Hundreds of new people enter the fundraising profession every year and they all face a learning curve. The way to shortcut that curve is to figure out how to transfer skills from for-profit to nonprofit.

Without a solid understanding of fundraising principles and ethics, it’s easy to struggle or get in trouble.

While many skills will translate, it’s important to keep in mind that the goals for nonprofit and for-profit organizations are very different when making the change.

Here’s a quick review of some skills that will and won’t transfer.

Skills/concepts that WILL transfer:

  • Marketing. It’s about identifying target audiences, crafting key messages, and sending consistent communication.  For-profit businesses must understand their core customer base, assess their wants and needs, and then explain or suggest through marketing how they are going to fulfill those wants and needs.  Nonprofits must understand their donors and potential donors and explain through marketing how they are going to further the donor’s priorities and passions.  Good marketing skills make emotional connections.  In for-profit businesses, marketing may appeal to the more selfish emotions of the consumer.  Does the customer want to look better?  Feel better?  Have the newest gadget?  Nonprofits use marketing to tap into donors’ passions and desires to help others, ultimately making them feel really good about making positive change in the world.
  • Online marketing and social media. Nonprofits are just as reliant, or even more so, on people with good online and social media skills.  Being SEO-certified can be a big help because it shows you know how to get your nonprofit FOUND on the web!  If you have a limited budget for ad words or other online advertising, you want to make certain that every word counts.  Figuring out how to find your customer or donor base in the wild, wild world of the web can be tricky!  Someone with good social media skills can also find ways to reach customers organically, moving beyond paid advertising.  They might be able to come up with viral videos, or they might have a network of business associates who care about the same cause.  The ability to tell your story through social media, one of the most effective ways to reach your audience, can be crucial especially when your budget doesn’t match your enthusiasm. If you know how this works in a for-profit company, you have a head start in fundraising.
  • Good leadership. In the business world, it’s important for leaders to guide their company to success. They must understand what industry appropriate standards and best practices are.  In healthcare industries for instance, there are strong expectations of privacy.  The same will be true for nonprofits working in that area. Good leaders stay current in their areas of expertise, keeping up with new laws, best practices, new technology, and new ideas, and implementing them as appropriate. They keep their skills fresh so they can lead and inspire their team, be the face of the organization, and evaluate opportunities as they arise. It all works the same in nonprofit as it does in for-profit, and in fact, nonprofit leaders are encouraged to run their organization like a business, being professional and efficient wherever possible.
  • Customer service. Donors, volunteers, and people in the community enjoy being treated well and sort of expect it from nonprofit organizations. Even though you are not making a profit, you are still responsible to your donors, other stakeholders, and the community at large.  In fact, because your supporters are giving from the heart, they probably have expectations of feeling warm and fuzzy when they deal with you!  You’re not the local cable company and you don’t have a monopoly on their time or money.  You need to make certain you have only positive interactions with them.  Show your gratitude often.  Respond quickly and professionally to questions and complaints, particularly online.  If you have volunteers or paid employees answering the phone, instruct them to remain pleasant and polite.  Keep donors and volunteers updated with newsletters. Good, old-fashioned customer service can go a long way towards building good will, and it works the same in nonprofit as it does in for-profit.
  • Good communication. Successful businesses know that to get repeat business, they must stay in touch with their customers. Advertising, newsletters, and news stories can help keep customers in the know about the latest products and services  These same skills are necessary for a nonprofit as well.  Leaders may be required to speak publicly to groups who have an interest in their cause.  They will certainly need to be able to express their goals and procedures to donors and volunteers, both through writing and speaking.  Not only this, perhaps even more than in a for-profit industry, leaders of nonprofits will need to practice the “forgotten half of communication,” listening.  Feedback from donors and volunteers working on the ground is essential and a good leader can listen to input and adapt practices to hone the process and make the most of the time, energy, and money available. Good communication is essential and these skills will definitely transfer from for-profit to nonprofit.
  • Ultimately, nonprofits exist to make a difference in the world and the faster someone can figure out how things work, the faster they can move their organization forward to change lives.

Skills/concepts that WON’T transfer:

  • Commission based pay. In the for-profit world, sales people typically earn a commission on what they sell. Many well-meaning Board members who are familiar with commissions want to hire grant writers or fundraisers who will take a percentage of what they raise as pay. Unfortunately, in the nonprofit world, that’s considered unethical. The main reason is that a donor gives with the expectation that their money will go toward the services that the nonprofit provides, not have 10% taken off the top for payment. Someone working on commission in fundraising would face the temptation of manipulating donors, deceiving supporters, and being unethical in other ways, all to get a donation so they make more money. It’s best to pay someone by the hour or the project to avoid those issues. Commissions are fine in the for-profit world, but that doesn’t work in nonprofit.
  • Primary focus. In the for-profit world, it’s all about me, me, me – how can I get better know, how can I make more money, etc. In the nonprofit world, it’s about fulfilling the organization’s mission and changing lives. In fact, there are times when a fundraising professional needs to step out of a donor relationship so as not to muddy the waters.  For example, imagine that a particular Director of Development (DD) builds a very strong relationship with a particular donor, so much so that the donor decides to leave the DD in her will (not the nonprofit).  This puts the DD in a precarious ethical situation, because they are working to secure resources for the nonprofit, not for themselves.  There are other forms of egotism that can be damaging for a nonprofit, particularly when a founder or an Executive Director boosts their ego through their position. It becomes too easy for them to make decisions that further boost their appearance and reputation in town instead of keeping the focus on the nonprofit. Ambition in the nonprofit world should be channeled into the cause. If you establish a breed rescue charity your aspirations should revolve around finding homes for pets, not around accolades that might accrue. The prize is making things better for the dogs. It can be a fine line to walk and one that a good nonprofit leader is mindful of.
  • An inflexible management system. Many for-profit businesses are run by owners and managers who have the autonomy to make decisions without explanation to employees.  They expect to have their directives implemented without much question or pushback. Many nonprofits operate under consensus and prefer to have the entire team of Board, staff, and volunteers in agreement with major decisions. When you are dealing with donors and volunteers, they see themselves as partners, not underlings.  It’s important to treat them with respect, to listen to feedback and to pull others into the decision-making process.  When people are passionate about a cause, including them in the process harnesses everyone’s energy.  The nonprofit sector requires working side by side with others and meeting them where they are.  The “my way or the highway” approach in a nonprofit will add a lot of traffic to the highway and very little to your cause.

The Bottom Line

Many skills from business, marketing, and sales transfer from for-profit to nonprofit just fine, but a few don’t. When you’re new to nonprofit, it’s important to understand the differences to avoid any faux pas.

Ultimately, nonprofits exist to make a difference in the world and the faster someone can figure out how things work, the faster they can move their organization forward to change lives.