When we talk about work and careers on this blog, we usually discuss working for a for-profit company or working for yourself. However, there’s a whole other world of work out there that we’ve neglected to discuss much up to this point: nonprofit work.
Because I’ve never worked for a nonprofit myself, I decided to talk to some people who have. I interviewed my friends Miranda and Fay, who have nearly 20 years of combined nonprofit experience.
If you’re curious what it’s like to work at a nonprofit, what majors lend themselves well to nonprofit work, and how you can explore nonprofit work while you’re still a student, you’ve come to the right place.
Below, I explore the answers to these questions, as well as why you should consider nonprofit work to begin with.
Why Work for a Nonprofit?
If you’ve come to this article, this may seem like a silly question: you already want to work for a nonprofit and want to find out how. If that’s the case, feel free to skip to the next section.
However, if you’re considering nonprofit work but aren’t sure if it’s right for your personality or career goals (or if your parents are skeptical of the idea), this section will attempt to help you out.
Based on my research and interviews, I came up with the following reasons you might want to work at a not-for-profit organization:
You Feel Strongly About a Cause
Both Fay and Miranda emphasized that the people who last in nonprofit work are those who care about the organization’s cause.
If working to maximize returns for shareholders sounds unfulfilling to you, then nonprofit work can be a good alternative. You get to work for an organization that (theoretically) works to improve some aspect of the world.
That’s not to say it’s all rosy idealism, however. Nonprofits may not exist to make a profit, but they’re still run like businesses (especially if they want to continue existing). This often means constant concern about running out of money or making difficult decisions about how to use available funds.
Both people I interviewed emphasized that caring deeply about the organization’s cause is important for getting through the difficult, hectic days. If you can find a cause you care about and an organization that’s working to advance it, nonprofit work can be very fulfilling.
You Get Bored Doing Just One Type of Work
The nature of nonprofits means that you’ll be doing lots of things, not all of which will fit neatly into your official job description.
If you quickly get bored of doing the same tasks, then this can be a welcome relief compared to the highly specialized work many corporations ask of you.
Miranda, for instance, learned to write HR policies, coordinate large events, and network with potential donors…all while working a job where her title was “chief of staff.”
Fay shared similar stories, noting that working at a nonprofit can be a great way to gain lots of skills and experience quickly.
For a recent college graduate, this is an excellent opportunity to keep learning and enhancing your skill set while you decide what to do next.
This all has a flipside, of course. If you want a job where you do one very specific thing every day, then the nonprofit world might not be for you. And while wearing many hats can be exciting and dynamic, it can also be stressful and draining. You have to decide what suits your personality.
How to Work for a Nonprofit
So you’ve decided you want to work at a nonprofit. Great! But what do you do next? What should you study to set yourself up for success, and how can you start getting the necessary experience? Let’s take a look.
What Should I Major in to Work at a Nonprofit?
A common misconception about nonprofit work is that you have to study “nonprofit management” or something similar. While this can be helpful, both Fay and Miranda said that some of the most useful majors for nonprofit work don’t have “nonprofit” in their names.
For a nonprofit to effectively raise, manage, and use their funds, they need people who have more than just a desire to do good. They also need people with the business skills to make the mission a reality. So if you’re studying business, economics, finance, or accounting and want to do something besides climb the corporate ladder, nonprofits are in need of your skills.
In a similar vein, skilled writers and marketers are always in demand at nonprofits. Writing effective grant proposals and communicating with donors (current or potential) are essential to raising the funds an organization needs to do its work. And marketing the organization’s cause (through blog posts, ads, events, and printed materials) is also critical.
Finally, backgrounds in political science or international studies can be immensely useful. This is particularly true if you work with an organization that’s attempting to change government policy in pursuit of social good.
More than anything, know that you don’t have to study nonprofits to pursue a nonprofit career. That can certainly be useful, but knowledge of other fields is just as valuable. Don’t count yourself out of a nonprofit career just because you think you have the “wrong major.”
As with most jobs, your major matters much less than your willingness to learn. That, and experience in nonprofit work. Which brings us to the next piece of the puzzle: getting a nonprofit internship.
How to Get a Nonprofit Internship
We’re big believers that work experience, far more so than your major, is the most important thing for getting a good job after you graduate.
I was pleased to learn from my interviews that the world of nonprofits is no different. Both interviewees stressed the importance of internships for deciding if nonprofit work is for you and building the relationships necessary to get a job.
To find nonprofit internships, the steps are much the same as any other field:
- Start searching early. If you want to do an internship in the summer, start looking the previous fall. This will give you enough time to search and apply. (Fay recommends Indeed as an especially good place to find nonprofit jobs and internships).
- Gather your application materials. If you don’t have a resume, now’s the time to make one. Never written a cover letter? Here’s how.
- Consult career planning. As with any other internship, your college’s office of career planning is an invaluable resource. They can point you to places for finding internships, and they may even be able to connect you with alumni who work in the nonprofit world.
- Network, network, network. The best internships (and jobs) tend to come from personal relationships, not job boards. See if you can connect with nonprofits in your community. And every time you meet someone, ask what they do (this is how Miranda ended up getting one of her first nonprofit jobs). More advice on networking here.
- Do a practice interview. You can set one of these up with your office of career planning. Even if you haven’t gotten an interview yet, these are invaluable practice and can make you far more confident in a real interview.
Finding and Applying for Nonprofit Jobs
So you spent a summer or semester doing a nonprofit internship, and you’ve decided that this is the field for you. What can you do to start your nonprofit career?
Hopefully, you’ve made some connections in your internship that you can use to find a full-time job in the field.
This is what happened to Fay. She had given her resume to some people she met during her internship, and one of them ended up contacting her about a job opening around a month before she graduated. She’s now worked at that company for over 10 years, even getting her MBA in the process.
On the other hand, it may take some time for you to find a job.
Miranda spent some time after college traveling and volunteering in Peru, where she helped with building projects in impoverished communities. After this, she worked for a variety of organizations across the U.S. before finally reaching her current role as a freelance consultant for nonprofits.
These stories remind us that everyone’s career journey is unique. And, of course, it isn’t an all or nothing proposition. You might work in nonprofits for a couple of years, switch to the for-profit world, and then return.
Or, you might move on to an entirely different career, able to use the lessons you learned in your nonprofit experience to excel and make a difference at whatever organization you find yourself in.
Pros and Cons of Working for a Nonprofit
To close this article, I want to look at the pros and cons of working for a nonprofit. There are many wonderful things about this sort of work that make it worth doing. But, as with any field, there are also downsides you should be aware of.
Pro: Potential for Student Loan Forgiveness
One major benefit of nonprofit work is that you could have your student loans forgiven.
If you have federal student loans and work for a U.S. not-for-profit organization (or a U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government), then you may be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).
Loan forgiveness means that, assuming you meet the criteria, you no longer have to pay your student loans. They’re gone, forever.
Naturally, though, there are some caveats. To qualify for PSLF, you need to do the following:
- Be employed by a U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organization
- Work full-time for that agency or organization
- Have Direct Loans (or consolidate other federal student loans into a Direct Loan)
- Repay your loans under an income-driven repayment plan
- Make 120 qualifying payments
From talking to friends who have had their loans forgiven (or are in the process), these rules are extremely strict. To learn more about how this program works (and if it’s right for your situation), check out the Public Loan Service Forgiveness Help Tool.
Finally, I wouldn’t recommend working for a nonprofit just to have your loans forgiven. There are plenty of other (usually quicker) ways to pay off your student loans. Instead, view loan forgiveness as a nice side benefit of nonprofit work.
Con: Salaries Tend to Be Lower
One of the common stereotypes about nonprofit work is that you make less money than at a for-profit company. In general, this is true. Nonprofits have limited budgets, and their goal (in theory) is to put as much money as they can towards their causes.
Both people I interviewed spoke to this reality, though they also mentioned that nonprofit work isn’t necessarily as low-paying as people think. As with any job, it depends where you work and what you do.
Miranda, for instance, mentioned that people with grant writing or fundraising skills can make very good money in nonprofit work. Fay, meanwhile, said that her employer was able to give her a good promotion after she got her MBA.
So while you shouldn’t typically expect to make the big bucks at a nonprofit, you can certainly earn a good living.
Pro: Opportunity to Try Out Many Rolls
I already mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: working at a nonprofit means doing lots of different things beyond your job title.
Miranda, for instance, spoke about the “culture of philanthropy,” an idea that everyone at a nonprofit is expected to help the organization solicit donors and raise money. So even if you work in HR, don’t be surprised if you get asked to help raise funds.
From what I can tell, it seems that nonprofit work offers the chance to condense several years of business experience into a couple. If you’re still trying to figure out what career path you want to pursue, this can be very helpful.
And even when you decide on a specialty, the experience (and empathy) you gain will make you a much more effective team player.
Con: Lack of Funding Can Be Stressful
Many nonprofits are chronically underfunded. While this can encourage creative problem solving and a certain “scrappiness,” it can also be stressful.
Miranda mentioned that she had to leave many jobs not due to poor performance on her part, but because the organizations ran out of money. While this can also happen in the corporate world, the threat is more persistent in nonprofits.
Pro: You Get to Work With Like-Minded, Visionary People
If the corporate world seems too cynical and selfish, then nonprofit work can offer a welcome alternative.
You still have to work hard (or even harder), but you get to do so in the company of others who share your mission and values.
This sort of positive, mission-driven culture does exist in the corporate world, but it’s a lot rarer.
Con: Nonprofits Are Still Run by Flawed Humans
However, you should also be aware that the people who work at nonprofits don’t always live up to their lofty ideals. There will still be workplace drama, disagreements about policy, and the occasional person who values lining their pockets over making a difference.
I don’t say this to make you cynical, but rather to ensure you have realistic expectations. Even with the best intentions, nonprofit employees and leaders are still flawed humans.
Pro: You Have the Chance to Make a Difference
If you see something wrong with the world, working for a nonprofit is a chance to make it better. There are nonprofits for just about any cause you can think of.
Whether you’re interested in combating climate change, ending poverty, battling systemic racism, or improving access to healthcare, there are hundreds of organizations to choose from. And they’d all love to have your enthusiasm and skills.
Con: Changing the World Is a Slow Process
Lots of people go into nonprofit work with grand visions and the idea that they’re going to change the world through their work. The reality, however, is rarely this glamorous.
Often, the people who can make the most difference in nonprofits aren’t the ones giving inspiring speeches.
Instead, they’re the ones who can balance a budget, write dozens of drafts of a grant proposal until it’s perfect, review policy changes and legislation, or schmooze with the right billionaire philanthropist.
The grunt work is what leads to small, incremental changes, not the grand gestures. So if you’re going into this field to feed your ego, you should probably look elsewhere.
Give Nonprofit Work a Chance
I hope I’ve cleared up some misconceptions about the field of nonprofit work, as well as shown you how you can explore nonprofit careers in college and beyond.
If you’re interested in this type of work, spend a summer doing an internship with a nonprofit organization. It could be the beginning of a fulfilling career.
Many, many thanks to Fay and Miranda for lending their time and expertise to this article. You can learn more about their work below:
Image Credits: person holding change