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In-Demand Skills in the Social Sector

By Dana Hagenbuch, courtesy of Commongood Careers

Most nonprofits look to hire people who possess a broad range of transferable skills, or skills that are useful and essential across multiple roles.

Every day, we talk to jobseekers who are seeking to market their skills to nonprofit employers. Some come from the corporate world, some are recent graduates, and others are nonprofit professionals seeking a change. Whatever the specifics, there is one key factor to a jobseeker's capacity to catch the eye of a nonprofit employer: the ability to identify and demonstrate the skills that are in demand in today's social sector.

Transferable skills are competencies developed in one situation that can be passed along to another, and are key to most nonprofit job functions. 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, a candidate's ability to demonstrate soft skills is extremely important. For example, in a recent study conducted by Commongood Careers, a group of 20 nonprofit hiring managers prioritized cultural fit and personality traits above more traditional hiring considerations such as 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 after by many 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 resourceful in a resource-constrained environment

To identify these or other soft skills, think broadly about your past experience in work, school, and 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 like their organizations, be explicit about your past experience in an environment similar to the one at the organization to which you are applying. 

Nonprofit hiring managers also seek skills that illustrate a 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 skills to reflect a genuine interest in and connection to mission. When researching organizations that pique your interest, request annual reports, online 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. For many roles in the social sector, however, these requirements are not black and white. Some organizations, particular socially entrepreneurial organizations, welcome individuals with nontraditional backgrounds. In fact, many hiring managers embrace the value of these hires' skills and the diversity of experience they bring to an organization.

Here are some ideas of what kinds of skills are in demand by 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." 
  •     Writing and research - Individuals with experience in journalism, corporate communications, and other fields that require strong writing skills are often in demand for development and fundraising roles. Additionally, recent graduates from MPA or MPH programs typically possess the research and writing experience needed to break into development.

  •     Management 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.

Other nonprofit skills that are in demand include those in information technology (IT), accounting, and general management. In IT, technical support managers or system administrators find themselves able to leverage their broad backgrounds in technology to fill what is often a sole generalist role in a nonprofit organization. Accountants can typically apply their hard skills directly across sectors, but may require additional training in nonprofit-specific accounting. Similarly, management roles require hard skills that are always in demand, 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, many 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 a variety of 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 skills can be used within the nonprofit sector and make a compelling case to hiring organizations. 

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