Posted: November 7, 2013
Amy Zimerman started her career working as an investment banker, finding success at some of the world’s largest banks. But as the years went by, she questioned her measure of success and wondered if she might be more suited to working in the nonprofit sector.
“I was in a career that wasn’t fulfilling to me,” Zimerman shared, “and I was looking to do something that quite simply had more meaning for me, and more purpose.” Eventually she moved from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit, applying her skills to a mission that resonated more for her.
Zimerman has since worked with numerous organizations, supporting causes like early childhood education and the environment. Today, she advises nonprofits as a consultant and is an instructor in the Certificate in Nonprofit Management through UW Professional & Continuing Education. Along the way, she’s learned a bit about making a smooth transition into the nonprofit world.
As Zimerman started exploring the nonprofit sector, she reached out to people already in it, asking if they’d be willing to let her pick their brain over coffee. When she met with her contacts, she found they often had the same first question: What are you passionate about?
“I would ramble off this list,” she said, “art, the environment, children, women, girls, education and financial literacy – and the list went on and on.” It was at this point, she found, that people ready and able to help her didn’t know how to. “They didn’t know what to do with me, nor did they know how they could help point me in the right direction,” she said. Zimerman realized she needed to find her focus.
On the flip side, many people already have a concrete passion. “For example, maybe someone in a person’s family suffered from cancer and they want to help other people in a similar situation,” Zimerman said. Other times, volunteers become so motivated by an organization’s mission that they want to contribute on a full-time basis.
“You really have to have clarity of focus and a clear idea of what you want to do and what you’re passionate about,” Zimerman said. “When an organization’s programs match your passions,” she added, “your enthusiasm to work there becomes pervasive and undeniable.”
“A lot of people have the notion that when they switch sectors, they can automatically run a nonprofit like a for-profit, but it’s really not as simple as that,” Zimerman said. According to Zimerman, no matter what area of the nonprofit sector you decide to focus on, recognizing the big differences in how for-profit and nonprofit organizations make decisions and measure success will help smooth your transition.
“In the for-profit world,” Zimerman said, “it’s very much an executive decision-making power, where a single individual can often make decisions.” Nonprofits, on the other hand, use a less concentrated decision-making process for large business decisions.
“At nonprofits, decisions often require buy-in among all relevant constituencies – board, staff, donors, volunteers and clients of the organization,” Zimerman explained. The more stakeholders involved in a decision, the more time it can take to make progress. So it’s important to understand that the pace might be different from what you’re used to.
It’s also important to understand that success is evaluated differently in nonprofits than in private sector companies. “In a nonprofit organization, the bottom line isn’t the main measure of success,” Zimerman said. In a for-profit business, success and profit are often one and the same. At a nonprofit, Zimerman pointed out, success hinges on the outcomes of programs and services designed to further the organization’s mission.
Beyond the big things, there are plenty of smaller, more nuanced differences between private sector and nonprofit sector jobs that are often unique to an organization’s specific area of interest. As you might expect, a good way to learn these nuts and bolts is to get involved.
“The more time you spend at a nonprofit organization, the more you learn about how nonprofits operate,” Zimerman said. Talk to people, try volunteering or join a board of directors to start, she suggested. “People are sometimes surprised by how warm, open and inviting the nonprofit sector is,” Zimerman said. “People make time for you, for informational interviews or to share resources.”
Take advantage of that warmth, and reach out for advice. “You can ask someone to review your resume or talk to you about the job you might be interested in,” Zimerman said. “This can help you learn to include relevant skills in your resume or talk about them in an interview” – which is especially important because nonprofits have a business speak all their own. “There’s a new language that people need to understand that reflects the way nonprofit corporations operate,” Zimerman noted.
Regardless of where you’re coming from or going to, changing direction takes commitment. It can be helpful to think of your transition as a process that happens over time – starting with the ideas presented here and continuing long after you’ve moved into the nonprofit sector as you keep learning.
To continue your process, Zimerman recommends checking out relevant nonprofit and public sector certificate programs through UWPCE as well as volunteer management workshops and nonprofit board and leadership workshops, all offered through United Way of King County.
It’s true that changing sectors takes some work, but for Zimerman and so many others, the rewards of a nonprofit job make it all worthwhile. “My transition to the nonprofit sector gave me the opportunity to work on issues that are meaningful on a deeply personal level,” Zimerman said. “For me, nonprofit work is about strengthening the community.”
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