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Sales Professional to Development Professional: A Workable Transition (A For-Profit Salesperson's Guide to Getting a Job in Non-Profit Development)
Tony Poderis

February, 2008


The primary and most direct way for sales professionals to obtain positions as development professionals in non-profit organizations is for former sales professionals to promote and demonstrate their sales skills and experience as relevant to what they would do in a non-profit development setting. The main purpose of this article is to provide interested sales professionals with the strategies and tactics they will need to begin new careers as non-profit fund-raising professionals.

Two additional concepts can help accelerate and facilitate the sales-to-development transition into the consciousness and practice of both the for-profit and the non-profit communities. One is to explain how corporations---which are finding it necessary to layoff or permanently terminate their sales professionals for good reason, (through no fault of these otherwise valued employees)---can personally and directly help their former employees find jobs in non-profit organizations. The other is to bring to the attention of non-profit officials, who are looking to hire development professionals, the availability of an entirely new pool of potential employees---and to foster in them a recognition and acceptance of the many directly applicable skills and knowledge that sales professionals can bring to non-profit organizations. I will describe these further at the end of this article.

Many Development Jobs and Few Candidates

The number of cultural, health, religious, social service, and educational organizations that must conduct fund-raising campaigns has increased dramatically in the past few decades. Well-trained and experienced development officers are in high demand, and good ones are hard to find. One reason for this may be that there is no proven training ground for development officers other than through the limited number of apprenticeship opportunities in midlevel and junior positions, which are often largely administrative assistant jobs.

Except for colleges and universities, only a relative handful of large non-profit organizations budget for more than a single professional development position, with the result that only a shallow pool of development professionals has had the opportunity to grow incrementally in experience and responsibility with the teaching, encouragement, and support of an experienced and capable supervisor/mentor.

However, a strong possibility exists to widen and deepen this "shallow pool" with a heretofore little used, ignored, or otherwise unknown source of potential development professionals.

Sales and Development: Very Similar Skills

There is one exception to the invariably "closed door" limitations to development job seekers with no experience: the professional who has sales experience in the for-profit business world will almost always have (or should have) a distinct advantage in being considered for a job in non-profit development. Prior to my thirty-five year career as a non-profit fund-raising professional, I was in a sales and marketing position for the General Electric Company for nineteen years. Thus, I can make my confident assertion that, under the right conditions, for-profit sales professionals have an inside track---mostly unknown to them and especially so to potential non-profit employers---to become equally successful as development professionals.

It is unfortunate that far too few non-profit and non-government organizations see the close parallel between the role of a fund-raising professional in the non-profit community and a sales professional in the business world. Many mature and capable sales professionals have personal experience that could serve them well in a non-profit setting. Both sales professionals and development professionals need superior organizational and communication skills, a service orientation, analytic capabilities, and conceptual skills. What the sales professional lacks in knowledge of fund-raising management can be learned on the job and augmented by the many quality resources provided on the Internet, and through fund-raising workshops, seminars and publications.

The Sales Professional Has a Running Start

From time to time, as related to the current state of the economy, a decline in sales and the ever-changing ways corporations do business, corporate employees are laid off or permanently lose their jobs----and this would surely include many sales professionals. They are looking for new job opportunities. On the other hand, at times when sales professionals, not so adversely affected, think they would benefit from a career change, they often are directed to non-profit organizations. There is good reason for sales professionals in both of these situations to be optimistic and encouraged that they can find their niche in the non-profit world.

That's because, if I were seeking to hire a person to run my development operation, and I had to pick someone with no previous non-profit professional fund-raising experience, I would certainly interview a person who understands how a sales staff is managed, and who worked at making products available to customers, handled customer concerns and complaints, conducted special sales programs, and attended to the minutiae of day-to-day operations.

I hire and recommend new-to-the-profession development people largely based on their temperament and affability. How well they deal with criticism, are likely to handle volunteers and donors who are disappointed or upset, and show gratitude, are key indicators as far as I am concerned. These are generally the skills and characteristics of a successful sales professional---exactly what the development director I might be looking for would have!

You Got the Interview: Now Make It a Success

Those of us already in the non-profit development profession always welcome and support new colleagues. But first, they have to get the job, and to do so they must be successful in securing an interview. To prepare for the interview, let's talk about how you, as a sales professional, can demonstrate to non-profit officials the ways you can transfer your skills from one profession to the other. It's a great and unique opportunity to "show your stuff." Since you worked in a for-profit sales position, you can point to the skills you possess as being compatible with those of a non-profit development officer. Doing so will get the attention of non-profit officials to give the sales professional---who cannot document actual development experience---a chance.

If you are that person, and you have the opportunity to switch careers from selling to and servicing customers and clients, what can you say and do to "sell" yourself to a non-profit organization to assure them you can serve their donors, prospects, and volunteers equally well?" Since you worked in a for-profit sales position, how can you highlight your many skills as being compatible with what a non-profit development officer does?

You would cite the types of products you sold, how you believed in their quality, the value you placed on your customers, how you worked with your colleagues to make the sales program a true team effort, and how those practices and accomplishments fit into the company's overall business picture. As you knew all about your company while employed there, you will also want to demonstrate how well you already know the non-profit organization where you are seeking a position.

When transferring your for-profit skills to the non-profit world, change your jargon accordingly. Use "Development Speak"---in terms of donors, not customers; fund-raising goals, not sales quotas; solicitations and proposals, not sales presentations; constituency, not market area, etc. If you want to transfer your skills to a non-profit setting, then you must work to transfer the terminology as well if you want to command attention and interest. For your additional language changeover procedure, observe and utilize the "same-as," and "not-so-same-as" elements comprising commercial sales plans and non-profit fund-raising plans, as follows.

Elements Comprising A Commercial Corporation's Sales Plan & A Non-Profit Organization's Fund-Raising Plan

For-Profit (Business) Non-Profit (Organization)
  • Mission: "To Serve The Market"
    (To provide something of value and at the best price in the marketplace)
  • Mission: "For The Public Good"
    (To provide something of value in life)
  • Long-Range Strategic Plan
  • Same
  • Strong Leadership
  • Same
  • Sales & Marketing Plan
  • Fund Development Plan
  • Budget
  • Same
  • Sales Quota
  • Fund-Raising Goal
  • Quality Product Or Service
  • Same
  • Market Area
  • Constituency
  • Sale Duration
  • Timeline
  • Sales Person
  • Volunteer Solicitor
  • Sales Force
  • Campaign Committee
  • Sales Manager
  • Staff Development Professional
  • Customers
  • Donors
  • Fees - Charges - ("Price Tags")
  • Suggested Asking Amounts
  • Sales Presentations
  • Solicitations - Proposals
  • Advertising & Promotion
  • Case For Support
  • Sales Meetings
  • Progress And Tracking Meetings
  • Customer Service
  • Stewardship - Cultivation
  • Competition
  • Same
  • Bottom Line Driven
  • Not Bottom Line Driven
--- Results based on a goal to profit and a return on investment to a positive difference in the shareholders' quality of life.
(Relatively easy to measure)
--- Results based on a goal to provide needed services and to increase and better the quality of life for the recipients/beneficiaries
(Very hard to measure---if at all possible)

This for-profit to non-profit comparison of sales and development components should encourage you to realize that your for-profit experience and skills will work in a non-profit setting. Now you need to convince the non-profit interviewer and her or his associates. Just remember to cite the many line item similarities and to be at home with the simple differences in terminology for the others that function much in the same way.

But the biggest and most critically important differences between a sales program and a fund-raising campaign for you to understand and be able to communicate, are the Mission and the Bottom Line. Those two components completely separate businesses and charities. Being totally comfortable with these major differences will help you a great deal. Actually, that awareness and understanding are the keys to getting the job in development. Simply put, your for-profit job was operated as a business. In your potential non-profit job, you will operate in a businesslike manner. This is not simply a semantics issue, it is true because of the things non-profits cannot do which are natural to for-profits. You need to know the differences and know why they are different. You can easily understand this from the vastly different definitions of mission and bottom-line in the above chart.

Do your homework. During a non-profit job interview, it is important to make clear your understanding of the fund-raising process. For additional tips and, more important, for you to be comfortable with the fund-raising process, you can readily compare your commercial sales process knowledge and experience to the close parallel non-profit fund-raising process by reviewing the many companion components, step-by-step.

Now, Someone Else Will "Make the Sale"

Perhaps the most significant thing you must do is to convert your commercial business one-on-one personal selling status toward being regarded as a development professional facilitator. This, in my opinion, is an absolute must. In your for-profit sales position, you were expected to be the one directly making the sale---indeed, perhaps all of the sales.

However, when it comes to non-profit organizations, most successful fund-raising officers do not ask for money, or very much of it; they get others who are far better positioned to do the asking. The professional fund-raising officer should be just about the last person who should ask a prospect for money. The request should come from someone within the prospect's peer group. It is the job of the professional development officer to design, put together, and manage the campaign. Volunteers who are themselves business executives, well-off individuals, community leaders, or board members are the ones who should ask their counterparts for donations. Without a doubt, this is the one major change a for-profit sales professional must make to succeed as a non-profit development professional.

In your experience as a sales professional, you obviously were guided and otherwise instructed by your sales manager(s), which means that you understand the full range of the commercial sales process, including management's role. Thus, you should be able to accomplish the necessary role-reversal just described. Simply convert your for-profit, one-person-doing-it-all-up-front talents to become the one who manages non-profit fund-raising campaigns. Now you provide the tools you once used to those who are better positioned to do the actual asking. Your goal is to be a facilitator whose efforts are best deployed when you provide the behind-the-scenes support to those who make the solicitations.

However, if the potential employer non-profit organization makes it a job requirement that you raise the money, such a condition for employment surely spells trouble. How you respond will be your choice. I know it is wrong for a non-profit fund-raising officer to agree to raise most, or all, of the money. The question which needs to be answered to your satisfaction and in your best interest is, "Who should raise the money from within your organization?"  

Spending the time to learn the fund-raising jargon, reviewing the steps described in the fund-raising process, and following the other tips I have provided to the point at which you are comfortable, will give you the best chance to make the best possible impression on any non-profit organization's interviewer--- no matter your lack of experience in direct non-profit fund-raising.


However, be alert for the possibility that at any given time you may encounter a reception less than accommodating and receptive to the comparisons I have described. Listen closely to what you are told, how you are told, and the tone of voice. As well, watch the body language shown by your non-profit organization interviewer for any sign that she or he might feel that your good and sensible comparisons could offend their sensibilities, should they view any likenesses between for-profit sales and non-profit fund-raising as crass. Some non-profit officials could very well think that such a comparison would be demeaning to the organization or lack the integrity they attach to their mission. Of course, they are wrong to have such a cavalier attitude, but it could be something with which you must contend.

I still recall with some discomfort a time when I had such a distressing experience. I was a consultant for a non-profit shelter for abused women. During one of our fund-raising meetings, I attempted to explain to their Development Committee how my experience with sales for the General Electric Company prepared me well for my subsequent career in development for The Cleveland Orchestra. I simply wanted to show them the many close connections to sales and fund-raising as I have described in this article to help make them more efficient fund-raisers. However, during this particular meeting, a prominent and influential member of the Development Committee---a Vice President of the Board of Trustees--- interrupted me and bristled, "Well, we want to know how to raise money to continue to provide shelter for abused women, and we are not interested in how you sold light bulbs for GE."

I learned the hard way that occasionally these situations occur. It seemed to him that I sullied the good and noble work of the non-profit. Of course I did not. But that was his interpretation. You need to know just how hard you can press and how far you can go when pointing out what businesses and charities have in common. All of the clear and obvious parallels of the components of sales programs to those of development campaigns should be impressive and enlightening, but it is quite possible that some charitable organizations' hiring officials and leadership simply will not "get it." We must do all we can to help them "see the light." They may have to come down from their Ivory Towers a bit to recognize that comparing fund-raising to proven sales techniques is not huckstering and that a skillful, experienced, people-sensitive, and hardworking former salesperson can indeed bring her or his exceptional talent and dedication to the betterment of a non-profit's fund-raising program.

Additional Steps on the Path to a Development Job

What other things can you do while you are applying the strategies and tactics recommended in this article to be considered as a candidate for a non-profit fund-raising development position?

  • Attend "for-the-profession" events. See if your local universities, local chapters of national charities, etc., are presenting workshops, seminars and annual conferences.
  • Read books and articles on the subject. Start with your local library.
  • Be an observer and an active participant in the many Internet news groups relating to fund-raising.
  • Take advantage of the wealth of fund-raising instruction and information available through a multitude of non-profit service websites.
  • Join a professional service group. Find a chapter near you of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP)
  • "Network" with development professionals. Such an encounter many years ago with someone who took the time to explain fund-raising to a then-General Electric employee marketing light bulbs, made it directly possible for me later to be invited for a development interview with The Cleveland Orchestra.

A Final Thought on Moving from Sales to Development

This article is based on my belief---and personal experience---that experience in for-profit sales can facilitate the transition to non-profit fund-raising. I have focused on translating skills, expertise, and language from one employment sector to another. But I also want to address an intangible topic that plays a significant role in job satisfaction.

The adrenaline rush that comes from completing a sale, reaching a quota, or increasing a customer base is not confined to the for-profit world. It is just as exciting to achieve a fundraising goal, engage a new donor, or finish a successful annual fund campaign---actually, I think it's even more thrilling. Many individuals who work for non-profits do so because they believe they are making a positive difference in the world. Their hearts, hands, and minds are committed to the cause (education, the arts, social services, medicine, the environment, etc.) they represent. Imagine then, the amazing sense of fulfillment that arises from raising charitable gifts to ensure that the services your non-profit provides will continue and expand. It's a great feeling, and just as in sales, it reinforces your desire to go to work the next day and try even harder to exceed the next set of goals.  

What I Hope Is Accomplished by This Article

I want to encourage and boost the confidence of sales professionals looking to begin careers in non-profit fund-raising development. By helping them easily and quickly see and understand the many similar components between their sales programs and fund-raising, I believe they can apply many of those strategies and tactics to development fund-raising campaigns---and I hope they obtain and achieve success in development positions.

What I Hope Can Be Further Accomplished by This Article

What Corporations Can Do:

Corporations finding it necessary to sever the employment of their good and competent sales professionals would do well to consider instituting a job placement service for those individuals who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Their Human Resource departments can gain access to announcements and advertising from non-profits that are seeking to hire development professionals. The corporations can communicate directly with those non-profit organizations to alert them of the emerging pool of potential development professionals and to provide endorsements and references in as many instances as possible. In this way, many corporations can dramatically help to develop and strengthen the fund-raising development departments of non-profit organizations.

Chances are those same corporations have key and influential executives who are themselves members of the Boards of Trustees of many non-profit organizations. They could as well personally provide a job placement service for their former employees by making recommendations, providing endorsements, and introducing some of the more promising candidates for job opportunities with the non-profit organizations they serve.

What Non-Profit Organizations Can Do

Perhaps with a more open mind and a change in attitude, non-profits can directly help to promote a new, readily available, and most promising pool of development professionals. Non-profit officials can take on a new and enlightened view of what it takes to be a good fund-raising development officer. Non-profit organizations can more quickly and with confidence, seriously consider what experienced, competent, capable, and customer-oriented sales professionals can bring to the organizations' attraction of charitable funds. By hiring such professionals---the ones whose sales methods and techniques will surely never compromise the integrity of their organizations---those non-profits can greatly relieve the often arduous, and sometimes fruitless, search for good development professionals.

Tony Poderis was for 20 years to 1993 Director of Development for The Cleveland Orchestra and its Summer Home, BlossomMusicCenter. He was responsible for Cleveland's largest annual institutional fund-raising campaign. Since 1993, Tony has been a fund-raising consultant serving all non-profit institutions' needs to develop and to maximize their potential to raise Annual, Endowment, Capital, and Sponsorship & Underwriting funds.


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