How I Got My First Non-Profit Job

Many moons ago, after I got my MBA in Finance, I spent quite a few years looking for the right corporate job. I worked in banking. I worked in the entertainment field. I worked in another area of banking. (So hard to resist an easy answer to a paycheck.)

But even though the salary and perks were great, something big was missing. I just couldn’t get myself to care about the work. I always tried to do my best, although I admit some days the clock on the wall got most of my attention.

And it finally hit me that even the best of jobs (at least on paper) don’t always match your values. I wanted to not only care about what I was doing, but to know that it was making a real difference to the world in a way that mattered to me.  (Of course, that’s different for everyone and only you can find what that is for you.)

For me, I decided that a job in non-profit was the answer.  I knew the salaries can be lower and the conditions not so glitzy, but the reward is in actually wanting to come to work each day.

And so I set out to find myself a non-profit job.

Where do you start looking?

First thing I did was contact people I had met while volunteering and arranged informational interviews with them or with people they recommended I speak with.  (If you don’t already have that volunteer background, start now!) Although it’s good to have a general idea of what you want to do so you aren’t putting the burden on the person helping you, I was fairly open at the time. So for me, the interviews provided information gathering as much as potential job leads.

But I didn’t leave it there. I also scoured job listings using every resource I could find, including something called the Foundation Center, which was (still is) a terrific resource for non-profits as well as those seeking to work for a non-profit. Not only do they have some job listings, but they offer a great database for researching non-profit companies and related information.

So I looked through job listings (don’t forget individual company sites as well as job search sites). I set up informationals.  I called anyone I could think of who might be a good networking contact, including corporate friends who might know people in their grant-making areas.

And I scoured newspapers. And magazines. And newsletters that focused on areas I cared about.  (This was before LinkedIn, which is of course a great resource.) And if I found a name or some possibly useful information (like a conference or related public event I could attend), I made a note of it and put it in my job search folder for follow-up or later reference.

But I also made this part of who I am and my career story and brought it up when I met people, even while waiting in a line or at parties – assuming the conversation provided a reasonable opening, of course.  If it’s an exciting adventure toward something new (as opposed to a sad, desperate struggle with adversity at every twist and turn) people will want to help.

And one day, while attending a BBQ with lots of people I didn’t know, I met someone who knew someone who knew of a job opening. And I got the interview.

But I didn’t get the job.

Were you looking for a happy ending?

Well, here it is.

I connected well with the head of the agency that turned me down. They really needed someone with specific experience in their field, but she liked me so much that when I followed up to thank her for the opportunity, she told me about another interview.  And so I went. And I gave it my all, even volunteering to write a special story about one of their programs.

And I didn’t get that job either.

At least not then.  I didn’t have the experience. (You’ll hear that a lot when making a career change. Remember transferable skills.) But I’d impressed them so much, that when the person they did hire didn’t work out (she had plenty of experience by the way), they called me and asked if I’d give it a shot.

It wasn’t my dream job and it paid way less than I’d been making, but I said “yes” anyway because it was a way into a world I didn’t appear to have credentials for and the people who ran the place were people I admired tremendously. And I never regretted the move.

As a result, I learned new skills, opened myself to a world I barely knew anything about, and even  made a lifelong friend.   And, by connecting me with people more aligned with things I cared about, it later led me to an even better job I really wanted to do.

What about you? What helped you make an important career change?

About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Ruth Shapiro says:

    I’m a career counselor/coach who couldn’t agree more with the steps you took to land your non-profit job. Your article is very inspiring and motivating. And your site is terrific. Kekep up your good work.

  2. Ruth Shapiro says:

    I also made a career change — from advertising and public relations management in corporations to starting my own career counseling practice. I, too, felt I wanted to make a difference to help people find gratifying work lives. After earning my M.A. in Vocational Guidance and Counseling from New York University I presented a career development workshop at no charge to colleagues in the home furnishings industry. These interior designers, magazine editors and others were very appreciative. They referred friends to my services, and that’s how my career change happened.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Ruth, and for sharing your own career change story. I love what you made happen for yourself.

    I wish you all the best in your work!

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