Optimizing Your Resume and Cover Letter for a Move from Corporate to Nonprofit Work

by Kimberly Sarmiento

Nonprofit Work

Have you ever thought that getting away from the corporate grind and working for a cause you really believe in would be the ideal next step in your career? Dozens of my clients each year want to do just that. Many times, the skills needed to work for a non-profit organization are often the same ones you used in your corporate career. No matter which group you want to work for, making this transition is simple if you can demonstrate both transferable skills and the ability to do things most non-profits need, including networking, fundraising, and promoting the group and its mission.

The first thing you need to consider when making the switch from corporate to non-profit is that this career change might require a pay cut. Since non-profit organizations are trying to put money toward their cause, they often don’t have the same level of funding to pay employees that a corporation does. While both types of employers are concerned about the bottom-line, non-profits are often staffed by volunteers and may not be able to meet the financial needs of someone trying to take care of a family and pay a mortgage. In fact, many of my clients looking to make this transition are at the end of their career and can afford to “downsize” their salaries. With that in mind, read on for ways to customize your resume and cover letter for non-profit opportunities.

Employees Equal Volunteers, Sort of

At some point in time when you work for a non-profit organization, you will probably be called upon to recruit or manage a group of volunteers (or both). One way to demonstrate what you can do is to talk about teams you have built and/or managed (regardless of size). Keep in mind that managing volunteers isn’t exactly the same as managing employees, so you will need to demonstrate an ability to unite people behind a vision or goal as well.

You can demonstrate this type of management style by highlighting the following:

  • Leading committees or volunteer efforts at work. If you have managed an event or program as part of a committee outside your normal scope of work, this could demonstrate your ability to assemble and lead a team of volunteers. Many of my clients led charitable drives at their employers, such as Toys for Tots drives, sponsorships for Race for the Cure events, etc… Since these types of activities are not required by the employer, they demonstrate the same skills non-profit organizations are looking for.
  • Serving in a leadership position (small or large) with a charitable organization in your community, including Habitat for Humanity, local chapters of large organizations such as the American Cancer Society, or local food banks and church-sponsored charity efforts. Regardless of whether you organized and led a group of 5 or 20 volunteers, you are still demonstrating this key skill. Details about your work should be included on your resume.
  • Managing fundraising and other efforts related to your child’s school or after-school activities. Unless a client needs to pad their experience due to taking time off work, I don’t typically use PTA and Booster Club activities on a resume. However, in you are looking to make the transition into the non-profit world, this experience can demonstrate volunteer leadership and fundraising skills and should be included for this purpose.

Fundraising is Sales

When I was first trained in resume writing, I was told that every hiring manager wants to see one of two things on a resume: how you can make money or how you can save money. Simply put, bottom lines matter and that is no less true in the non-profit world.

Now, a non-profit organization might not be selling a product (though many do have actual products with their logos on them), but they are in the business of raising revenue. So, if you think you have no experience in fundraising, think again.

If you sold something at any point in time in your career, you have “fund raised.”

However, if all you do is highlight several sales bullets on your resume, the organization’s hiring manager might not draw the connection. Read on for key ways to market your sales experience as a transferrable skill for the non-profit world:

  • First, fundraising experience is the best type of sales experience to highlight in a resume for non-profits. Even if your achievement was related to selling car wash tickets for your child’s high school band to go compete at state, it shows skill in fundraising activities. You can highlight significant achievements in this area under a “Select Career Highlights” section or under “Other Experience” or “Volunteer / Community Service” headers on your resume.
  • If the experience you need to highlight is strictly sales, don’t just talk about the top-line result. You should go into detail about the relationship building, customer service, and communications aspects of your sales jobs. In the non-profit world, much of the fundraising efforts you engage in won’t just be organizing events, but also gaining sponsorships, in-kind donations, and on-going financial grants and gifts from key supporters. Your experience in account management and client relations can help you demonstrate these long-term “sales” skills better than just talking about the amount of money you brought in.

Everyone Has a Network

Every employee of any corporation might represent the company brand, but few have the ability to impact the brand the way you can impact the image of a non-profit organization. Your employer will want to know that you can promote the brand and use your network to build relationships within the community, garner business support, and advance the organization’s cause.

You are probably well aware of the fact that you have a business network to leverage, but you might not realize just how extensive your network is. Try to remember that your professional network includes not just co-workers and employees/ managers, but also clients, vendor contacts, people you know who work for your competitor, past, present, and future.

When you are done processing that, realize that the network you will use in the non-profit world isn’t just your professional one, but your personal one as well. This includes friends, the parents of your children’s classmates, church members, neighbors, association members, and more. When you apply for a non-profit position, you should mention in your cover letter that you have an extensive network within that community. If you can demonstrate that through professional or personal accomplishments, that will strengthen your argument. Examples could include:

  • Highlight your book of business or customer portfolio to demonstrate the contacts you have with clients in the surrounding area.
  • Discuss working with multiple vendor contacts if you have. This is another way that you can showcase a large business network.
  • You can mention being a member of various organizations, boards, committees, and groups to demonstrate a high contact list.

Other Transferable Skills to Highlight

Communication: A group’s ability to positively communicate its purpose to the world can be the difference between failure and success for a non-profit organization. If you can demonstrate strong writing, social media, employee communications, public relations, or marketing skills, you can prove you have the ability to take the non-profit’s message to the media or community.

Education: Not only do non-profit organizations want to communicate often and frequently with their audiences, they often find the need to educate the public about the issues they are focused on and their group’s mission. If you have experience instructing consumers on product value and benefits, you can effectively communicate a non-profit’s vision to their audience members. That is a skill to highlight on your resume.

Training & Development: As I mentioned previously, non-profits are often carried by a volunteer workforce. As a result, your ability to train individuals in systems, tools, processes, and best practices could prove invaluable in a non-profit organization.

Budgeting: While non-profits aren’t concerned about their margins, they do need to concern themselves with proving to investors, sponsors, donors, and grant representatives that they are operating leanly and putting as much of the money they receive to their cause as possible. As a result, if you can demonstrate strong skills in budgeting and cost controls, you could prove yourself invaluable in the non-profit world.

Compliance: Non-profit organizations are strictly regulated and monitored by the US government. If you are interested in working in the non-profit world, you should try to demonstrate your understanding of those regulations to the hiring manager. If you do not currently possess that knowledge, you can learn a great deal about these compliance standards online. If you can’t say you have specific expertise in this area, it will still serve you well if you can talk about these issues intelligently in an interview.

Editor's Notes: For general insights on how to write your resume and cover letter to position yourself for a career change, see this other article from Kimberly Sarmiento: Resume and Cover Letter Tips for a Career Change.

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