01/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Profit from a Career Switch to the Non-Profit Sector

Hey, all you laid-off, middle-aged bankers, accountants, programmers, marketers and other well-trained corporate types out there--listen up: Ever thought about working at a not-for profit?

The business world is crumbling all around us, but non-profits have been growing faster than either the business or government sector--and they're facing a shortage of talent. Best of all, the non-profit sector is gradually waking up to the potential of encore career switchers--people who want to move into new lines of work with meaning in the second half of life.

The MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures reported in June that a big shift in focus already is well underway. They released a report showing that 5.3 to 8.4 million people between the ages of 44 and 70 are doing work that combines income and personal meaning with social impact, and noted that half of the people in this age group not already in encore careers see this as their future career direction.

But are non-profit employers interested in hiring them? Last month, MetLife and Civic Ventures released a second wave of research, this time focused more specifically on non-profit employer attitudes. This study contained more good news for anyone contemplating a non-profit career move:

--Non-profits are worried about finding top talent as they grow; 42 percent see recruiting and hiring talent as a top concern.

--Non-profits that have experience hiring late-career or retired workers are more likely than other employers to see them as appealing candidates, by a margin of 53 to 40 percent, and they seem to like candidates who've switched to non-profits from the business world.

--Nearly 70 percent say encore workers bring valuable experience to non-profits.

Non-profits are hardly immune to the effects of recession. Demand for their services will rise dramatically in the coming months and years as poverty levels and home foreclosures rise, yet they also face pressure on their own revenue sources. The bear market in stocks will force foundations to cut back on grants as their endowment portfolios shrink, and donations from frightened high-net-worth individuals will fall, too.

But longer term, non-profits are expected to keep growing. In fact, the sector will need to hire 640,000 new senior managers by the year 2016, according to The Bridgespan Group, a strategic consulting firm that works with non-profits. And Bridgespan's data shows that the total number of non-profit groups grew at a 6 percent annual rate from 1995-2004.

"All the data says there is a looming leadership deficit," says David Simms, managing partner of Bridgestar, an arm of Bridgespan that recruits managers for non-profit positions. "That's not to say there aren't talented people already in the non-profit sector, because there are. But in terms of supply and demand, you have older boomers leaving to retire or simply to do something new. So there will be a lot of positions to fill."

Simms says job seekers don't need to target only non-profits where they have subject expertise, or even a pre-existing passion for the work. Employers, he says, are looking for people with functional expertise in areas like finance, technology, marketing and communications and general management.

But transitioning to non-profit work does require some recalibrated thinking. He advises job-seekers to get their feet wet by volunteering or serving on the board of a non-profit, which can be a great way to learn about cultural and organizational differences.

Compensation also can be an adjustment. Pay may not be at Wall Street levels--that is, if there actually are any Wall Street jobs left for comparison. "They pay a bit less than the private sector, but it's not like you have to survive on peanut butter," Simms says.

Job-hunting techniques also need adjusting. Only 10 percent of non-profit openings are posted on any of the online job boards, although Bridgestar itself operates a site for non-profit senior management jobs that it hopes will grow into a major portal for these opportunities.

And most non-profit hiring is local; candidates generally aren't interested in relocating and most employers are too small to have funds available to pay for relocation. That makes local person-to-person networking the most important job-hunting tool, Simms says.

"Friends serving on boards of non-profits can be a great networking tool. Also think about your alumni association or your university's career resources. Non-profits will often notify them of openings."

You can find more background articles and research on this topic over at