MBA Job Search Advice From Stephanie Lowell - Nonprofit Care

by | March 10, 2009

Stephanie Lowell, HBS 1999, is the author of The Harvard Business School Guide to Careers in the Nonprofit Sector. Always looking to give a fair shake to career options besides the tried-and-true banking-consulting-brand management trio, we tracked her down and got her to share her insights with us.

During her first year at HBS, Stephanie and her peers "were inundated with information and advice from career services about summer jobs." From career and industry research to resume help and practice interviews, Lowell says, "Career services was great." However, "the focus was always on banking, consulting, venture capital, brand management, and then-emerging high-tech and new media jobs. For those of us interested in nonprofit jobs, however, there was not a lot out there." Furthermore, few nonprofits were involved in the traditional recruiting process at HBS.

Frustrated at the dearth of nonprofit career info, Lowell, a member of the b-school's Social Enterprise Club, offered to write "a little pamphlet" that would cover "the job search process and how it was different for the nonprofit job search than the for-profit one." She began writing in August 1998. "Little did I know what it would turn into," laughs Lowell. "As I talked with more and more people, they said things like 'Oh, wouldn't it be great if the pamphlet included a little bit of information on the different subsectors' (e.g,. arts and culture vs. education), or 'It would be so neat to read about how other MBAs have made careers in the nonprofit sector' and other things along the same lines. Before I knew it, I had quite a lengthy book on my hands."

By the time she finished writing, it was spring 1999. Lowell confesses that she "never intended to really publish the book. When it was finally done (and painstakingly 'typeset' on my laptop via Microsoft word, with significant help from Margot Keiper at the Initiative), we spiral bound it with a cool red cover and had a Social Enterprise Club party to celebrate the book's debut. The idea was that all club members would get a copy, and non-members could buy one, and the club would use the funds to help members pursue other job search-related efforts."

But when HBS Publishing got wind of the pamphlet-cum-career guide, they asked Lowell if she would be willing to have it published. "I thought, 'Wow-sure!'" she recalls. "That was in March or April of 99 - my final year of school." The final product - The Harvard Business School Guide to Careers in the Nonprofit Sector - was released in January 2000.

Vault.com: I'll ask the obvious question - why do nonprofits need MBAs?

SL: There is growing recognition that running a nonprofit organization requires just as much management skill as running a for-profit organization, if not more, given the larger number of stakeholders and values at play. For example, a child care center director has to think about leasing space, hiring and training teachers, coordinating the logistics of transportation and food, insurance and billing, etc. - all on top of the child health, safety, and welfare issues. Yet we typically only think of the nurturing, child-focused role he or she might play.

Traditionally nonprofits have been run by people with tremendous experience "in the trenches" or with degrees in the social sciences, with little "management training." As scrutiny of nonprofit performance has grown, so has the recognition that people with management skills can help make nonprofit organizations more efficient and effective. There are two primary ways to achieve this: bring people with business training (i.e., MBAs) into the nonprofit sector, and/or bring management training to folks already in the nonprofit sector. My book focuses on the former - bringing more MBAs (or people with business experience in general) to the nonprofit sector.

It's funny - many nonprofits don't think about hiring MBAs, because of the perception that business people "only think about the financial aspects, and won't be focused on our mission or the nonfinancial realities of our work." At the same time, many MBAs feel that if they were to work in a nonprofit, the organization would not make use of the full range of skills they have to offer. MBAs in the sector are still more of the exception rather than the rule, but this is slowly changing. The more MBAs enter the sector, the more we will be able to break down these misperceptions and increase the management capacity of nonprofits across the country.

Vault.com: You point out that the job search is not as straightforward as it is for something like I-banking or consulting. What are your top nonprofit job-search tips? Any networking advice?

SL: My "Top Four Tips":

  • Be clear with yourself about your goals, objectives, and needs from your job, and think both short-term and long-term. At b-school it's much easier to follow the crowds into the typical MBA jobs - no self-justification needed. And the descriptions of what you're getting yourself into are much clearer. With nonprofit jobs, you really have to know what you want as you wade through information about the different organizations and try to figure out what role you would play there. If you don't know what you want, you're going to have a very hard time finding it.

  • Talk to anyone and everyone, and let your passion shine through. Since there won't be lists and lists of nonprofit jobs in the typical b-school career services office, you're going to need to do a lot more digging. The more people you talk to, and the more you let your natural enthusiasm shine through, the more likely that you will spark an idea in someone's mind and get connected to a potential opportunity.

  • Adjust your resume to emphasize your experience with nonprofits and related work, including volunteer efforts over the years. When I was at HBS, I noticed that in order to keep a resume on one page, people often cut out volunteer-related things from their past, and then used this same resume for all types of interviews. With nonprofits, you need to make sure that those experiences are front and center - giving credibility to your desire to work in the sector. Also, the corporate jargon needs to be toned down - investment banking terms can be confusing to someone who has never worked in the field.

  • Do as much due diligence and preparation as you would for any corporate job search, if not more. I got the sense from some of my b-school classmates that while they would prepare for hours and hours for consulting and banking interviews (HBS even did workshops on the consulting case interview), they would just "wing it" with nonprofits. But I feel that you really have to do a lot more preparation for the nonprofit interview and job search. It's harder to know what the organization is all about and how it's run, and it's definitely harder to know what you'll be doing there. Probably the most important thing you can do in preparation is to be prepared to explain what role you see yourself playing in the organization, based on what you learn about their mission, activities, and current challenges. That's very different than hoping that your case answers make them pick you as a member of the next class of consultants at the Firm.

Vault.com: In the book, you've got some interesting accounts of people who've switched into social enterprise mid-career from the corporate sector. What would you say are the most important things to consider for MBAs moving into full-time jobs in nonprofits? Do you think it's better to ease into the nonprofit world (by volunteering, for instance) while you're still in the corporate sector?

SL: You hit the nail on the head - you can't just "switch" from for-profit life to nonprofit without ever having experience in the field. One of the most frequent pieces of advice I heard from everyone I interviewed was that if you think you might ever want to work in the nonprofit sector, you need to get involved now. It's common sense, really - you wouldn't apply for a job with a high-tech company if you had no interest or experience with technology (not necessarily prior job experience, but something technology related). So why would you think to apply to work in the nonprofit sector if you had never volunteered, served on a board, or had some experience in the field you were considering. Nonprofit executives also look for this experience as a sign of commitment and credibility. They don't want to hire someone who appears out of nowhere.

From a slightly different perspective, it makes sense to volunteer before moving in full time because it gives you a chance to understand the environment and culture of the nonprofit organization, which might feel wonderful to you, or might not. Having the experience early on is the best way to tell.

Vault.com: Can you talk a bit more about the pros and cons of going straight into the nonprofit sector right out of business school?

SL:I should start by saying that this is a personal choice, and whether going straight into the sector is right for you will differ for each person. Basically, if you feel in your gut that the place you'll be happiest is the nonprofit sector, you should go there. But for those whose gut isn't telling them the answer, here are some of the pros and cons.

The Pros:
1. Potentially move into an area of high responsibility much earlier, working with very senior people in the organization and on the board. Lots of folks I talked to said that they were offered nonprofit job responsibilities that they couldn't imagine being offered by a corporation at this stage of life.

2. Develop contacts in the community that you might not otherwise get to meet in a corporate job. You'd be amazed at who you get to have dinner with, and with whom you get into passionate arguments about child care with, when you're working in the sector.

3. Do what you love; have impact on the community. This goes back to the "feeling in your gut" comment above. If you know you love something, go do it!

The Cons:
1. The money. If you need to pay off huge loans, or if you have a desire to be a millionaire by age 30, you should not go into the sector right away. That said, nonprofit salaries have been improving, and there are several sources of support (see next question).

2. May be harder to go back to the corporate world if you find that the nonprofit world is not for you (More difficult than the reverse, but not impossible).

3. Likely won't work with many other MBAs, which may be a culture shock. If you're expecting to learn more of what you learned in business school from your new boss, you may be disappointed in the nonprofit sector. You will learn a ton, but not necessarily "business" skills.

~The pros of going into for-profit work first:
1. Building experience by learning from experienced managers (experienced with business skills that is - nonprofit managers have a ton of experience, it's just different).

2. Establish contacts in the business world that could be helpful to later fundraising in the nonprofit world.

3. Potentially enter a nonprofit job at a much higher level after several years of business experience. This is the most frequent (non-financial) answer I heard when I did interviews.

Of course, if your gut says "nonprofit now!" but you are concerned about missing some of the opportunities of the for-profit sector, just adjust your job search criteria. For example, make sure that there is an experienced manager who you feel will be a good mentor to you in the job you choose. That mentor might be the executive director, or other senior person, or even an active board member. And seek out sources of support for debt and other financial concerns.

Vault.com: Let's talk about the bottom line. According to Business Week, MBAs who choose to join nonprofits after graduation end up making only 40% more money (if that much) than they did before they got their degrees. Can you recap some of the financial support options out there for people who go straight into nonprofits?

SL: First of all, as I mention in the book, salaries in the nonprofit sector are slowly improving, as both nonprofits and their funders recognize that the value of investing in talented managers is worth the cost of doing so. While the salary ceiling remains relatively low, the floor has definitely been rising. But you're right - MBAs will never make as much by going into the nonprofit sector as they will in the typical corporate opportunity. However, there are many supports out there:

  • Several business schools, including HBS, have a loan forgiveness program for graduates who choose to work for nonprofits.

  • Several organizations offer stipends or fellowships, particularly for summer jobs and entrepreneurial startups. For example, the Kauffman Foundation works with several business schools through the Kauffman Social Entrepreneur Internship Program Fellowships - to help fund salaries of students working in new social ventures. And Echoing Green Foundation Fellowships support social entrepreneurs who want to launch innovative social programs. But for more information, go to the idealist.org website, which has a much more comprehensive list of fellowships and financial support.

  • Last comment - even without fellowships, you can find good positions with solid salaries, especially at larger organizations. And always, remember that you're not going into this for the money.

Vault.com: In your book, you do mention that some MBAs choose to work on nonprofit ventures in their spare time. In one case, for example, an MBA managed to start a mentoring program while working full time at Disney. And I know that you have done pro bono work for a number of organizations. Can you offer any pointers on balancing an MBA-level job with that much extra work, and a personal life?

SL: Balancing your "extracurricular" interests - whether it be in nonprofit work or marathon running - with a full-time job and a personal life is always very challenging. I've found that more often than not, folks like myself with "MBA-level jobs" as you call them, are very involved with things outside the office. In some ways, volunteering is social, bringing together people with common interests to do fun things. But it does take time. For example, I've worked with a few nonprofit organizations since I rejoined McKinsey on some informal consulting projects, where I do it in my own time, but am able to use the resources at McKinsey to support the work (e.g., copiers, library research, etc.). It takes time, and means a little less sleep some nights, but to me it's worth it. It keeps me connected to issues I care about and to the people leading these nonprofits.

To be honest, I don't know how John Rice found the time to start a nonprofit while working at Disney. But he followed his passion, harnessed the energy and commitment of others, and got it done. And when the task became too big to handle in his spare time, he took a short sabbatical to bring the organization to a point where it was ready for a full-time director. This lessened his load significantly, allowing him to be a founder and advisor rather than day-to-day decision maker.

One other thing - when you find yourself spending more time on "extracurricular" nonprofit work than on your day to day job, it may be time to make a career move.

Vault.com would like to add that Lowell will be creating a charitable fund with the royalties from the sale of the book. According to Lowell, the money will be used "to help bring more management expertise/skills to folks already hard at work in the nonprofit sector. (The book brings MBAs to the sector, the fund should bring MBA skills to nonprofit mangers who never had the business training they need or want)."

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