Changing from a for-profit job to a nonprofit one with Ellen McCarty

Nonprofits Need You!

Make a Career Change with Ellen McCarty

Nonprofits Need You!

Make a Career Change with Ellen McCarty

by GoldenburgGroup

Are you considering a career change?  Looking for something with a little more purpose and passion? How about a career in the nonprofit sector!? Today’s guest, Ellen McCarty, discusses her process for helping professionals make the switch from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector.  Join us as we delve into the culture and common myths of working at a nonprofit and see if this career path might be right for you.

Listen to the Episode Here!


McCarty & Co.


(15:03) Understanding the nonprofit culture

(17:34) Ellen’s C.R.O.P. Process 

(19:11) C – Clarify your values and passions

(19:50) R – Reflect on how they inform your thinking and motivation

(21:22) O – Listen to the episode to find out what O stands for

(22:40) P – Wonder what P stands for? Listen to the episode!

(23:13) Conduct informational interviews

(25:25) Hurdles & myths when transitioning from for-profit to nonprofit


Dolph Goldenburg (00:00):

Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host Dolph Goldenburg. On the show today we have Ellen McCarty, who is a fellow Atlantan and a fellow nonprofit coach and consultant. Ellen and I have been traveling in similar circles for about the past 20 years and I’m kind of surprised that we’ve never actually met each other until, bizarrely enough, a mutual colleague in New York introduced us. And I say bizarre because we probably only live a few miles from each other, and yet we’ve never actually met. And we’ve traveled professionally in very similar circles in Atlanta. So after we were introduced, we met a few weeks later and had an incredible conversation over coffee about the various roles we’ve had and the things that we have learned over the course of our nonprofit careers, both of which span about 25 years or so. Now, at the end of that conversation, I knew that I had to invite Ellen to come on to the podcast as a guest because she has a wealth of nonprofit leadership expertise serving as the president of a Make-a-Wish Foundation Georgia; as the executive director of Jerusalem House, a prominent Atlanta based housing organization; and the founding executive director of Playworks.

Dolph Goldenburg (01:18):

She has served as the interim CEO at several organizations, as well. Today, Ellen serves as president of McCarty & Co. where she uses her 25 years of experience as a nonprofit leader to serve as a trainer, coach, and consultant for nonprofits, nonprofit professionals, and guess what? People interested in switching from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit sector. As you can imagine, her breadth and depth of knowledge spans the spectrum of nonprofits in size, diversity of revenue streams, nonprofit type, board composition, and program diversity. While I am sure that Ellen and I are going to talk about a lot of things today, we’re primarily going to focus on career changers, those folks going from the for-profit sector and becoming nonprofit professionals. Hey, Ellen, welcome to the Podcast.

Ellen McCarty (02:17):

Thank you. I’m so delighted to be here.

Dolph Goldenburg (02:20):

Now, I understand that your most important career transition probably came when you stepped into your first executive director role 25 years ago. What helped you make that transition successful?

Ellen McCarty (02:33):

That particular transition was actually an accident, if you will. I had been in the juvenile justice system for over 10 years and headed up a committee to create an adolescent shelter. I spent the next five years traveling over the country looking at similar programs. And through a series of events, when we created it and were getting ready to launch, I became the executive director of the nonprofit. So it wasn’t intentional, it was kind of a morphing into the nonprofit sector. It’s interesting reflecting back because today you don’t see as many individuals that come into the nonprofit sector by virtue of creating programs. It’s more by virtue of having a nonprofit management degree, which is wonderful. They didn’t exist back then, or maybe Indiana University did, but that was it. Or they come in through the development route. So it’s been a different transition for me because I bring that program lens and that has been really helpful. But yet I really love the board part. I love the administration of nonprofits. So it’s been a nice marriage.

Dolph Goldenburg (03:57):

You know, I’ve always said most people become an executive director having come up through one of three routes. So they come up through finance and fundraising. They come up through operations or they come up through programs. So you kind of came up through programs. Now, once you moved into that first chief executive role, was there any advice that you received that really helped you in that first role?

Ellen McCarty (04:21):

Yeah. So I have a wonderful story that I share, that is embarrassing, but it was one of the greatest teachable moments of my professional career.

Dolph Goldenburg (04:31):

The embarrassing stories are always the best ones. Please, please do tell.

Ellen McCarty (04:36):

Yes, they always are. And you are able to laugh about them 25 years later. So in my first role with this new adolescent shelter that I was responsible for launching and creating, there was already a another shelter, a sister shelter, that had been in existence for 10 years. And through some very creative financing, we did not have to fundraise because there was a built in revenue stream that completely supported that program and facility. When we were going to triple our operation, that changed. So I decided that I would reach out to foundations in Atlanta. This was a metro-Atlanta county, so it was the third largest county, but it was not in the city of Atlanta. So I identified 50 foundations and sent letters of introduction and just shared what we were doing. And, lo and behold, I received an invitation from one of Atlanta’s largest foundations and the executive director invited me to come and meet with her.

Ellen McCarty (05:48):

So I was really excited and thought, “Wow! This is just awesome! You send a letter, you get an invitation, you go in, you sit down, you make nice, and you walk out with a check!” Clearly, I did not know what I was doing. And I knew only enough to be dangerous. But I’m bold, so I went and I met with her, discovered later, and still, 25 years later, anyone will tell you that this is the most intimidating executive director of all of Atlanta’s foundations. So I’m sitting there with her and she’s asking me questions about the program and I can answer anything she asks me. And then she shifts and she starts asking me questions that I’m not as knowledgeable about, such as finances, strategic planning, and sustainability. I was not prepared to answer those questions and that became very obvious very quickly.

Ellen McCarty (06:47):

I am a pretty short person, but as the interview progressed I became even shorter. By the time she had asked all of her questions, I was about the size of a gnome. All I wanted to do was flee; I just wanted to get out of that room. But she closed her notebook and she put her pen on top and she sat back in her chair and looked at me and said, “I am now going to give you a one-on-one tutorial on everything you need to do when you go and meet with a foundation.” So as humiliated and embarrassed as I was, I had enough sense in that moment to know that I needed to really listen to this lady. So she did. She gave me a tutorial I’ll never forget.

Ellen McCarty (07:36):

One of the first things she said was, “When you go on a foundation visit, do not ever go by yourself. You always bring your board president. If your board president can’t attend, you bring another board director, but you always bring the board. Do you have a strategic plan? When I asked you that, you didn’t know, so I’m going to assume that you don’t. But I am going to tell you that you need to have a strategic plan and it needs to be a written plan and you need to be able to clearly articulate it.” So she just went through and gave me a laundry list of do this, do this, do this. So that was wonderful. I wrote down everything that she said.

Ellen McCarty (08:13):

It was the end of our meeting that really shaped my career because she looked at me and she said, “Here’s what I want you to know before you leave: I’ve given you tasks, I’ve given you things that you can take back to your board that you can do. But what I want you to hear is that if you don’t do these things, you will not be successful in the foundation community. The foundation community of any city is a pretty small community and the philanthropic community knows each other. And so what’s going to happen is if you go back and you submit a proposal to the Woodward Foundation, which is Atlanta’s largest foundation, the president is going to call me and he’s going to ask me if I’m familiar with you. And I’m going to say yes, we had a meeting. And I’m going to ask him if you have a strategic plan and if you’ve taken care of business. And if you have not, he is going to know and I am going to know. So what I’m really saying to you is, if you don’t do these things and you try to circumvent what I have shared with you, you will never get your foot in any Atlanta foundation.” Those were her exact words. They are seared in my mind. So I said, “Thank you very much.” I went back to my board. We did everything on that list over the next five years and decided to create a campus and a third residential program.

Dolph Goldenburg (09:59):

Which, real quick, was probably in your strategic plan that you created.

Ellen McCarty (10:02):

It was, absolutely, yes. And so we um, did a feasibility study. We created a capital campaign or launched a capital campaign and she came for a site visit. And when she came, I reminded her of that conversation and she remembered it. I thanked her for it and we did receive a check just a mere five years later. It didn’t quite work out the way I at first though, but we received a check of $250,000. The cherry on that cake, if you will, is I wrote her a personal letter and thanked her for taking that time with me, because she could just as easily have thanked me for coming and walked out and that was it. But she really took the time and invested in me, and I thanked her for that. What was so incredible was that she wrote me back and thanked me. Because she said she did this often, and the majority of people did not do what she said.

Ellen McCarty (11:07):

And so I share my story with people who are just starting out in the nonprofit space, especially in development who will have those visits, that those are the things you need to listen to. You need to listen. When someone takes the time to tell you and to share with you, you need to believe them. Over a million dollars came from the Atlanta foundation community. Had we not done everything she said, we would not have succeeded. 25 years later I now know that she shared best practices. She didn’t say anything that anyone would not know. I just did not know them at the time.

Dolph Goldenburg (11:53):

Right, exactly. It was textbook. We’re not going to name names, I think I know which foundation we’re talking about here. I also get the sense it’s because she really cares. I think that’s why she does close her book and say, “Okay, let me give you a tutorial.” Because she really does care and she really wants nonprofits in the city to be successful. And I think that’s true of most foundations. I mean yeah, foundations get a lot of asks. But the people that work for them really care and they really want to help build the nonprofit sector in their community. They aren’t trying to be hostile.

Ellen McCarty (12:27):

I think you absolutely said it. They’re invested, they’re invested in your nonprofit. She was very genuine. I’ve always considered it a gift, the gift of time and the gift of expertise, that not only set me up for success personally, but set the nonprofit up for success. So absolutely. I agree with you a hundred percent

Dolph Goldenburg (12:51):

I know we’re primarily going to be talking about career switchers today, but I think one of the takeaways for those who are already in the nonprofit sector who are listening right now, is to make sure that when you go to a foundation, you take your board chair. And also your board chair is not just there as window dressing. So they’re not just there to sit and nod their head and smile while the chief executive describes a strategic plan, describes the state of the finances. Because part of what the foundation wants to understand is whether or not the board chair know what’s in the strategic plan and what the organization’s financial position is. Because the foundation needs to understand that when they’re making an investment, a philanthropic investment, that the board is doing its governance duty.

Ellen McCarty (13:39):

I think that’s a great point because the board is responsible for setting the strategic vision. That’s what the foundation wants to hear. If you’re responsible for leading this board and setting that strategic vision, then the foundation wants to hear from you how you arrived at that vision and how you plan to meet that vision.

Dolph Goldenburg (14:05):

So I am so glad you shared that story. That is such a great story. And again, I think there’s some good takeaways there for our listeners. Obviously take board chair with you, but also if one of the largest, most prominent foundations in your town gives you some advice, it’s probably a good idea to take it. They’re probably trying to look out for your best interests.

Ellen McCarty (14:30):

Yes. It makes me shudder to think what would happen if I had not.

Dolph Goldenburg (14:33):

While you were coming from the government sector, not the for-profit sector, you were a career switcher yourself because you were coming from juvenile justice to run a nonprofit providing you services. So obviously, you had to learn a lot about fundraising as a career switcher, but let’s have a little bit of a conversation just in general. Most people who do coaching have some type of a system. Do you have a system in working with career switchers and what does that look like?

Ellen McCarty (15:03):

I do have a system. I devised a system when I decided that I wanted to work with individuals that were interested in either switching or in exploring the nonprofit sector as a career path. I thought about all the individuals that I knew that had some pretty deep misconceptions of what working in a nonprofit looked like. And I also did a lot of research. From that research, my key takeaway was that there is a perception that if you have the skill set, then you can transfer to the nonprofit sector easily. So let’s say you’re a finance person or you have a finance degree and you move into the nonprofit sector, you will be successful because of those skill sets. And there’s been a lot of research on this and what the research shows, consistently, is that that is not the case.

Ellen McCarty (16:05):

What the research shows is that people with essential skill sets who are unsuccessful, are unsuccessful because they did not understand the culture. And so understanding the culture of nonprofits is the number one determinant of whether or not a person is going to be successful. Armed with that knowledge and all of that research and my own interactions with people, I thought instead of just talking to people about the nonprofit sector, I want to really come up with something useful and practical. So I came up with a system that I call C R O. P. It is designed to help people systematically go through a series of processes that will help them determine if the nonprofit sector is going to be a good fit.

Dolph Goldenburg (17:24):

I know we’re about to unpack that a little bit, but can you take us through the C.R.O.P. Process from the perspective of somebody you worked with?

Ellen McCarty (17:34):

Sure. I created a self-assessment tool. What I did was write down everything that I have heard, over the course of my career, about working in the nonprofit sector. So it might be something like “It’s important to me to work five days a week and no weekends” or “It’s important to me to know have a clearly defined job description,” “It’s important to me to work autonomously, not in a team,” or whatever it is. There are 25 questions. Then I took those questions and sent them out to other nonprofit experts in academia for their input until we were satisfied with the validity of the questions. Taking this assessment is the first hour of the C.R.O.P. Process.

Ellen McCarty (18:34):

From that assessment I can look and, I cannot guarantee, but I can pretty well predict whether or not someone is going to be a good fit. It usually falls three ways. The first is that someone is absolutely going to be a great fit. The second that someone is maybe going to be a good fit but there are some red flags, which informs me about what we need to talk about. And third, that it is absolutely it’s not going to work for that person. Then the next thing we do is the one-on-one conversation. We start with the C, which is clarity about the passion. What are the missions that you are passionate about? What are your priorities? What are your values? What are you looking for that is going to help you determine whether or not this is a good fit? I do this through a series of exercises.

Ellen McCarty (19:33):

The next piece of the C.R.O.P. methodology is reflection. So we reflect on those exercises and what they tell us. If your values fall over here and the job that you’re considering is totally not going to meet your values, which is fine, there’s no judgment, then it’s not going to work.

Dolph Goldenburg (20:07):

Can you give an example of that?

Ellen McCarty (20:09):

Sure. For example, a person may really value their weekends, it’s their family time and their space and having them is essential. Let’s say they’re considering a development position. I can look at their values and I can know pretty quickly that there’s not an alignment there because most events are going to occur on the weekend. So we spend a lot of time reflecting on their values, the insights that come from that, and then how to use those insights to inform their thinking and motivation.

Ellen McCarty (21:22):

From there we move on to organize it. There’s a wonderful exercise called the Four Lens Exercise. The philosophy behind it is that people typically join a nonprofit through four lenses: an issue, such as human trafficking; an organization, such as the American Cancer Society; a policy issue, such as environmental issues; or a role, such as development officer. So typically a person goes into it, whether or not they know it at the time, through one of those four lenses. So we organize all of this information and we say, “Okay, what did you learn from this? What can you do with all of this information? How can we identify nonprofits that align with all of this?”

Ellen McCarty (22:40):

So the last step is plan. We’ve identified one or two areas that they’re really passionate about. Here’s what some of those organizations look like. If you choose education, what kind of education? Is it STEM? We all know there’s so many education and human service organizations. So it’s just drilling down and drilling down and helping them to gain clarity and clarity and clarity. And then we come up with a plan, and oftentimes that plan will include informational interviews. So they will actually go out and talk to people in those roles or at those organizations.

Dolph Goldenburg (23:30):

If I can just jump in, I feel like those informational interviews are so critical because part of what you’re doing is you’re networking with the people who are going to know about the jobs when you’re actually ready to start looking. So, if you know you want to be a development director, well you probably are not going to be a development director at a national organization if you’re just coming from the for-profit sector. But if you know you want to end up in development with a national organization, you should probably go have conversations with people that are development directors at national organizations based out of your city. And then they’ll get to know you and they’ll think about you. Especially when you remind them, “Hey, now I’m looking, if you know of anything, let me know.”

Ellen McCarty (24:09):

Yes, totally. It serves many purposes. You know the number one reason that most people do information interviews is to learn and to really understand what’s involved in that role. What are the responsibilities, what does it look like, what does it feel like? So it’s information gathering around those specifics and the task of the role. But to your point, the other equal value to that is you get to make an impression on somebody. You get to demonstrate your passion, you get to demonstrate your skill sets. And if you do a good job and you’re well prepared, that person is going to remember you. And also they can be someone that can introduce you. It may not be at their organization, but if you make a good impression, they will remember you when openings come out across the board. So yeah, it’s very valuable. So the C.R.O.P. methodology, it works. It’s a nice way to feel like at the end of the day, at the end of this process, that you have been intentional, you have been thoughtful, you have increased your knowledge base, you know what you want, and now it’s a matter of going out and getting it.

Dolph Goldenburg (25:25):

So, Ellen, I am sure there’s a lot of people out there, and probably a lot of people who you worked with, who clarified, reflected, organized and planned, but still faced some hurdles transitioning from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit sector. What are some of the biggest hurdles that people face?

Ellen McCarty (25:43):

Yeah, you know, I think there are some realities to working in the nonprofit sector. And I think the biggest myth is that you don’t work as hard in the nonprofit sector. The majority of individuals that I have worked with were executives who had had a successful corporate career and were either retiring early or had taken a payout and were financially secure. And with very few exceptions, every one of them really wanted to work for purpose and passion. So my job was to help them to understand what that was going to look like in reality. So I would ask them to describe what they think a typical day would look like. And so some of the things that I heard implied that maybe you don’t work as hard.

Ellen McCarty (26:48):

And the research and the anecdotal evidence from individuals who have switched is so very clear; that is absolutely not true. Your larger nonprofits that are huge, really in many ways they are very similar to a corporate structure. In your very small nonprofit, it’s not true because you are wearing all the hats. So when you’re wearing all the hats and you don’t have the luxury of having an infrastructure to support you, you are just dancing as fast as you can. That’s always been my saying. When I think about the nonprofit sector, you’re just dancing as fast as you can.

Ellen McCarty (27:31):

The other myths include that you are going to starve. That is also a myth. Are you going to make as much as you make in the for-profit? Well, there was actually a…I’m going to look at my notes here because this was something that I really wanted to share.

Dolph Goldenburg (27:54):

Oh yeah. The Work for Good survey that came out that, in Georgia right now, people who are working in the nonprofit sector make more than the for-profit sector?

Ellen McCarty (28:01):

Actually, this was a national. But it was that. That you make about 7% or 8% more than the for-profit. Now that is not true. It depends on what your role is. For example, an executive director or CEO, especially if you’re a woman, there’s a gap of about 23% to 25%. So there is some discrepancy there. But the average nonprofit wage was $50,000.

Dolph Goldenburg (28:32):

If I can jump in. First of all, I think you’re absolutely right. There is still inequity based on gender and race and other things as well. But I also think, much like in the for-profit sector, pay also depends on size. For example, in the for-profit sector, if you own your own nursery with plants and shrubs and that kind of thing. Yeah, you’re the chief executive, but you might only make $60,000 a year as the chief executive running your own nursery. But if you are a manager of Lowe’s running the entire nursery department, you might make $85,000. So part of it is the same in the nonprofit sector. If you go to work for a small, quarter million dollar organization, yeah, you’re probably not going to make $100,000 a year. But if you go work for a $20 million organization, I bet you there’s a lot of people there that make $100,000 a year and up.

Ellen McCarty (29:21):

Oh, absolutely. Totally. And I would say more, if you are at that national level.

Dolph Goldenburg (29:28):

Oh yeah. Way more.

Ellen McCarty (29:29):

Yeah. So that’s one that’s really surprising to people; they are just kind of in shell shock about that. There’s another that I am very personally committed to making sure that people understand. I am a real type A person. I’m very bold. I want to get it done. I just want to lead, lead, lead. But there’s a tension there, in the nonprofit sector. On the one hand, it’s very fast paced because you don’t typically have, unless you’re a huge nonprofit, all the infrastructure and the resources that you have at the corporate level. So it has to be fast paced and it has to be interchangeable. But on the other hand, it does move slower because, while the executive director and the department heads and the staff are responsible for the day-to-day operations of nonprofits, your strategic vision again goes back to your governing board.

Ellen McCarty (30:33):

So, if there are decisions that need to be made at the governance level, it can take a long time. You’re working with volunteers who are typically corporate people who are very, very busy themselves. And if you need a vote on something or if you need to have discussion on something, it can take a long time and that can be really frustrating. Because of the nature of the nonprofit environment, you’re also collaborating and you’re partnering. So you may be partnering with a government entity. A lot of my background has been spent with federal funders and it can take months. So that’s something that I really want people to understand and to think about. And, honestly, I have to remind myself every once in a while, too, when I find myself getting really frustrated. I have to step back and say, “You know this, you knew this. And so let’s just regroup here.” So those are good examples of cultural things.

Dolph Goldenburg (31:41):

Ellen, I want to make sure that we have time to ask you the off-the-map question. I think we’ve got a good one for you. So, I understand that outside of your work as a consultant, you are a big supporter of the ACE movement. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Ellen McCarty (31:59):

Sure. So this is really, really exciting to me. In many ways it feels like I’m going back to my roots. So I’m currently acting executive director with an organization in Georgia called Resilient Georgia. And Resilient Georgia is a convener, if you will, and it is looking at ACEs. ACEs stands for adverse childhood experiences. And so ACEs has gained national attention and momentum. It’s a huge national movement.

Ellen McCarty (32:36):

The philosophy behind it is heavily supported by evidence and research at the academic and medical levels. What it says is that adverse experiences during childhood, such as abuse or neglect, can have a detrimental effect on somebody for the rest of their life. This looks at individuals, children between birth and 26. So the way you would interact with that person and the way you would respond and maybe treat that person is going to be different than the way you would someone who had a fairly healthy, normal childhood. It then becomes a conversation about trauma-informed care. This is where it becomes exciting because major hospitals, medical schools, nursing schools, and everybody that touches this are all getting on board to create practicums, to create education and classes around trauma and around the effects of ACEs.

Ellen McCarty (34:03):

There is also an ACEs assessment that anybody can take. You could Google it after this podcast and it will give you an ACEs score. The research clearly defines if you fall between zero to six you are at risk for this, if you fall anything above six you are at greater risk for this. So the thought behind it is if we can have this in our medical communities, then a doctor seeing a child with an ACEs score of 10 can know that and it can inform how the doctor interacts with the child and his parents. The doctor doesn’t need to know why the child has a 10. But knowing that information can lead to better outcomes in the long run.

Ellen McCarty (34:57):

So it’s a big national movement. I would encourage anyone to please go to the ACEs website to learn more about it. In Atlanta, Morehouse School of Medicine, Emory, UGA, Georgia State, all the schools are on board with this and are really making it a priority to get behavioral health into the classroom.

Dolph Goldenburg (35:20):

Nice. It would definitely be great to get more behavioral health into our schools, so I’m glad you’re working on that. It has been so nice spending this time with you today, Ellen. I am grateful for everything you’ve shared. I promised we’d primarily focus on career switchers. We probably spent probably 30% or 40% of the time on grants, but I know that our listeners love to hear about grants as well, so I am so glad that we also got to have that conversation.

Dolph Goldenburg (35:43):

Now, Listeners, Ellen’s consulting practice just launched a beautiful new website at, so be certain to check it out. While there, you can find out about her coaching, consulting, and career switching services. I am confident in recommending Ellen and her work to any nonprofit or nonprofit professional wannabe. Hey, Ellen, thank you again for coming on today.

Ellen McCarty (36:09):

Thank you so much. I appreciate it. It was fun.

Dolph Goldenburg (36:13):

Now don’t forget: there’s no need to slam on the brakes on the highway and write down Ellen’s information with the old Chapstick you found under your seat. We’ll have the URL for Ellen’s website and all of her contact information on our show notes at Also, Listeners, one of my favorite things is hearing from all of you about the great work that your nonprofits are making possible. But I also know that every day is not sunshine and rainbows in the nonprofit sector. It’s something that career switchers find out all too often, but you and I already know that. And that’s why, Listeners, I want you to send me your questions. I make it a point to answer all of my listener’s questions in real time, but when I get a juicy one that I know could be asked by hundreds of other people, I include them in our Ask Dolph episodes because, let me be clear, in the end, this show is made by and for the nonprofit sector to share ideas across our community. So send in those questions now. If you enjoyed today’s show, please do me a favor and hit the subscribe button on whatever podcast platform you use and don’t forget. In addition to subscribing, we love it if you rate and review the podcast, as well. That is our show for the week. I hope you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.

Dolph Goldenburg (37:40):

I am not an accountant or attorney and neither I nor The Goldenburg Group provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This material has been provided for informational purposes only, is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified licensed professional about such matters.


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