by Amy Sample Ward
June 26, 2018
by Amy Sample Ward
June 26, 2018
You work in the tech industry, maybe at a small startup or at a giant corporation, maybe in Silicon Valley or maybe not. And perhaps you sort of even like your job—but only sort of. Once in awhile, something feels missing. You often think that you’d love to do something more meaningful, that makes a positive difference in the world.
Well, you can. Whether you’re a project manager or a developer, there are lots of ways to use the skills you’ve developed in the tech industry for a social mission. The nonprofit sector could be your opportunity to combine that experience with social impact in a way that makes you feel great–while still advancing your career.
Consider this: There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S., making up 5.3% of the GDP. What’s that mean for you? There may be a wider range of mission-driven employers and roles within them than you think. In fact, nonprofit jobs are on the rise—they even kept increasing throughout the last recession. So if you’re thinking about a career move, here’s what you should know.
In the tech industry, you’re expected to be vigilant about opportunities for efficiency and scale. Regardless of job title, most tech workers pick up some sort of experience working to find the tiny tweaks or the big changes that make your service the best it can be. That’s directly transferable to the nonprofit world.
Operations aren’t just about how to make your product or services better—it’s also about processes and workflows. Many tech veterans consider lean and agile approaches to be standard practices everywhere. But trust me, they aren’t. Even common things like daily standup meetings and fast, iterative production schedules are brand new in a lot of mission-driven organizations, which means they can all benefit from those with experience creating cultures based on nimble planning and implementation.
Then there’s the product side of things. Sure, everyone in the nonprofit world hears the words “project management” all the time. Many organizations even have a standardized process or tools for managing projects. Very few, though, think about their work as product management. Tech workers with experience in all that goes into packaging and managing nonprofit “products”—whether they’re services, programs, or applications—can be huge assets to the sector.
In fact, despite the tax-code language of “nonprofit,” these organizations do a lot of work raising funds and don’t actually have to avoid turning a profit. In the nonprofit sector, there’s a lot of investment to be raised beyond cash, too—from in-kind services and trades to long-time partnerships or even cost-share models. You can bring a wealth of benefits to an organization with your experience in building relationships and raising capital.
This doesn’t mean you’ve got to email in your resignation letter tomorrow. You can start by testing out whether changing sectors is a fit first.
Whether you’ve got one year or 20 under your belt in the tech industry, there are lots of nonprofits whose boards of directors you can join. Usually nonprofit boards fall into one of two categories: First, there are working boards, typically at small, grassroots organizations with small staffs, which means board members help carry some of the workloads, whether that’s event-planning or community outreach. Second, there are advisory boards, more common among mid-size to large nonprofits, where board members primarily deal with governance issues and collaborate with staff mainly just via the CEO. Depending on your interests, skills, and available time, you can look for opportunities to join a board that puts your expertise to good use.
If you don’t have time or interest in that, you can always volunteer short-term. Many nonprofits have events that can only succeed thanks to the contributions of volunteers. These events are usually focused on program- or service-delivery or donor engagement and stewardship. Either way, volunteering with the direct work of the organization is a great way to see the mission in action and feel out what they might need. You can listen and learn without having to commit up front.
At a minimum, it never hurts to just start looking for a mission that inspires you. Sign up to get updates from an organization or two in your area or on a subject that interests you. Make a direct donation to support their work. Getting on a nonprofit’s list is a great first step. It means you’ll start receiving more information about their work, which can help familiarize yourself with their world. The better versed you become in what they’re trying to do, the easier it’ll be to spot ways to contribute—possibly even as a full-time hire.
There are lots of open positions in the nonprofit sector right now that are waiting for qualified people from other industries, especially tech-driven ones. So even if you aren’t ready to make a career change today, keep a lookout for smaller ways to get involved. You might even find what you’ve been missing this whole time.