’re doing. Applicants need to make sure this shows through on their nonprofit resume, since these organizations aren’t looking for someone who just wants a job.

“That motivation for the mission and the work itself is really important for strongly performing employees,” she says.

When applicants lack any nonprofit experience, Valenzuela says she usually looks for relevant volunteer experience. “Have they done anything that shows they care at all about the world?” she asks. “Have they volunteered? Have they made any effort to show that they care about the issues we care about?”

Perfecting Your Nonprofit Job Application_women_in_conversation_shutterstock_1190524054

Know what you’re talking about

It’s not easy to jump straight into certain careers in nonprofits, like program managers. Nonprofit employers generally look for someone with a proven record of directly relevant experience to fill strategic roles within their organizations.

“Unless you have relevant job experience, you’re not going to get handed a manager position at a nonprofit, because they care about you having enough program experience to make strategic decisions about said program,” Valenzuela says.

Pamela Oakes, consultant and founder of The Profitable Nonprofit, says that the fundamental expertise is going to be the same across the board, but someone coming from a profit-driven industry will need to demonstrate a deep understanding of the complexities and interdependencies of the nonprofit sector.

To gain more relevant experience, you may want to take your transition slow and start off with part-time or volunteer work at a nonprofit before you leave your current job.


"That motivation for the mission and the work itself is really important for strongly performing employees."

Write a strong cover letter
Without nonprofit experience on your resume, how you present yourself in your nonprofit cover letter will become much more important. You’ll need to sell not only your experience, but also your passion for the mission and understanding of the issues at play. Valenzuela says best way to demonstrate this motivation is to ditch the form cover letter and write something from the heart. Be sure to get very specific about things you care about and  experiences that are directly related to the nonprofit’s mission. Use middle paragraphs to explain how your for-profit experience is directly relevant to the job responsibilities and avoid mentioning experience that has nothing to do with the job. Perfecting Your Nonprofit Job Application_group_male_denimjacket_shutterstock_1233434824
Be a Swiss Army knife
Whether you plan to work your way up to strategic decision-making careers in nonprofits or manage to make a lateral jump, you’ll need to use your resume to show you have the right experience. That means showing off a broad skill set. According to Oakes, the primary function of a strategy role in an organization is to impart the strategic thinking which will drive the action. The right person for the job will need to demonstrate a breadth of understanding and knowledge about the landscape, trends, context, influences and developments that impact the industry. “What makes the best strategists so valuable is their incredibly broad mix of skills and experience,” Oakes says. Perfecting Your Nonprofit Job Application_woman_studying_computer_mobile_cellphone_shutterstock_1206996274
Stay humble
You may be a hotshot project manager at a tech company with a fat paycheck, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can jump right into similar careers in nonprofits. “If you’re planning to move from the for-profit sector to nonprofits you have to be ready to essentially start over,” Valenzuela said. “This is a completely different sector with completely different experience expected and needed.”
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