Having done this now for nearly 25 years, one of the things that has delighted me the most; not too surprisingly, is meeting and working with some of the most talented, dedicated, and awesome people in the world. And these people come to me from many, many different directions.
For example, a week doesn’t go by that I don’t get a call or an email from someone interested in switching sectors and changing up their career. I love these calls and emails! I really do. There is no greater joy in one’s work than making a difference in the lives of others. And if I can help someone make a career change and experience that joy for themselves, then what could be better?
Find an issue that you are passionate about. There are so many non profits doing amazing work in a wide variety of areas. Housing and homelessness. Hunger. Youth development. Education. International development. Music, visual arts, or fine arts. Global health. Disease Eradication. Poverty alleviation. Animal welfare. Healthcare. This is but a brief listing. There are so many more that you are bound to find something that you truly connect with.
Identify the leading organizations in your local area (and beyond) that are working to address this issue. Then choose the one that appeals to you most and research volunteer opportunities with that organization. This is why I suggested starting locally. You will have a far greater chance of success finding a volunteer opportunity with an organization close to home. We’ll return to the organizations outside your area a little later.
Board service. If you aspire to take on a leadership role within a non profit at some point, I’d suggest exploring opportunities to join a Board of Directors or Trustees. If you don’t have the time to commitment to full Board service, consider volunteering for a Board committee. Many non profits have non Board members on their Board committees. This can range from Finance to Fund Development to Programs to ad hoc committees constituted for a specific task (event planning, etc.). Some non profits even require committee service before they will consider having you join the Board itself. There is a whole lot more on the topic of Board service, but I’ll save that for another post.
Be a good, reliable, productive contributing volunteer. Do the work you are asked to do and do it well. This will allow you to get to know people inside this organization and gain a better understanding of the different roles inside a non profit. As you do good work and are recognized for it, you will be asked to take on more and more important and responsible roles. A brief anecdote, I was working with a non profit a few years ago (not my first project with this particular organization either). Part of the work involved talking with the internal leadership team one-on-one. About 80% of the people I met with told me they started as volunteers. This was the team of Directors, the senior most leaders in the agency, and they had started as volunteers.
Set reasonable expectations. While some have done it, you are unlikely to join a new sector at a leadership level. It’s hard to walk into any organization as the CEO. When you throw switching sectors on top of that, your chances are reduced further. You may need to take a step back or – best case – take a lateral step in your career to move from one sector to another. You may very well need to pay your dues in the non profit sector all over again if you wish to make this change.