Is the Nonprofit Sector Right For You?

Is the Nonprofit Sector Right For You?

Here are a few things to ponder for those interested in leaving the for-profit world.

When you work in the nonprofit sector, a common networking request comes from folks in the corporate sector who are considering a job switch: “How can I get a job in your sector?”—along with “Will I be happier?” These usually come from people seeking a stronger sense of purpose in their work. They’re looking for meaning, not just money. Here are a few thoughts from those who have made the transition, and resources for those who would like to do the same.

First, for inspiration, here are few examples of prominent Twin Cities’ nonprofits led by people who left careers in for-profits who are thriving:

Sarah Caruso, president and CEO of the Greater Twin Cities United Way, was in multiple roles in product development at General Mills.


Linda Keene, executive director of the Girl Scouts of Wisconsin and River Valleys, was vice president of market development at American Express and a leadership consultant at the Waterford Consulting Group.


Steve Rothschild, founder of Twin Cities RISE!, was executive vice president at General Mills, where he also was the first president of the Yoplait division.

Jodi Harpstead, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, was president of global marketing and U.S. sales at Medtronic.

This is a short list of just CEOs of nonprofits; there are many other examples of senior-level staff with functional expertise who switched from corporate to nonprofit finance, marketing, and human resources. And often, it’s important to start in such a position before taking the helm.

Dianne Krizan, president of the Minnesota Children’s Museum, left General Mills 14 years ago, where she last served as director of research and development. A chemical engineer by training, she says that her initial motivation to switch sectors came from asking herself, “Where am I going?” and deciding she wanted a larger leadership role in our community. Within a large corporation with thousands of employees, and with her engineering background, Krizan thought her career trajectory was limited. “In larger organizations there’s a tendency to view people within a specialty, to put them in a box around their specific expertise,” she says. It seemed only natural that her experience with organizational strategy, leading people, and managing financials and budgets could transfer directly to a more prominent role in a mission-based nonprofit.

But Krizan soon realized that despite her corporate experience and management skills, her lack of experience in nonprofit fund-raising was a crucial shortcoming in the job search process. To hone her skills, she spent several years in staff positions that gave her direct fund-raising experience (at Way to Grow, an early childhood education program, and later at Minnesota Public Radio, where she was director of development operations). She also completed a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. When the Children’s Museum job opened, she applied, and was ready.

Was the degree helpful? “It helped push my reset button, to reframe my orientation toward the nonprofit sector,” Krizan said. She doesn’t think it’s a necessity for people considering the move, however.

What does help people prepare? “Serve on a nonprofit board, learn to fund-raise, and show you have a commitment to nonprofit mission.” Corporate job applicants are sometimes viewed with skepticism, not because of their qualifications, but because there’s a fear they will not “stick and stay,” she says. This is especially true when you consider Krizan’s most pressing advice for people considering a move: “You will work just as hard, or harder, and make less money.” But there are other benefits. “I have never been more energized and engaged, or more certain that what I do makes a difference.”

A more recent conversion happened in 2012, when Erich Mische left a career that included positions as advisor to Norm Coleman when he was mayor of St. Paul, and as a registered lobbyist for a for-profit firm. He put politics aside to become executive director of Spare Key, an organization that provides mortgage payments for families whose seriously ill or injured children require the parents to take time off work. Mische says the new job allows him to be home rather than constantly commuting to Washington, D.C., and to stay in public service without returning to government.

The transition was made possible because of his transferable skills and experience, including a large network of people and relationships at the local, state, and federal level that he can bring to his new position. Second, “I know how to tell stories. I can tell the story of Spare Key and I know how to make some noise.” Finally, Mische says, “nonprofits need to take risks, and I know how to do that: My career has been all about that.” As for fund-raising? Mische credits his board of directors as great allies and supporters who’ve helped with fund-raising and donor development. With Mische’s ambitious growth goals, Spare Key is on track to reach three times as many families in 2013 as in 2012.

Mische’s advice for those who want to work in the nonprofit sector starts with a question: “What is your pain tolerance? There will be people who tell you ‘That’s not how we do things’ and you will need to persevere.” He also echoed Krizan’s perspective that “you have never worked as hard.” He suggests that a job search should include three questions. “What are you being asked to do? What will you be allowed to do? What are you capable of doing?” The answers will help you find a fit for your skills and ambitions.

Job seekers have multiple job boards and networks to reach out to. For leadership positions, larger nonprofits rely on professional headhunters like Keystone Search, the Chandler Group, and Spencer Stuart. Both the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the Minnesota Council on Foundations maintain job listings. Pollen, the Twin Cities-based social network, provides free job listings for members. Many nonprofits post jobs on LinkedIn, Craigslist, and other online services. Check them out and see whether the nonprofit sector could be a good fit for you. You’ll find plenty of company among those who’ve left the for-profit sector and are energized by their new work.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul–based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors. She was CEO of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2008 to 2012, and has served in executive and leadership positions at Minnesota Public Radio and the Bush Foundation.

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