Answers to Readers' Questions about Misused Grants, Leaving Academe for Charity Work, and More
By Alison Stein Wellner
The Chronicle's Philanthropy Careers asks its readers to submit questions about job hunting, recruiting, and management challenges in the nonprofit world. In our monthly advice column, we respond to some of those inquiries with tips about resources and wisdom from experts in the field.
Q. I am an assistant professor in the humanities, but I have decided to leave academe. I see myself working for a nonprofit organization in the field of education or culture, but I am not sure what kinds of jobs I could aspire to, nor how to make that transition. I would love to end up in a management or project-management position. Any advice on how to get there?
A. Your first step is to figure out what field you're really interested in pursuing -- education or culture -- and narrowing that down to a list of nonprofit groups where you would like to work. You're in for a bit of concentrated introspection, says Theresa M. Szczurek, a career consultant in Boulder, Colo., who has helped people move into nonprofit jobs. She suggests that you think about what's important to you and consider your background: "What are your unique talents, experiences, education, and aptitudes that mold how you can contribute?" If you're stumped, you might want to check out her book, Pursuit of Passionate Purpose (John Wiley& Sons, $24.95, 2005). It contains several exercises that are designed to help career changers figure out what to do next.
After you have identified the charities where you would like to work, sign up as a volunteer. This will help you get to know people who hire employees -- and also whether the nonprofit world is a good fit for you. (Check out this previous edition of Hotline, which discusses getting hired from the volunteer pool.)
When you are ready to start going out on job interviews, you should be prepared to show that you understand the difference in culture between the academic and the nonprofit worlds, and that you're able to make the transition, says Stephen Zawistowski, senior vice president for national programs at the ASPCA, in New York. He came to the ASPCA in 1988 from a job as a professor of animal behavior and has since hired employees from academe.
Scholars face a couple of specific challenges when moving to the nonprofit world, he says. For example, many are used to a more leisurely work pace than a typical charity employee enjoys. "The academic timeline is run on three- or four-month blocks -- you'll often hear, 'I'll get to that at the end of the semester,'" he says. "But if you're running a department, there's typically a bit more urgency -- financial reports need to be done monthly, for example."
To bridge this cultural gap, tell a prospective boss that you're ready for a faster pace. For example, says Mr. Zawistowski, "highlight the projects that you have brought to completion -- one of the plagues [in charities] is the projects that get started and then languish."
Another obstacle job seeker from academe face is a lack of management experience. But, Mr. Zawistowski says, you can also apply some creativity to best showcase the type of management experience that faculty members typically accumulate. For example, have you worked with graduate students? That counts. Can you discuss a project that worked out well? You might want to talk up the experience of completing a book, or your Ph.D., suggests Mr. Zawistowski.
"Completing a Ph.D, if nothing else, requires a certain amount of perseverance," he says. "And I don't know anyone who hasn't had at least one jerk on their dissertation committee, so you've probably dealt with difficult personalities, and you have to be self-starting and work on a timeline," he says. All those things, he notes, suggest project-management skills.
You should also play up your communication skills, he says: "The whole art of academia is creating a persuasive argument, marshalling the facts and presenting them quickly and easily." In charities, those are all skills that are very helpful, as many jobs depend on communicating a mission to the public or to donors.
The Chronicle's sister publication, The Chronicle of Higher Education, has a wealth of information to guide people who want to leave the academic world to work at nonprofit organizations and other types of employers.
Q. I am currently working in for-profit financial services, but have an extensive background in nonprofit fund raising. I'd like to make the transition into the grant-making world, preferably working for a corporate foundation. But I've met with no success so far. Are there recruiters who deal with such foundations, and if so, how should I approach them?
A. Certainly, recruiters have foundations as clients, says Kerry Moynihan, managing partner at the Christian & Timbers search firm, in Tysons Corner, Va. But you should be aware that recruiters aren't in the business of helping people make career changes.
"The job is to find someone who has the exact right fit of experience and temperament for the culture of the hiring organization," he says. When a recruiter is trying to fill a top spot at a foundation, he or she is typically looking for someone with grant-making experience.
So, when you approach a recruiter, "connect the dots for them," says Mr. Moynihan: in your cover letter, clearly highlight the skills in your background that are closely analogous to the job you seek -- such as the extensive experience in fund raising that you mentioned. Recruiters get hundreds of résumés each week, he says, so "don't expect them to figure it out."
Check out this previous Philanthropy Careers article about dealing with headhunters.
Q. What are grant makers' attitudes or policies toward giving financial support to charities that are running a budget deficit?
A. It all depends on why that budget deficit occurred, says Linda Carter, president of the Community Foundation of Broward, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Many situations might tip a charity into the red, she says, and not all of them will scare off a potential grant maker. For example, she says, "many times nonprofits develop a deficit because they run programs at full scale even though they haven't secured full funding for implementation." Or a charity could have faced an unpredictable drop in donations, a major corporate donor's relocation or shifting priorities, or a delayed government reimbursement. Generally, a grant maker is less likely to withhold support if a charity's budget woes are the result of unusual circumstances, rather than a pattern of poor cash management or unethical behavior. In the latter cases, she says, "We would definitely pull our funding until the organiation made dramatic changes."
Another factor that influences a grant maker is whether the charity has a plan to deal with the deficit and its causes, says Ms. Carter. Such organizations should make extra efforts to communicate about their budget difficulties, she says, and to discuss their strategy to get out of the hole.
For more information about the financial woes charities can face -- and how to dig out of them -- take a look atWhy Nonprofits Fail, by Stephen R. Block. (Jossey-Bass, $27.95, 2004). For more about how grant makers operate, a helpful book is Demystifying Grant Seeking, by Larissa Golden Brown, Martin John Brown. (Jossey-Bass, $26.95, 2001). And for more books on the grant seeking process, explore The Chronicle's Nonprofit Handbook online.
Q. I am a 58-year-old woman who has helped raise more than $300-million over a 30-year career. I have just been dismissed from my job as a vice president at a charity (I blew the whistle on unethical practices) and am now looking for work. Do you have any advice for older workers who have much to offer but whose wrinkles may put employers off?
A. Your age could be a potential liability, since illegal age discrimination is an unfortunate reality. But if you highlight your experience, you should do well in today's job market, says Charles A. Rhoads, managing director of the Houston office of Boyden Global Executive Search. "experience is being valued over potential," hee says. Indeed, he adds, the last five candidates he placed in senior-level nonprofit positions were between the ages of 51 and 62. (For more information on how to overcome age discrimination while job seeking, see this previous Philanthropy Careers article.)
The same goes for the whistle-blowing. "I would advise you to turn it into a positive," says Mr. Rhoads. These days, he says, with charities and businesses concerned about complying with the 2002 federal corporate-accountablity statute known as Sarbanes-Oxley after its legislative sponsors, a candidate who can demonstrate business ethics should be looked upon favorably. "You need to package yourself as an ethical, energetic, and experienced performer with a measurable track record," he says.
Just be cautious when you are discussing the situation with your former employer on job interviews, suggests Mr. Moynihan, the recruiter from Christian & Timbers. You don't want to come across as bashing the organization where you worked. Stick to verifiable, public facts, such as an efficiency rating that went down, or an investigation by a state attorney general. And be prepared to offer a host of glowing references from other employers in your past.
Got a question about job hunting, recruiting, or managing in the nonprofit world? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.