In Demand Skills in the Social Sector

Every day, we talk to jobseekers who are seeking to transition into careers at socially entrepreneurial organizations. Some come from the corporate world, some are recent graduates, and others are teachers. Whatever the specifics, there is one key factor to these jobseekers’ capacity to catch the eye of a nonprofit employer: the ability to identify, demonstrate, and market their transferable skills.

Transferable skills are skills that are useful and essential to most jobs. They are competencies developed in one situation that can be passed along to another, and are key to career changes across sectors or job functions. According to John Liptak and Laurence Shatkin, creators of Transferable Skills Scale, 75% of skills used in the workplace are transferable. Knowing your transferable skills allows you to explore career opportunities based on personal qualities and abilities, not necessarily what titles you’ve held or where you’ve worked in the past.

The Softer Side of Skills

Soft skills are the personal qualities and interpersonal skills that are needed to perform a job. In the social sector, candidates’ ability to demonstrate their transferable soft skills is extremely important. For example, in a 2005 study conducted by Commongood Careers, a group of 20 nonprofit hiring managers prioritized cultural fit and personality traits above more traditional hiring considerations of experience, skills, and education.

When it comes to soft skills, there is no one-size-fits-all requirement for nonprofits. However, there are some personal qualities commonly sought by socially entrepreneurial organizations, including:

  • Being entrepreneurial
  • Being a self-starter
  • Having a positive attitude
  • Being resourceful (or, as we often call it, “roll-up-your-sleeves-ness”)
  • Working collaboratively
  • Being creative, particularly in a resource-constrained environment

To identify these or other transferable soft skills, think broadly about your past experience in work, school, and civic life. Then, prepare examples of situations when you used these skills—the more specific and factual, the better. As hiring managers often look for candidates who have worked in environments similar to their own organizations, be explicit about your past experience in an environment similar to the one at the organization to which you are applying.  For example, try to demonstrate your experience in a start-up organization or a company experiencing major growth.

Nonprofit hiring managers also seek transferable skills that illustrate connection to the organization’s mission. For some candidates this connection is clear, such as for individuals who have volunteered, interned, or worked at organizations with similar missions. For jobseekers with less familiarity with a specific mission area, there are ways to position your transferable skills to reflect a genuine interest in and connection to mission. When researching organizations that pique your interest, request annual reports, videos, or other collateral from the organization. By studying these materials, you can then identify and communicate your connection to the organization’s mission.

The Hard Facts

Hard skills describe the technical requirements of a job. In some fields, hiring requirements for hard skills are set in stone. For example, most tax accountants are required to have a CPA or other financial training. For many roles in the social sector, however, these requirements are not black and white. Some organizations welcome individuals with nontraditional backgrounds. In fact, many hiring managers embrace the value of these hires’ transferable skills and the diversity of experience they bring to an organization.

Here are some ideas of what kinds of skills are transferable to the nonprofit sector:

  • Sales and Marketing – Skills learned and honed in the fields of sales and marketing can be easily transferred to the field of nonprofit development and fundraising, which is the area of most need within the sector.  Even if you don’t have direct experience in development (e.g. fundraising, grant writing, event planning, corporate partnerships), look to experiences where you were called upon to build high-touch relationships, produce collateral, give presentations, and/or “make an ask.”  People with sales experience, particularly those with a background in identifying prospects and cultivating relationships, can often make a smooth transition into the field of major gifts fundraising.
  • Writing and Research - Individuals with experience in journalism, corporate communications, and other fields that require strong writing skills can often leverage their transferable skills into other types of development and fundraising roles. Additionally, recent graduates from MPA or MPH programs typically possess the research and writing experience needed to break into development.

    Regardless of your background, you can build hard skills in development by volunteering to plan a nonprofit event, joining a nonprofit board, becoming a peer reviewer for grant applications, working with your corporation’s community relations department, or being involved in philanthropic circles in some other capacity.
  • Consulting – Management consulting experience is sought after in the nonprofit sector because of the analytical, research, project management, and client management skills that people with this kind of experience bring.  Consulting experience transfers extremely well to certain roles, such as Portfolio Managers at a social venture fund or other areas where a nonprofit organization provides professional services to other nonprofits.  Corporate partnerships, community outreach, and board relations are other roles in which consulting experience can be valuable.

    One challenge of transitioning from a management consulting (or other corporate) background to a role at a socially entrepreneurial organization is the shift from working for an internal client to an external one. For example, some management consultants focus on industry research and analysis, but do not interact with clients face-to-face. When considering these roles, be prepared to back up why you are able to move from internal to external (or vice versa in some cases), and provide specific examples of your transferable skills.

Other nonprofit roles that leverage jobseekers’ transferable skills include those in information technology (IT), accounting, and general management. In IT, former technical support managers or system administrators find themselves able to leverage their broad backgrounds in technology to be hired as the sole IT member of a nonprofit organization. Accountants can typically transfer their hard skills directly across sectors, but may require additional training in nonprofit-specific accounting. Similarly, management roles require hard skills that span across sectors, but managers new to the sector must be able to demonstrate a strong cultural fit with the hiring organization.

Finally, many graduate degree programs—particularly MBA, MPH, and MPA—provide excellent training in hard skills that can be transferred into a range of nonprofit roles. For example, most MPH and MPA programs require coursework in grant writing and nonprofit finance; be sure to highlight this knowledge when applying to jobs that require these skills.

In closing, recognize that there is room for people with transferable skills in the nonprofit sector.  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 critically about how your transferable skills can be used within the nonprofit sector and make a compelling case to hiring organizations.


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 http://www.commongoodcareers.org