Mid-career professionals find it harder and harder to transition into the field at other than an entry level, with scores of applicants who, by the age of 30, already have seven to ten years of development experience.

Twenty five years ago, one of the principal ice-breaking questions at gatherings of fundraising professionals was, “What did you do before you got into the development field?” Today, many young people enter the profession directly out of college—many having served as student fundraising volunteers, and some even having degrees in nonprofit management. Mid-career professionals find it harder and harder to transition into the field at other than an entry level, with scores of applicants who, by the age of 30, already have seven to ten years of development experience.

At the same time, mid-career professionals from outside the nonprofit sector can bring valuable skills and perspective to a fundraising team. Skills such as marketing, business development, customer relationship management, analytics, and strategic and financial planning are increasingly applicable, for example. These professionals can sometimes more easily relate to board members and donors who have spent their own careers in the corporate sector. And they can also help development colleagues whose careers have not given them first-hand knowledge of the for-profit world.

Many “non-traditional” candidates, however, don’t even get a chance to interview, being told that the risk in taking someone with only “related” experience is deemed too high, particularly when candidate pools contain several individuals with a proven track record within the development profession. Here are some of those risks and perceived risks, together with some suggestions on how to address or overcome them:


Employers want to hire individuals who will successfully fulfill job requirements and stay in their jobs long enough to make important and lasting contributions to their departments, their colleagues, and their overall organizations. Employers rarely have the opportunity to spend more than a couple of hours evaluating a candidate’s chances for success, and they aim, consciously or unconsciously, to reduce the number of risks associated with a successful hire.

Unknowns include:

    1. Will the candidate adjust to our organizational culture?
        • Candidates with experience in the organization or a very similar organization (similar in mission, size, etc.) and with a personal passion for the mission are seen as lowest risk.
        • Candidates with no experience in the organization or a similar organization are seen as higher risk.
      • Candidates with no experience in nonprofit organizations are seen as posing the greatest risk.
  1. Will the candidate perform well in the position?
    • Candidates with experience in a similar position, or in a position that typically reports to or works as a close colleague to the position being filled, are seen as lower risk.
    • Candidates without experience in a similar position, but who have worked in a position that has had the opportunity to engage with and observe others in a similar position, are seen as posing moderate risk.
    • Candidates without any experience in or around such a position are seen as highest risk.
  2. Will the candidate and candidate’s family adjust to a geographical relocation
    • Candidates who live or have lived in the organization’s location appear to reduce or remove any risk of geographical misalignment.
    • Candidates who have not themselves lived in the organization’s region but who have connections—friends, family, close colleagues—in the organization’s region and have traveled frequently to the region are seen as having a moderate level of risk.
    • Candidates with no experience at all in a given region appear to pose the highest risk; this perceived risk is elevated if they suggest that they will begin a commuting relationship with their spouse/partner or family.

Reducing Risk or Perception of Risk

Experience in the profession does not always provide better preparation for a given position. Experience in another field may indeed create a stronger foundation for success, but candidates coming from outside the profession must find alternative ways of preparing and must be able to present this preparation in language that will capture the attention of hiring officers and search firms, or at least to those firms willing to take a more creative approach to talent management than firms committed to a narrow “like to like” philosophy.

Adjusting to organizational culture

    • Candidates with personal passion for a mission need to demonstrate that passion and be able to share stories that illustrate the impact they have had on supporting organizations with similar missions—as alumni, as grateful patients, as subscribers or members, as donors, as volunteers.
    • Most of the successful mid-career transitions we have encountered have been made by individuals who already had a close tie to the organization; virtually every successful transition involves demonstrated passion for the organization or an organization with a very similar mission.
  • The shift from a for-profit to a nonprofit culture can be jarring; those with experience as active and engaged volunteers, ideally as board members in nonprofit organizations, usually make smoother transitions.

Adjusting to a position

    • Candidates attempting to cast their own positions, especially in the for-profit sector, as similar to nonprofit leadership positions often come across as naïve; they may be correct in some or many respects, but even when they are, listeners may not understand well enough to hear and appreciate the parallels.
    • This is the hardest risk to overcome, and we recommend acknowledging this fact up front.
    • At the same time, talented fundraisers are not necessarily talented managers; candidates with proven management skills, including demonstrated ability to hire and retain a high-performing staff, bring important talents and skills that candidates coming off the fundraising “front line” into a management position for the first time may or may not have. Candidates should be prepared to share stories of staff members they have hired and mentored, and of high-performing teams they have built. They should acknowledge that the measures of performance will be different but show that they are leaders that top performers want to follow.
    • Individuals making a mid-career move often have a better idea of what they want to do when they grow up—of what is most important to them in their careers. They should convey that they are making considered choices and be prepared to discuss the thinking behind their choices. Demonstrating that they know what they want to do, and why, may convince listeners that they are likely to stay longer than individuals who have not gone through the same thought processes.
  • Alignment with mission and culture are much harder to achieve if they do not already exist, whereas acquiring the skills of a position can most certainly be accomplished by intelligent and motivated learners.

Adjusting to a new geographical location

    • The most likely transitions will be made within communities where candidates are known, respected, and trusted; where they have built the relationships that flow naturally into and out of the mission and organizational alignment described above.
  • If an organization is located in a city that is not attractive to a large number and wide variety of candidates, then candidates with clear ties to that city have an opportunity to give reassurance where relocation is involved; such ties—for example, a desire to relocate to be closer to aging parents—should be mentioned and even emphasized.

The demand for excellent candidates greatly exceeds supply, and ALG is committed to expanding and strengthening the candidate pool by helping highly talented individuals make successful transitions into the field. If you have not done so, please join the Philanthropy Career Network and contact us if you would like help in positioning yourself for such a transition.

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