Shifting From the Corporate Sector to a Leadership Role with a Charity or Non-profit Organization

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A leadership role with a non-profit or charitable organization can be both a challenging and rewarding career. Whether you are moving up in the non-profit world or transitioning from the corporate sector to the social sector, you have a lot to consider when applying for a leadership role at a non-profit organization. To determine if the organization and the non-profit field are a good fit for you and whether you can add value to that organization, consider the following areas closely.


No matter what charity or not-for-profit group you are applying to, your understanding of and commitment to their mission is crucial. While your interview will undoubtedly hinge on your grasp of the organizational mission, it is equally important that you are personally committed to the mission of the organization you hope to lead. If you are secretly apathetic about an organization’s mission, you are unlikely to succeed as its leader.

Non-profit work is also often very demanding, especially at the executive level. Non-profits often operate on limited resources, so it is common for non-profit leaders to wear multiple hats and be stretched thin. If you do not feel strongly about the cause, you may quickly find the work demoralizing. On the other hand, if you feel excited about the mission and your organization’s goals align with your own, the job can be gratifying. Leaders of non-profits and charities do meaningful work, so your job satisfaction will be linked to your commitment to the cause.

Organizational Culture

When applying to a leadership role at a charity or non-profit, it is essential to determine if the culture and inner workings of the organization are a good fit for you. For example, would you function better in a large organizational culture with numerous leadership structures or a small one where you can weigh into most of the weekly operations? How important is flexibility or work-life balance? Do you prefer a more team-based decision-making culture? How are employees’ accomplishments evaluated and recognized? Is there a good deal of diversity within the organization? How inclusive is the internal culture?

Do your research before your interview. Some data will be publicly available through groups like Statistics Canada. News stories and blogs can tell you about the recent work of specific organizations. Tap into your network to get more detailed information on an organization’s inner structure, culture, and mission. If you do not know someone who works there personally, you may have a friend of a friend who does. Also, feel free to ask many questions during the interview process.

Transferable Skills

Of course, it is not enough to merely consider whether the organization is a good fit for you. You must also reflect on how you can add value to the organization. As the leader of a non-profit or charity, you will need to bring to the role a level of excellence in the following areas:

Communication – No matter your role within a non-profit, you will be an ambassador for your organization and its mission. Your team will look to you for honest, positive, and transparent communication inside your organization.

People Skills – Building relationships within your team and external stakeholders are crucial for non-profit leadership. Emotional intelligence. Intercultural agility and other people skills will foster healthier internal culture and be important for fundraising efforts.

Problem-solving – As a leader at a charitable organization, you may find yourself wearing multiple hats and tasked with finding creative solutions to the problems facing your organization.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – Leaders today cannot succeed without the skills to examine their own biases and nurture a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

Project Management – Skills including planning, delegating, budgeting, and time management will be critical to realizing your team’s goals.

Focus on your functional experience and skill set rather than the specific settings where you have worked. Highlight accomplishments that relate to the new role for which you are applying.

Differences between the Corporate World and the Non-profit Sector

Are you transitioning from the corporate sector to the social sector? While your skills and experience in the for-profit world can translate to a non-profit organization, you should be aware of significant differences between corporate and non-profit workplaces. Here are some examples.

Compensation – First, non-profits do not offer the same compensation rate as businesses do in many cases. That is not to say non-profits do not pay well, especially at the executive or directorship level, but switching to the non-profit world may involve a slight pay cut. Consider if this is something you are willing to trade off for a job you find meaningful.

Funding – Unlike the corporate setting, non-profits can rely on government, grant funding, or secure a large donor base. As a result, non-profits can become understaffed, have stretched resources, and depend heavily on effective fundraising.

Methods – Radical change-making tactics that might be successful in the business world might be too aggressive in a non-profit. At charitable organizations, decision-making might be more team-driven than top-down. As a result, you may celebrate the small victories rather than sweeping changes. Non-profit work is a marathon, not a sprint.

Measuring Success – Success for the organization is likely to be measured differently at a charity than in business or public service. Nevertheless, the public good and the improvement of society are vital objectives of the non-profit leader.

Of course, every organization is different, so be sure to ask questions to learn as much as possible about the operations of the group you hope to lead.

Willingness to Learn

If you do not have a lot of experience in the non-profit world, consider volunteering with a local cause or serving on a board in your community. This experience will give you a taste of the non-profit world, expose you to different social causes, and show your prospective employer that you are serious about your commitment to their mission. Volunteering or serving on a non-profit board will also help you develop some of the skills that will serve you as a leader in that sector.

Finally, accept that such a significant career change will require adjustment, humility, and adaptation. Get ready to be comfortable being uncomfortable, at least for a time. However, the potential for fulfillment is worth the discomfort. Non-profit and charity leaders have a unique opportunity to empower others, improve the lives of many, and make a meaningful difference in the world from a social standpoint.

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