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Act II: Pursuing a Nonprofit Career in the Second Half of Life

by Commongood Careers

The reality of baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—approaching retirement age is causing a stir in most industries, and the nonprofit sector is no exception. While some fear an exodus of retirement age employees from their current nonprofit leadership positions, others predict an opportunity to attract a new crop of talent, specifically retirement age adults who are now seeking a “second career” in the nonprofit sector.

Factors like the amount of savings needed to retire comfortably certainly weigh into the decision to pursue a second career. However, a desire to foster social change is also driving this phenomenon. For example, a recent study conducted by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures found that 58% of those currently in their 50s are interested in pursuing jobs that improve the quality of life in their communities and contribute to the greater good.

The opportunity for people nearing retirement age, particularly professionals from the private sector, to make significant contributions to the nonprofit workforce has huge potential, according to David Bank, Senior Vice President of Civic Ventures, an organization helping society achieve the greatest return on experience. “There is evidence that older adults bring a certain work ethic to a job, by virtue of having so many years of experience in the workplace,” said David. “A number of employers have found that older workers have better attendance and lower turnover, making them a more reliable and cost-effective group to employ. These benefits of an older workforce also apply to professional positions in the nonprofit sector.”

Making the decision to pursue a second career in the social sector is one thing; landing the right job is another. To prepare for a successful transition, the staff at Commongood Careers suggests the following ten strategies:

Tip #1: Leverage your transferable skills.

One of the first stages of any successful job transition is to identify, demonstrate, and market your transferable skills. This is especially true for older adults who have developed a tremendous skill-set over a 30+ year career. The nonprofit sector is full of people with skills developed in other work environments and sectors. Understanding the personal qualities and the technical competencies that you have developed over the years can make you a very strong candidate for a variety of positions. It is your responsibility, however, to think carefully about how your transferable skills can be used within the nonprofit sector and to develop this rationale into a compelling case for hiring managers. Read Using Transferable Skills to Make a Career Change for more information.

Tip #2: Give your resume and cover letter a makeover.

Depending on your work history, it may have been a while since you updated your resume. Start by making sure all of your work history and other factual information is up to date. Then, take a look at the overall tone and writing style of your resume. Use active language, write in a style that is easy to follow, avoid including irrelevant information, and make sure that your resume is formatted in a clear, concise, and professional manner. Most importantly, use your resume to tell your professional story in the way that you would like it to be told. For other best practices for creating strong resumes, read Ten Resume Tips for Nonprofit Jobseekers.

In your cover letter, avoid statements such as “I am retiring from my current position and now want to seek opportunities in the nonprofit sector so I can give back to my community.” Rather, state that you’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a full career in your field of expertise and that you are now looking to leverage your experience through a nonprofit opportunity. Be specific about your connection to both the particular position and organization you are interested in, and the reasons why you are uniquely qualified to succeed in that position. For more information on writing targeted cover letters, read Writing a Winning Cover Letter.

Tip #3: Create pathways into the nonprofit sector.

Networking is a step for any nonprofit jobseeker, regardless of age. Older jobseekers, however, have the advantage of a lifetime’s worth of business and personal connections. Make a list of everyone you know who has a connection to the sector and set up informational interviews or request introductions as appropriate. Remember that you may have private sector friends with strong nonprofit connections from board service, volunteering, or philanthropy. While networking and exploring inroads into the sector, use every available opportunity to learn about the missions and cultures of a variety of organizations, as well as to build new relationships that might lead to an ideal position. Read It’s Who You Know: Networking for Jobseekers for more on this topic.

Other tried and true pathways into the social sector include serving on a nonprofit board, taking classes in a public service field at a local college, or volunteering at an organization that interests you. Some private corporations, such as IBM, offer “bridge programs” that connect retiring employees with volunteer opportunities.  Abundant connections to volunteer opportunities exist at web sites like Idealist, HandsOnNetwork, and VolunteerMatch.

Tip #4: Be prepared to make a real (and realistic) commitment.

For some, a second career is envisioned as a more meaningful, but ultimately less demanding opportunity. Most nonprofit positions, however, require a substantial commitment of time and energy (often 50+ hours per week). Approach your second career as carefully and professionally as you did at any point in your career. When speaking with a prospective employer about your availability—both short and long-term—be clear and honest about your expectations and availability. Although many organizations are not able to offer short-term, flexible or part-time employment opportunities, if you are clear about your working goals, you will eventually find a nonprofit employer that is able to leverage your experience while also accommodating your current lifestyle considerations.

Tip #5: Sell your experience.

Throughout the application and interview process, remember to present yourself as a person with experience. Besides the inherent knowledge and skills earned through a full career, people with vast experience in a given field are more likely to get up and running more quickly, thus saving an organization valuable time and money in training and novice mistakes. At the same time, it is important to recognize that, even with all the skills and experience you bring, you are new to the nonprofit sector and will have a learning curve. This learning curve will likely be in areas such as organizational culture (See Tip #6 below), decision-making processes, and working with limited resources. Communicate your confidence to add value to the organization combined with the humility to accept that you still have things to learn.

Tip #6: Be aware of the importance of cultural fit in the hiring process.
In the nonprofit sector, cultural fit is one of the most important criteria for hiring managers. While culture varies from organization to organization, many nonprofits value attributes like collaboration, teamwork, flexibility, entrepreneurial spirit, “can-do” attitude, optimism, and exuberant enthusiasm. The existence of a cultural bias may mean that you will have to actively rebut assumptions that you will not be able to “fit in.” Demonstrate your ability to thrive within nonprofit culture by exhibiting the previously mentioned personality characteristics at every opportunity, citing direct nonprofit experience such as consulting or volunteering as evidence that you have experienced and understand the cultural elients in question, and directly address elients of personality/culture fit in discussion with hiring managers.

Tip #7: Prepare for the challenges of a multigenerational workplace. 

In the social sector, career advancement can often be accelerated, meaning that nonprofit managers may be significantly younger than their counterparts in the private sector. You may want to prepare yourself for reporting to someone 10, 20, or even 30 years younger than you. Collaborate with your manager to structure a role that leverages your experience while respecting your manager’s role and the organization’s overall hierarchy. Recognize and embrace the inherent differences that exist between generations in terms of approaches to work and social interactions. There have been several good books written on this subject, including When Generations Collide by Lynne Lancaster and Generations at Work by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak.

Tip #8: Tackle the digital divide.

The digital or technology divide spans more than economic groups; it also tends to span generations. Unfortunately, the perception that older adults are less familiar with—or even scared of—office technology can result in unwarranted ageism in some work environments. To address these misconceptions, be sure to state your technology skills clearly on your resume and during the interview process. If you are someone who has not embraced the technology-enabled workplace of personal computers, Blackberrys, email, and more, take a course or read a guide to increase your knowledge and comfort level. By gaining technology skills, you will become a more attractive and employable nonprofit professional.

Tip #9: Consider being a consultant.

There are many reasons for professionals to explore consulting opportunities as opposed to full-time, permanent employment. This is a decision that you should carefully consider.  Some of the benefits of baby-boomer consulting include: (1) allowing for greater flexibility in scheduling and commitment terms; (2) removing many of the cultural concerns about “fitting-in” with the team; (3) enabling experienced professionals to spend more time as a “thought leader” and reduce their administrative tasks; and finally, (4) making it possible to have an impact across multiple organizations and mission areas. For older adults, these opportunities may be especially attractive. Also, for those used to private sector salaries, consulting in the nonprofit arena can be more remunerative than full-time, permanent employment.  If this path interests you, consider connecting with other professionals already offering consulting services to nonprofit organizations. Not only will this save you the start-up costs of incorporating yourself as a consultant, it will also allow you to build a network among peers and find consulting projects more easily.

Tip #10: Take advantage of online career support and resources.

Whether you are starting to explore second careers or you are well on your way, there are a number of online career resources to help you. Here are a few of our favorites:

AARP: Money and Work
A section of the AARP’s web site focused on employment opportunities and advice for retirement age adults.

Civic Ventures
Through research, publishing, conferences, and outreach, Civic Ventures is reframing the debate about aging in America and redefining the second half of life as a source of social and individual renewal.
An online guide of career resources geared towards finding work that matters in the second half of life.

An online social networking site that calls itself ” the largest online gathering of people who are lovin’ life on the flipside of 50!” Need we say more?

Executive Service Corps Affiliate Network
A nationwide network of thirty-three nonprofit consulting groups that provide services to nonprofits, schools, and government agencies. These services are performed by volunteer consultants who have had senior level positions in business, government, and nonprofits.
A virtual clearinghouse of nonprofit career, consulting, and volunteer opportunities. This vast web site also has a number of articles on a variety of nonprofit career related topics, as well as the opportunity to network and connect with socially-driven individuals.

This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at