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Would You Be a Fish Out of Water in a Non-Profit Job?

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Steve Debenport via Getty Images
Steve Debenport via Getty Images

Women I coach often come to me with visions of leaving corporate America for a job with more meaning. They're tired of helping companies sell cosmetics, cars or bonds and they want to find a way to "do well by doing good." This is an admirable quest, but you have to do a lot of research and be the right fit for the non-profit world.

Recently, I spoke with a young woman I'll call Sue, who wants to leave the fashion industry and work for a non-profit. She comes from the finance side of the business, and she's thinking that she will apply her numbers and project management acumen to an organization related to, for example, health, animals or children.

I had five tips for her:

1. Be sure you're comfortable with an ever-expanding job description. Non-profits are structured differently than corporations and they often do not have robust organizational charts. In small non-profits, for example, job titles stretch to encompass many different roles. Sue may have had a finite set of tasks in the fashion finance department, but finance in a non-profit could extend to departments such as operations or HR.

2. Know what your corporate job title means in the non-profit world. Project management can be a nebulous term even in Corporate America (unless you're an IT project manager, for example, which is a specialized role), and even more fuzzy in the non-profit realm. A non-profit's limited resources may mean that there is not a centralized project management role -- just about everyone may have to pitch in.

3. Understand that corporations often have more structure than non-profits. Many women are surprised to find that non-profits are not as tightly buttoned up as corporations. If you were Type A corporate employee, network and research to find out which non-profits will be a cultural fit for you. Some larger non-profits are run by ex-corporate leaders who bring in other ex-corporate leaders and run a very tight ship.

4. Lift the goodwill veil and be certain you can afford the salaries you see. Non-profit salaries can be significantly less than those you find in Corporate America for the same output. Though you will most surely find more meaning in a non-profit job, you will not necessarily find more work-life balance. Non-profits work just as hard as their corporate brethren, and you have to be sure your pocketbook can afford your goodwill.

5. Find out if you will actively do good or just do a job. Any job at a non-profit contributes to the greater good, but some can feel detached from the organization's central mission. I told Sue to think about how close she wants to be to the actual recipients of the non-profit's good deeds. The finance department of a non-profit can be far removed from the hands-on feeling of making a difference.

Moving from one industry to another can be difficult, but the move from a corporation to a non-profit is a cultural shift. When you find the right fit you'll be in the position to help your own career -- and many others in need.

This post was originally published on Kathryn Sollmann's blog, 9 Lives for Women, where she helps women navigate 9 stages of work and life from college through retirement years. Follow her practical advice on "Finding the Work that Fits Your Life".

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric