Dear Joan,

I’ve spent the last 15 years working in a management position  for a large corporation.

My position came to an end six months ago when the company moved, and I opted not to leave the area. I anticipated a short job search period, but it has turned into a much longer one. So I expanded my search to include the non-profit arena, and am now actively interviewing for a position in a local non-profit that I feel does excellent work for our community. What are the key differences between the for profit and non profit sector? I know salaries would tend to be lower, but what else?

Thank you,



Dear Jesse,

Good question and one that a couple of my clients have encountered as well. Sometimes people go out of their way to focus on being of help in the non profit sector and they even earn degrees specifically in working for non-profits. But interestingly, sometimes non-profits look for candidates with a corporate background to inject some best practices, and style that can balance out the typical ways of non-profits.

Having worked for both  for profit and non profit organizations and with clients who’ve recently gone from one side to the other, I would say that there are three main differences:

  1. SALARY – In general, given the same responsibilities, salaries in a non-profit tend to run  15-20 percent lower. Let’s look to the mission to find out why. For profit companies are focused on maximizing profits, and they tend to reward employees whose jobs contribute to the bottom line. They are willing to pay for competitive candidates. Non-profits have missions that are focused on helping people or being of service to a community. They are not typically well funded or if they are, they use the money to support their purpose. For instance, the Red Cross. It takes in a lot of money in donations to help people in disasters around the world. It also uses a lot of volunteer energies, as do most non profits. People who are attracted to non-profits are typically willing to forego top pay to align their talents with the mission of the organization and get some alternative ‘non monetary compensation in knowing they are making a societal contribution.
2. CULTURE –  For profit corporations tend to have more aggressive work styles and  culture than non profits. For profit companies attracts people who want to work hard, keep their eye on the bottom line (of profits) and see their careers moving upward in responsibility and pay. They are typically most motivated by financial gain, thus there is a strong sense of competition in the for profit culture. The kind of people attracted to the non profit sector typically lead more with a strong commitment to meaning, and highly value societal contribution. They tend to feel more comfortable with a more collaborative culture rather than a competitive one.   Non profits are known to be  friendlier, and they encourage team building and a strong loyalty to mission over dollars. They also tend to work fewer hours and respect the work/life balance more than the corporate world tends to do.
3. PACE – The pace in non profits tends to be  slower. There is not the quarter to quarter pressure to meet financial goals. The decision making tends to be more collaborative in non profits  and there is typically less focus on working hard and fast to quickly add to the bottom line.
Again, non profits tend to attract people who are naturally more thoughtful and slower to action; whereas corporate ‘type’ tends to be naturally faster and evaluate a decisions based on short term financial impact.
There are exceptions to the differences that I mentioned here, but in general you tend to find a different kind of working environment, compensation and pace in the for profit vs. non profit. sector.
All the best to you, Jesse. Many people can work well in either environment and there are benefits to both. You also need to consider what your personal priorities are at various stages of your career. Sometimes financial considerations are key, sometimes a mission oriented non profit feels right, and you want to have a slower pace with a friendlier, less competitive environment. And sometimes you just want to find a job in your field, whether it is in the profit or non profit sector!
Onward in your career success,
Coach Joan