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How to switch to the nonprofit world

Q: I’ve had a successful senior-level career, and I’m getting close to retirement. However, there are other things I’d still like to do, so I’m looking to make a change. How do I get experience that will take me from my current role to something more volunteer-based? Are there more formal ways for me to make the kind of contributions that I want to make?

A. The good news for nonprofits is that many people in your situation have the time, energy, and business expertise that nonprofits and government agencies are looking for to enhance the effectiveness of their organizations.

For those executives looking to join a nonprofit board or consult to nonprofits, building previous volunteer experience is a great way to strengthen your qualifications. The expertise needed for sustainable work in a nonprofit is something that should be developed over a number of years, not just at the end of your career. Ensure that your resume and LinkedIn profile identify your previous volunteer experience in as much depth as your regular work experience. Give it equal billing in your professional history, as LinkedIn especially will draw from that information to connect you with people in your network who are in need of your skills and knowledge.

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Another excellent resource to expand your options for using your professional skills in a meaningful capacity is Executive Service Corps of New England. ESC strives to enhance the effect of nonprofits through high-quality consulting services, capacity building, leadership support, and programs provided by experienced professionals. Julie Crockford, executive director of ESC of New England, describes executive consulting as “an incredibly rewarding post-retirement path, especially in the nonprofit sector.”

As you explore these options, evaluate what your level of commitment can be. Is this something you see as a full-time endeavor, a part-time project, or an avocation? Whatever it is, you need to clearly understand what you’re getting into and what you can offer. Be aware of how a nonprofit consulting role could differ from your previous roles — these organizations might have a very different culture or might work very differently than the ones you’re coming from.

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Remember that this is not only your opportunity to contribute — it’s also a great opportunity for you to learn. You are a guest in someone else’s world while you develop an understanding of the unique challenges they face. Learn before trying to take charge. How does the organization communicate? What is the speed at which change happens? What has the strategy been, and what it will be going forward? Observe how the new environment works and be careful of “corporate tunnel-vision” that might prohibit you from recognizing that there is more than one right way to achieve something.

Consulting to nonprofit organizations is an excellent option for those who wish to use their career skills for a worthy cause, learn new skills, and give back to the community in a meaningful way.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston, and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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