Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector: Shifting Your Focus from the Bottom Line to a Better World

It's no secret the nonprofit world is undergoing dramatic change. A sector once known for starry-eyed idealists and seat-of-the-pants grassroots organizations increasingly is embracing MBAs, entrepreneurship, and business models based on the practices of Fortune 500 companies. And who can blame it? In an era of declining public-sector funding for social programs, nonprofits increasingly are expected to pick up the slack.

Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector: Shifting Your Focus from the Bottom Line to a Better World, by Laura Gassner Otting, is a handy guide for those looking to join the swelling ranks of business-minded nonprofit leaders. Otting, founder and president of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a search firm that works with nonprofit organizations, explores her topic in depth, from outlining the differences between corporate and nonprofit work environments, to providing an overview of how the nonprofit world works and is organized, to offering readers a road map to that perfect nonprofit job.

Much of the book is devoted to dispelling myths about the sector, such as the idea that nonprofit organizations are hopelessly disorganized or that nonprofit employees are paid starving wages. And it's clear the author, who has devoted her career to helping nonprofits run smoothly, knows what she's talking about. Yes, she writes, salaries are lower in the nonprofit world, but that fact is often balanced by more freedom and responsibility and impressive-sounding job titles. Yes, she notes, the culture at some nonprofits can be loosey-goosey, but at the same time employees at most nonprofits believe in and are united by a common mission. Otting also explains how for-profit skills translate to the nonprofit world. Portfolio managers become directors of development, while for-profit product managers often become nonprofit program officers. She even offers a corporate-to-nonprofit-speak dictionary in which "earn a profit" becomes "generate revenue, while "grow and develop your customer base" becomes "manage and expand your constituency."

The specificity of Otting's advice is most helpful, however, when she gets into the nitty-gritty of actually applying for a nonprofit job. Included are Web sites for nonprofit job seekers, examples of cover letters and resumes, and commonly asked interview questions. Otting also addresses the question of whether nonprofits are biased against sector switchers. No, she says, but by the same token don't fool yourself into thinking that just because you had a big job at Morgan Stanley you'll be a shoo-in for that executive director or nonprofit CFO position you have your eye on.

This reviewer had one quibble with the book: Sprinkled throughout are stories from people who actually made the switch from the corporate world to nonprofit work. While these accounts are helpful in putting real stories to the sometimes abstract concepts Otting discusses, almost everyone Otting interviews was either an executive or senior manager before they made the switch, and most are either alumni of an Ivy League school or well-connected to what used to be called the "old boy network." Yes, the book's title suggests it's for those who are transitioning to the nonprofit sector, but what the title leaves out is the fact that the book really is intended for those who are transitioning from lucrative high-level positions — and not so much for the veteran corporate secretary or shop-floor manager ready to contribute his or her hard-won skills to something bigger than the pursuit of a healthy bottom line.

Still, no matter your expertise or current position, by the time you finish Otting's book you should have a pretty good idea of how to translate your unique talents into a satisfying and productive career in the nonprofit sector. In an environment in which nonprofits increasingly are desperate for committed, skilled leaders willing to work long hours for lower pay in often less-than-glamorous settings, that's no small accomplishment.