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Common challenges of transitioning from industry to nonprofit: job search



Are you a for-profit professional transitioning to the nonprofit sector for the first time? If so, you are a bridger.

There is plenty to gain from working at a nonprofit organization. It can help you develop transferable soft skills and deal with situations you normally wouldn’t in larger, for-profit institutions.

This is not to say transitioning to a nonprofit doesn’t come with its own set of challenges. These are the most common growing pains bridgers may encounter.

STRATEGY_transitioning NFP_meeting room team work session


Nonprofits have unique nuances and idiosyncrasies: the particularities of how to work for a nonprofit organization are many, and require time and flexibility to assimilate. Because nonprofits have multiple constituencies —staff, board of directors, volunteers, members of the community— reaching consensus requires more time and effort.

Decision-making practices are driven by the process, not by results. This means resolutions that make sense in the for-profit area don’t necessarily apply for not-for-profit organizations (NFPs). Nonprofits have many definitions of success and rarely are tied to financials: An improvement in the nutrition content of school meals or an increase in the population of an endangered species are seen as more of an accomplishment than a budget surplus.

Internally, nonprofit employees may not be receptive to efforts to establish new systems, processes or policies, particularly if working procedures are already in place.

Leaders new to the nonprofit sector may encounter dynamics they rarely see in corporate settings. For example, in case of leadership vacuums, people from within the nonprofit are likely to take charge to remain operational.

The best way to go in this scenario is to learn as much as you can about your destination.

Career development
The less hierarchical management structure at nonprofits can be very beneficial for bridgers’ professional development: Since nonprofit workers have a broad range of duties, they are able to take on more challenging roles than they would in the for-profit sector. That said, many smaller organizations don’t have formal professional development programs, so bridgers in need of structure must take ownership and map their own career development.

Besides academic background and experience, nonprofits value persistence and perseverance.

Financial ingenuity

The financial restrictions under which nonprofits operate can surprise those coming from the for-profit sector.

Most nonprofits are cash constrained. In the marketplace, you can throw money at the problem, at a proposal, or at a person you want to keep. In the nonprofit world, that’s not an option, so you have to get creative allocating every resource.

Take Steven Spielberg. His mechanical shark seldom work, so he kept the “animal” out of sight and unwittingly amped up the suspense. Jaws is now considered a classic because of that approach. Limited financial resources can restrict managers’ ability to hire staff and consultants to develop and carry out plans, but can spark their imagination. Developing this brand of ingenuity can be rewarding in every area of the bridger’s life.

The switch to the nonprofit sector can be made easier by not transitioning directly from a for-profit organization to a NFP. If feasible, take steps in between: Run a start-up or your own consulting business. It will teach you to operate at a high level with less staff and resources.


Roll up your sleeves

There is a considerable gap between the aspirational job description a nonprofit expects to fill and the daily realities of the position. Even leadership can be pulled into operational problems which they must juggle alongside big-picture concerns. Since hiring extra help is not always an option, nonprofit leaders typically perform a wide range of duties.

When pondering how to work for a nonprofit, be aware NFPs are looking for people who can commit to the mission at hand. Besides academic background and experience, nonprofits value persistence and perseverance. Be honest and clear about your motives before taking the plunge.

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Salaries in the nonprofit sector are typically lower than comparable for-profit positions. That said, compensation varies greatly depending on the mission, size, structure, and funding of the nonprofit, as well as the position within the organization.

If you are coming from a financially rewarding career, be sure you are not motivated by money and that you can afford the transition.




[1] Roth, Nicky and Yazbak, Kathleen. The Unexpected Challenges of Transitioning from For-Profit to Nonprofit Leadership. Retrieved from
[2] The Bridgespan Group. The Challenges and Rewards of Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector. Retrieved from
[3] Niewolny, Dean (2017, July 25). 5 challenges when you transition from business to a nonprofit. Retrieved from
[4] Ristau, Stephen. 17 tips to help you make the transition from for-profit to nonprofit. Retrieved from
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