How They Made the Nonprofit Jump

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

One of the most common questions that readers ask is how they can get a job with a nonprofit group. Recent grads and career changers all seem to find the process befuddling. So I posed that question to nonprofit workers themselves. Their strategies were as varied as the work they do. Perhaps their stories can inspire your own nonprofit job search:

· Cara Martin, executive director, Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation -- Mid-Atlantic: "I started out as an unpaid intern with Starlight Children's Foundation a few months after graduation and was hired on full-time after a month."

· Torryn P. Brazell, executive director, National Grants Management Association: "Four years after graduation, I read about a seminar called 'From Secretary to Vice President' at the Vienna Women's Center. So many women come to D.C. (and still do) with their undergrad degree and begin work as 'executive assistants,' as they are called now. The panelists were women who started their careers as secretaries and quickly moved up the ladder in the nonprofit world. It was awe-inspiring. Within three months of the seminar, I was working as a director for a nonprofit in the education area. It wasn't simple. I did my research for making the transition. Immediately after the . . . seminar, I enrolled in the American Society of Association Executives' certificate programs -- education first, then marketing. I began to earn certifications, including advanced certification administrator, where one requirement is developing and launching a certification program; certified meeting professional, since networking events are common in the nonprofit world; and certified association executive, which is looked upon by many as a requirement for becoming an executive director of an association."

· Mike Rawl, principal of Horizon Philanthropic Services: "I began my career in journalism, edited a magazine, then moved into corporate work, managing large marketing and communications departments for 15 years. I left my last company 20 years ago to pursue a career managing foundations and helping nonprofit organizations in Pennsylvania and Delaware. My transition was facilitated by a generous stock option plan. In my experience, most former corporate people who end up working in the nonprofit field do so after they have had a certain degree of success that allows them to follow their dreams or priorities. This is true both for nonprofit employees and board volunteers."

· Summer Spencer, acting director for the D.C. Department of Employment Services: "I was a CPA for Grant Thornton when I started volunteering at a homeless shelter once a week. I absolutely loved it. It became the best part of my week. I did this for several months, when the staff at the nonprofit approached me about an opening for an office manager. I hadn't thought about switching careers, but I was enjoying the volunteer experience so much that I decided to go for it. I eventually moved to a direct service position with a different nonprofit where I helped prepare low-income individuals for the workforce. I started my own nonprofit that later became an affiliate of Goodwill of Greater Washington, where I became vice president."

· Wendy A ngel, public relations specialist, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers: "I had worked for several years as a journalist before wanting to get into PR and marketing. A year into my job search, I accepted a position at a very small architectural firm as the only PR/marketing person. We bid on a job at the ASHRAE headquarters but didn't get it. I kept checking out their Web site for no real reason. One day, I saw a job opening there for a PR assistant and decided to go for it. Although the hiring manager was not someone I had met previously in the bidding process at my former job, my knowledge of the organization definitely helped."

· Elisabeth Gehl, director of public policy for an organization that works on women's issues: "I became interested in nonprofit work after an internship at the Children's Defense Fund the fall after college graduation. After that experience, I was hooked. I had several internships (including two in graduate school) and then was an associate before getting to a director level."

· The Rev. David C. Wacaster, assistant to the rector for Christian formation, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Bethesda: "I graduated from college in '92 and went back home to Meridian, Miss., without a job. I ran into a family friend at a local Chinese restaurant. Since our families went to church together, she knew I was looking for a job, and she told me to give her a call if I was interested. I was at that point where anything would do, so I called her up, had an interview and was hired within a week as a children's case manager; the main qualification was that I had a B.A."

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