Ask Dana: How to do a ​successful job search during a career switch

Career Changing


What are your top three suggestions for a successful job search during a career switch?

Most recently I was a sales rep/account manager selling wholesale merchandise to a major department store, and I would like to use my sales, relationship, and project management skills at a non-profit organization.

Bottom line, I’m looking for a more meaningful career that helps improve lives.

Answer from Dana:

First, bravo to you and thousands of others who want to change careers. I have many clients doing the same thing, and they all have some things in common:

  • They’re terrified and excited at the same time.
  • They don’t know how to begin.
  • They want to keep their current salary level.

Here are my top three suggestions, as you requested:

1. Be clear about your target position

It’s great that you know what skills you want to leverage, but that’s not a goal. Instead, window shop: Get a copy of your localBusiness Journal’s Book of Lists ( and read about the top 100+ non-profit organizations in your city. Next, go to each company’s websites and read job descriptions with the goal of finding 10 you would apply for. But don’t apply yet: Spread the 10 descriptions out on your desk and identify what they have in common. Now rewrite your goal based on those similarities so you can describe it to your network.

2. Change as few career variables as you can

There are three main variables for career-changers:

  1. Changing functions (e.g. from sales to fund-raising)
  2. Changing industries (e.g. from telecommunications to consumer goods)
  3. Changing cities

To secure your new role quickly while maintaining your salary goals, I recommend changing only one variable at a time, if possible. That way, you have some relevant knowledge you can leverage. Our question-writer wants to move from sales to fund-raising while also changing industries — two big variable changes at the same time. So he or she needs to find a fund-raising position that really calls out the need for a sales background, or maybe target a non-profit that has a different role that really needs a project manager with sales skills. Use this as a foot in the door, and move up as you go.

3. Network with your target industry before applying

Talk to people in roles you aspire to, and be sure you clearly understand the role you think you want. This lets you better position yourself to the future role while learning the industry lingo. Remember, this career change isn’t about you: it’s about filling the company’s needs. Check your ego at the door and, with confidence, articulate why you will deliver results for them.

I can’t resist adding a fourth piece of advice:

4. Be realistic about making a lateral move financially

With a career change, salary often takes a step backward then moves forward, especially when the move is from commissioned sales to the non-profit sector. Check salaries on and ask your network before making any assumptions. Remember, you can’t set a price on happiness, and some belt-tightening may be worth it.


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