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Transferable Skills Open New Talent Pools to Nonprofits

September 2007

Many career counselors advise nonprofit job seekers—especially sector switchers and recent graduates—to identify and market their transferable skills. Do organizations really consider these candidates without feeling as if they are taking too great a risk? How open-minded are nonprofits when it comes to looking at candidates that offer skills and experiences gained in other sectors or environments?

In a sector of close to 2 million organizations, the answer is: it depends. Organizations that consider themselves entrepreneurial are generally open to hiring talent from other sectors or nontraditional backgrounds. For many organizations, candidates with transferable skills are welcomed in some job functions, such as operations, management, and finance, but not in others, such as fundraising and program management.

Cultivating a broadly skilled talent pool is key to developing the next generation of nonprofit talent. In the current climate of explosive organizational growth and the pending retirement of "baby boomer" leaders, there will be a huge need for new talent in every functional area in the very near future. These issues require us to start thinking creatively about what a qualified and skilled nonprofit professional looks like, and to be willing to embrace the potential impact of hiring people with transferable skills.

The Softer Side of Skills

In the nonprofit sector, soft skills play a big role in hiring decisions. For example, in a recent inquiry conducted by Commongood Careers, a group of 20 nonprofit hiring managers ranked cultural fit and personality traits above more traditional hiring considerations of experience, skills, and education.

Knowing the soft skills that are most important to your organization allows you to consider candidates based on their personal qualities and abilities, in addition to the positions they have held or where they have worked in the past. Although desired soft skills vary between organizations, we've found that there are some personal qualities that span many nonprofits, including:

  • Being entrepreneurial
  • Being a self-starter
  • Having a positive attitude
  • Being resourceful
  • Working collaboratively
  • Being creative, particularly in a resource-constrained environment
To evaluate the presence of these or other transferable soft skills in potential hires, follow two rules of thumb: stay open-minded and do your homework. Begin by thinking broadly about a candidate's past experience in work, school, and civic life. Research the companies listed on candidates' résumés to understand their past work environments; many desirable soft skills are developed when working in start-up, fast-growing, or highly creative work environments. When speaking with candidates, ask for specific examples of times they were called upon to use a certain soft skill. Demonstrated past success is the best predictor of strong performance in a new role or organization.

In addition to evaluating a candidate's transferable soft skills, probe on personal qualities that demonstrate a mission-fit with your organization. Not all candidates are going to come to you with extensive work or volunteer experience in your specific field, but that does not mean they do not possess the personal qualities required to connect with and embrace your organization's mission. Share as much information as you can—including brochures, videos, or other collateral—with strong candidates in order to give them a sense of the importance of your organization's mission. With openness and candor on your part, candidates will understand the importance of your organization's mission and will be able to demonstrate their personal connection to it.

Are Hard Skills Really Transferable?

It's common for nonprofit hiring managers to have a very specific picture of the hard skills required for a given role. A grant writer needs to have written grants before. Someone working in community affairs must have experience with the community being served. But how hard and fast are these rules? What candidates might you be missing out on by not considering candidates with demonstrated success from different work environments or roles?

We mentioned earlier that many nonprofits are open to hiring people who possess hard skills in operations, management, and finance. Whereas skills required for these functional areas easily cross sectors, there are other skills that can also be successfully transferred to nonprofit roles, such as:

  • Sales and Marketing–Skills learned and honed in the fields of sales and marketing can be easily transferred to the field of nonprofit development and fundraising, which is the area of most need within the sector. Even if a candidate doesn't have direct experience in development (e.g., fundraising, grant writing, event planning, corporate partnerships), don't overlook candidates with hard skills in building high-touch relationships, producing collateral, giving presentations, or "making an ask." People with sales experience, particularly those with a background in identifying prospects and cultivating relationships, can often make a smooth transition into the field of major gifts fundraising. Finally, be open to considering candidates who possess experience in volunteer event planning or other fundraising activities, are members of a nonprofit board, or are strongly networked in philanthropic and/or corporate circles.

  • Writing and Research–Individuals with experience in journalism, corporate communications, and other fields that require strong writing skills can often leverage their transferable skills into other types of development and fundraising roles. Additionally, recent graduates from master of public administration (MPA) or master of public health (MPH) programs typically possess the research and writing experience needed to break into development.

  • Consulting–Management consulting experience is sought after in the nonprofit sector because of the analytical, research, project management, and client management skills that people with this kind of experience bring. Consulting experience transfers extremely well to certain roles, such as portfolio manager at a social venture fund or other areas where a nonprofit organization provides professional services to other nonprofits. Corporate partnerships, community outreach, and board relations are other roles in which consulting experience can be valuable.

    One challenge of transitioning from a management consulting (or other corporate) background to a nonprofit role is the shift from working for an internal client to an external one. For example, some management consultants work in the trenches of customer research but do not interact with clients face-to-face. When considering these candidates, probe their knowledge of and experience in client-focused environments and be prepared to connect these hires with mentors or other internal staff to support their transition.

  • Information Technology (IT)–Thinking creatively about IT staff can yield great results for nonprofits. Coined by TechSoup.org as "accidental techies," administrative or operational professionals who have been responsible for technology and systems management in past jobs can easily transfer these skills to a nonprofit environment. Similarly, technology professionals who have been specialists in a large department or corporation, but who are seeking more autonomy and ownership of their work, also transfer well to the nonprofit sector. In addition to technology skills, look for strong customer service skills and a friendly, patient demeanor.
Finally, many graduate degree programs—particularly master of business administration, MPH, and MPA—provide excellent training in hard skills that can be transferred into a range of nonprofit roles. For example, most MPH and MPA programs require coursework in grant writing and nonprofit finance.

When it comes down to it, a candidate's past success using a specific set of skills and competencies is the best indicator of how he or she will perform in a new role. Whether a hire is new to a job function or to the sector, remember that this person's ability to call upon his or her soft and hard skills in a new role is what most ensures success. By considering candidates with a variety of transferable skills, you will diversify your staff and increase the impact of your organization.

Commongood Careers
© 2007, Commongood Careers

Commongood Careers is dedicated to helping today's most effective social entrepreneurs hire the best talent. Founded by nonprofit professionals, Commongood Careers offers personalized, engaged services to job seekers and organizations throughout the hiring process as well as access to a wealth of knowledge about careers in the social sector.