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Rebecca Meyers worked in the competitive world of entertainment public relations in the competitive borough of Manhattan, striving to get her clients the press coverage on which they feasted.
She worked late nights. She was threatened with termination. She job-hopped firms. And then she had enough.
“It was an extremely cutthroat environment,” she says. “Just very negative energy — nasty people that I didn’t want to be a part of anymore.”
Turning her back on commercial p.r. firms, she took a job at the Humane Society of New York in November. And she’s happier than a pit bull with a T-bone over the move.
“I get to do public relations and I get to work with animals, which is my other love,” she says. “It’s the first job where I haven’t seen myself leaving anytime soon.”
Once stereotyped by some as the province of the righteous, the religious and the revolutionary, nonprofits have become increasingly desirable options for people previously wedded to corporate careers. And such workers are being welcomed at a time when nonprofits increasingly covet business-world skills.
“The new breed of people in nonprofits is much more entrepreneurial, and that’s what nonprofits are looking for,” says David Gruber of the nonprofit-services group EisnerAmper. “Transference can occur quite frequently today.”
So just how many career-changers and job-seekers are looking to nonprofits?
“All of them,” says Bruce Hurwitz, a recruiter who works with nonprofits, only half-joking. “It’s what you do now.” But just as a thriving ad exec may flounder in the scrappier world of Wall Street, not everyone is suited to work at a nonprofit. Though many are fostering a more businesslike culture, working at the Humane Society is a different animal than working at Ralston-Purina.
So before jumping into the applicant pool, those considering nonprofit work should consider whether they have the right personality. “It’s a very different culture than the corporate culture,” says Carolyn Miles, a former American Express marketing exec who’s now the COO of Save the Children. “I’ve seen lots of [former corporate workers] come here and it doesn’t work. They have all the functional skills, but the cultural fit is not right.”
For instance, while take-no-prisoners authoritarians may be valued at top-down corporations, they’re unlikely to thrive at nonprofits, which operate more collaboratively. So if “The Art of War” is your workplace bible, trouble is in store.
“We work as teams. We try to listen to one another,” says Bill Ayres, co-founder of WHY, a 35-year-old nonprofit that fights poverty. “A number of people who’ve come over from the for-profit sector did not have that experience,” he adds with dry understatement.
“Nonprofits are not a one-person band,” agrees Gruber of EisnerAmper. “They’re a team of people working together.”
They’re also environments where a measure of civility is expected that may be foreign to people used to corporate pressure cookers. Even when the heat is on, “You can’t lose your temper,” says Hurwitz. “It’s like customer service — you say, ‘Yes sir, I’ll try to fix it.’”
Another difference is an expectation of emotional commitment. Since nonprofit work is viewed as much as a cause as a job, personal attachment to that cause is considered critical.
“One of the most important qualities is a sense of passion about the issue, whatever it may be,” says Ayres. But while nonprofits may not hunger for certain for-profit personality traits, they’re increasingly after corporate-world skills. “They need people who understand business,” says Gruber. “The for-profit sector provides those skill sets.”
The right fit is a two-way street, of course, so for-profit folks looking for a change need to decide if a decelerated, collaborative workplace is right for them. And the differences aren’t just cultural. While the gap isn’t as stark as it once was, the pay is still lower at nonprofits. And someone transferring from the corporate world may well see a demotion in title.
“Because you’ve been an executive or middle manager in a business does not mean you’ll be a midlevel or senior manager in a nonprofit,” says John Brothers, a principal at Cuidiu Consulting.
But you won’t be living on food stamps, either. Since nonprofits now compete for the same employees businesses seek, they’ve had to up their compensation. And they’re less likely to chain workers to their desks, says Ayres. “We try to have more balance,” he says. “Not push people to work impossible hours.”
Though fewer hours is often the norm, the fervor people bring to the job can turn that upside down, notes Save the Children’s Miles. And while some say there’s less stress at nonprofits because there’s less emphasis on bottom-line numbers, others say they breed a different type of stress. “You’ve got 1,001 bosses: You’ve got your donors. You’ve got the people who participate in your programs. You’ve got your volunteers,” says Hurwitz.
But to many nonprofit workers, such concerns are non sequiturs. “Every day I feel so privileged to get up and work on behalf of the organization,” says Jerry Silverman, once a top exec at Levi Strauss and now president of the Jewish Federations of North America. “It’s a very different feeling because of this sense of passion in the fact that we’re enabling change.”
He’s echoed by Rebecca Meyers, who says she loves working alongside others who share her passion for animals. “I’ve never met nicer people in my life,” she says. “These are people who genuinely care about what they’re doing.”
MAKING THE SWITCH
If you’re looking to land a nonprofit job, the best way is to take the nonprofit designation literally. In other words: volunteer. “Nonprofits are hesitant to hire people from the for-profit world because they believe they won’t understand what nonprofits do and how they do it,” says recruiter Bruce Hurwitz. “So the way to overcome that hesitance is to volunteer.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean working at a soup kitchen, he notes. You could serve on an event committee or give pro bono advice.
In addition to showing commitment, volunteering enables networking, notes Carolyn Miles of Save the Children. And it can lead to a job more directly: many of her group’s hires start as volunteers.