“I think I’d like to work in the nonprofit sector, but I’m not sure where to start,” is a common sentiment among those contemplating a major career change. A great way to start any new job search—especially one that involves a significant shift in focus, such as moving from one sector to another—is to dedicate substantial time to self-exploration.
While this article focuses on self-assessment and exploration, it is important to put this process into the context of the broader career transition. It can be helpful to think about career transitions as a five-step process, with key questions to ask at each stage:
The initial step—the focus of this article—is critical, yet people often skip it and go directly to more concrete activities such as searching for job postings or updating resumes. However, just as a company must clearly define a role and its responsibilities before starting to interview candidates, an individual job seeker should start by defining the characteristics of their ideal position.
Gaining clarity on your motivations, aspects of jobs that are most appealing to you (e.g., sector, function, work environment), and the set of transferable skills you have and enjoy using will help you focus your job search. This will enable you to avoid pursuing opportunities that are not a great fit and will help you articulate why you are right for the job when you do pursue an interesting opportunity.
In addition, taking time to explore what you are really passionate about is critical to the nonprofit transition. One senior nonprofit leader who has hired a number of individuals from the for-profit sector noted: “The issue of passion really matters… if the passion’s not there, ultimately the cultural fit’s not there.” An individual in the process of a transition to the nonprofit sector added, “I thought about moving into the nonprofit sector a few years ago when presented with an interesting opportunity. But I wasn’t really ready, and I ended up taking another job in the for-profit sector. Now I know I’m ready because I feel so strongly about education that I’m not looking at anything else.”
There are many questions that all professionals considering a career move—whether within a field or cross-sector—should ask themselves as part of the self-assessment process:
If you are thinking of making a career shift into the nonprofit sector for the first time, there are several additional questions you should ask to assess both whether the sector shift will be right for you and what types of opportunities to pursue:
These questions are only a starting point, to help you assess why and how strongly you are drawn to the nonprofit or social impact sector and to help you start to define the types of opportunities you would most like to pursue. Once you begin to target particular opportunities, you will start to ask more specific questions about roles, responsibilities, and fit with the organizations you are considering. There are also a number of self-assessment tests available for either individual use or for use with a career coach. These tools—cover areas such as interests, skills, personality, and behavioral characteristics—won’t necessarily give you a precise list of which jobs to pursue, but they will help you better articulate your interests and values as well as characteristics of jobs or organizations that might be a good fit for you.
While self-exploration certainly includes a fair bit of quiet contemplation, it should not be done in a vacuum. It is important to include others in the process. That can be done in a variety of ways, including having informal conversations with friends or mentors who know you well; holding informational interviews with nonprofit managers in roles you think you might enjoy; or meeting with a career coach. One person that changed sectors noted, “I found it extremely helpful to listen to others’ career path stories, to give me mental models of what my own path might look like.”
At the end of the day, this collaborative process will not only give you important insights as you consider the next stage in your career, but it will also help you start building the network of contacts that will be invaluable to you later in the job search.
A version of this article originally appeared on Bridgespan.org.