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Tips to find your ‘meaningful’ job in the nonprofit world

You can do meaningful work almost everywhere. But that typically isn’t what people mean when they say they want to “make a difference.”

Whether following a longstanding calling or seeking a mid- or late-career change, job hunters who seek soul-satisfying work usually look for opportunities in the nonprofit sector. And end up frustrated.

Most have résumés that trumpet skills or experience prized by for-profit employers. The attributes likely are transferable, but the presentation usually needs to be adapted.

Hirers in the nonprofit world may carry a “sector shifter” bias against candidates who suddenly seem to have drunk a do-gooder Kool-Aid. Or, they may desperately want the skills honed in hierarchical, fast-paced, budget-managing businesses and be eager to make a match.

Here are some ideas about how to shine in a nonprofit job search.

▪ Get to know the sector’s leaders in your community. Attend United Way gatherings, major foundation events and other occasions to meet people who do what you want to do. Shake a lot of hands. Ask questions about their work and their needs.

▪ Watch nonprofit job boards or individual postings by the nonprofits you target in your job search. Then rewrite your résumé so that each application styles your experience and interests to fit the qualifications listed in the posting.

▪ Don’t use a cover letter or goals statement to say what you want from the nonprofit job. Say what you would contribute to meet the nonprofit’s needs.

▪ Understand terms and words that might have different meanings in the nonprofit sector. Read the nonprofit’s annual reports. Decipher their abbreviations.

▪ Be aware of their financial or fundraising pressures. Except at the pinnacle of nonprofit organizations, you need to prepare for and readily accept the likelihood of lower pay than you’ve been making. Don’t say you can if you really can’t.

▪ Reflect positivity. A can-do attitude counts in all organizations but is particularly important in nonprofits that deal with human illness, suffering, abuse and other sad facts of life. Hirers want to believe you can stay up in the face of adversity.

▪ Emphasize your ability to work in a team. Individual stars are needed in every profession, but most nonprofits, especially small ones, need people to wear different hats, fill in for each other and be happy using multiple skills instead of filling a narrow niche.

▪ Show volunteer experience in the field. Even if you show passion, it might be hard to sell if you’ve never put in any time in that area of service.

Aside from making a difference, there are other worthy reasons for working in the nonprofit sector. Many of the positions are hands-on and aren’t apt to be outsourced abroad or lost to automation. Also, most health, social service and development (fundraising) jobs will grow along with the aging boomer population.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star., 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford,