How to Decide if the Nonprofit Sector is Right for You | Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part article exploring a potential career transition to a nonprofit position. In the previous segment, overall large picture differences between for-profit and nonprofit were discussed, with the seasoned executive in mind. Here, the environment and the employees of a nonprofit will be considered. This segment will again include the seasoned executive, but will also include questions for a recent graduate to consider before accepting a position with a non-profit. The goal of all this information is meant to encourage deep consideration before a move is made, but it is not all-inclusive and situations do vary from organization to organization.

Returning to our earlier conversation, we talked about the board of an organization but we didn’t speak about those who make the organization run from day to day; the inner workings.



Besides the board, what about those who are employees? What are they like? Unless they have experience in for-profit, many employees are not motivated by the common thread of making money for the organization; their roles may be too far removed from development, fundraising, etc. They have various reasons for being at the organization, but it’s usually because they support the organization’s overall purpose; however, what they see as its purpose and how it should be delivering on it could very different. This makes for a lot of varying opinions, agendas and driving factors as to what and how an individual employee could act at the organization. If you are in the habit of working with people who want to get ahead and want the company to get ahead, understand that personal drive will not be so pervasive in a nonprofit.

Why aren’t there more people like you? In most for-profit businesses, there is some kind of succession plan and retention plan set in place; unfortunately, this is pretty uncommon for nonprofits. Due to high turnover rates, there is a consistent flow of outside talent coming into the organization and things are not getting better. According to the Nonprofit HR 2015 survey as quoted by Sarai Johnson in “Lean Nonprofit”, nonprofits have seen turnover increase from 16% in 2013 to 19% in 2014. According to the same article, only 21% of nonprofits promote internally to high-level positions, with 61% taking staff from other nonprofits to fill their executive level positions.  From these details, you can gather, there are some industry challenges around people.


Work Environment

How do these people’s statistics affect the work environment? How do you not use money to make money? By maximizing the limited people you do have, have them manage multiple things, and work with volunteers to do the rest. How do you motivate these people, get their “buy-in” without paying them or paying them little, but expecting a lot? And, don’t they get “burnt out” by doing so much? All good questions. This is very unfamiliar territory for a businessperson but they are subjects that you should have solutions to if you are going to pursue an executive position. 

In conclusion, if you are at odds with what we’ve covered so far, and don’t have the personality, desire, stamina, or adaptability, there are other options for giving back that don’t involve nonprofit employment — which is explained below. If this information only seems to energize you, then the nonprofit sector could be right for you.


Early Career

Until now, most of this article has been focused on the senior executive who is considering their desire to contribute more, but what about if you’re not a seasoned professional and you don’t have so many years of experience in business? You are looking to join a nonprofit because you are looking for purpose, want to give back, and feel good about what an organization does for people, animals, the environment, etc. You want to be able to boast to your friends about what a cool job you have and how your organization is changing the world. Cool and admirable. Here are the questions you should consider.



  • Is a rewarding experience at work your primary concern in choosing a job?
  • Do you understand the goal of a nonprofit is to make money so that the organization’s purpose is fulfilled?
  • Is the prospect of working hard in a “continual start-up like environment”, where you have to do many different things all the time and have little or no money for resources, appealing?
  • Do you understand a nonprofit position is not for someone who is lazy?
  • Will you be continually resentful of your friends who are making a lot of money in other industries and that you can’t afford to play in their “sandbox’?
  • What about affording living arrangements with a limited salary?
  • Will that impose difficulties upon your anticipated lifestyle?


Great appeal:

  • Do you like having an immediate inclusive community around you, dedicated to the same purpose?
  • Do you want to feel that you are making a positive impact in the world?


Since it’s early on in your career, you haven’t yet developed the habits and assumptions that a more seasoned individual would have, therefore, a nonprofit could have more appeal to you.


You Still Can Contribute

In the end, regardless of the length and breadth of your work experience, if you decide that joining a nonprofit organization is not for you, all is not lost. There are still so many ways you can make a difference, have a purpose and support a cause. You can join a BCorporation (a benefit corporation), a business whose core values and mission reflect yours, or a company strategically developed to support social causes as part of their business model. However, if you decide you are that special person who will thrive at a nonprofit, know that that organization will be most appreciative. And you will feel great, as you should.


Susan Goldberg is a leading specialist in finding and keeping the perfect talent. She is the Founder and Principal of SGES/Susan Goldberg Executive Search Consulting, a consulting firm. She has been conducting executive searches and coaching executives and companies around hiring and retaining their talent for 20+ years. Susan’s marketing background, people network, and boutique practice allows her to navigate across industries, gather insights and pay attention to details. She works with employers to navigate through the current tides of changing workstyles, diverse priorities, and high turnover. She is also the co-author of “Leadership in Wonderland”, a combination book and workbook which takes you on a journey to discover your own leadership skills and fine-tune them. The book is particularly relevant for the nonprofit environment and for young leaders


If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out Part One, now is a great time to do so!


decide if the nonprofit sector is right for you

Susan Goldberg

September 7, 2016

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