How to Position Your Transferable Skills and Manage Knowledge Gaps

December 2, 2022   |   Career Management, Nonprofit 101

Those entering the nonprofit sector for the first-time may be drawn to the sector by their passion. As Cindy M. Lott, Esq. explains, “I can’t stress enough in our field, passion is wonderful. It is the basis of what we do, but passion alone will not get you there. You have to have skills and you have to make clear to people that you know what you are going to do.” Nonprofit organizations create roles and hire for immediate functional needs. When one is in a job search it is critical they articulate their skills relative to those functional needs and be aware of their own knowledge gaps.


Cindy stands firmly on the side of professionalization of the nonprofit sector. She created two graduate programs to that end. These programs as well as a number of courses, certifications, and industry professional groups can bring the job applicant up-to-speed, making them a more competitive candidate. Before deciding which additional education a job seeker may pursue, they should first recognize whether their deficiency in understanding relates to the nonprofit mission area of focus or nonprofit function.


To better understand the sector , let’s look at examples of well-known organizations and their nonprofit vertical. Then we can break down the difference between mission and function.


Organization Vertical
Hospital Healthcare
University Education
Big Brothers Big Sisters Youth Development
NAACP Social Justice
ASPCA Animal Welfare
The Nature Conservancy Environment
Catholic Church Religion


Within each of these organizations no matter their vertical, there is functional structure to achieve the mission. All nonprofit organizations hire based on functional skills. Job seekers can use this chart to guide their thinking about which of their skills are transferable.


Function Skills
Executive Create strategy, visionary leadership, manage board relations
Legal Contracts, human resources, nonprofit law, estates and trusts


Press, earned media, social media, marketing, campaigns
Finance Accounting, forecasting, audit, payroll, accounts payable
Human Resources Hiring, training, orientation, on-boarding, organizational development
Programming Issue related subject matter expertise, project management, assessment, collaboration
Fundraising Writing, public speaking, relationship building, mass marketing, budget management


As one creates their job application materials the thesis is how the functional skills will be leveraged so the applicant is positioned as an immediate Value-Add contributor for the organization.


Each applicant should thoughtfully consider where their own knowledge gap is, within the vertical or functional skills. When a candidate is aware of their potential knowledge gaps and has a proposal of how to fill them, they have made an asset out of a liability. Nonprofit organizations need problem solvers in every role; when the candidate can prove within their application process that they proactively define and close gaps, it shows the hiring manager that the candidate is a problem solver. Some options for filling the functional knowledge gap include taking a nonprofit management course, shadowing a programmatic staff person at the organization, reading to be current on industry thought leadership or volunteering.


The job seeker is empowered to close knowledge gaps well before creating their application. These ideas provide a springboard for the job seeker to think through how they can close their specific gaps.


Knowledge Gap Area Function Vertical
Fundraising Volunteer to do peer-to-peer asking; attend local AFP meetings Survey websites of several organizations within the vertical to learn about the issue-specific language used; donate $10 to three charities within the vertical, observe and reflect on each experience
Programming Take a statistics or program design course Do an informational interview with a program officer in the area to learn about the unique elements of the vertical and where the programmatic work aligns with your current work
Marketing/ Communications Do a Digital Marketing Course (this one is free) Learn about the wicked problem the organization is working to solve and create a suite of communications to explain it to a person completely new to the idea


Discovering a passion for a cause or issue is exhilarating and propels many to begin a job search in the nonprofit sector. Those who can be responsive to a nonprofit organization’s immediate functional need while demonstrating a passion for the mission are the most successful candidates.

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