The nonprofit sector offers many amazing career pathways and opportunities, many of which may closely mirror what you’ve done in the past. You can utilize all your skills, experience, and knowledge on behalf of a mission you truly support - whether it’s the environment, the arts, gender/racial equality, or something else.
But even though many nonprofit organizations run their day-to-day similarly to a private company, they are different worlds. If you don’t already have nonprofit experience in your background, it can be challenging to break in - especially if you approach it like any other job hunt.
Here are some tips and suggestions to help you land the nonprofit job you’re shooting for and get started on improving the world.
Understand the Differences
Because nonprofits by definition don’t make a profit (obviously), they have to measure themselves in terms of impact as opposed to strict numbers.
This doesn’t mean that finances and monetary metrics aren’t important in your application, but also that you should focus on ways your work made tangible, positive changes on the way things are done - either for your company or your customers.
Speaking of which, stop saying the words “company” and “customers.” Nonprofits are “organizations,” and they serve their “donors,” “stakeholders,” and “constituents.” This may sound nitpicky, but using the wrong language can paint you as someone who doesn’t understand the basics of how nonprofits work.
Be Mission-Driven and Talk With Mission-Driven People
Nonprofits do not want to hire someone who obviously isn’t invested in their mission. Their overall goal doesn’t have to be your life’s passion, but you do have to be able to speak to it with some knowledge and interest.
In this helpful LinkedIn blog, Philadelphia Non-Profit Nerds Organizer Marta Rusek suggests starting with listing out what matters to you:
When you're looking for your first nonprofit job, it saves time to make a list of the causes that are most near and dear to your heart. Think about organizations you've donated your hard-earned money to, or jot down a list of the people you admire and projects of not-for-profit organizations that really resonate with you. See if those organizations are hiring, and if not, aim for jobs at similar organizations that can get you closer to working for your top-tier choices.
If you're not sure what you're passionate about, but you know that you definitely want to make a career out of serving the greater good, that's totally valid, too. One question I've used when job hunting is: "Will I be happy working here for two to three years?" If the answer is no, keep looking.
It’s also worth noting that the nonprofit world may be smaller than the world you’re used to - but not completely exclusive. It’s going to be worth it to brush up on your relationship-building skills and forge connections with people or organizations whose work you admire.
Don’t rule out the power of volunteering, either. While you shouldn’t volunteer just because you think it might lead to a job, it’s a good way to make connections within the organization. Having volunteer experience on your resume also shows nonprofit organizations that you understand their mission and may be a good fit with their culture of service.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Like all sectors, things run differently at every nonprofit organization. However, the nonprofit sector seems to gather a lot of assumptions and stereotypes as people tend to treat it as one singular industry rather than an entire sector with many different subsectors and categories.
For example, you may think working for a nonprofit means taking a lower salary, and sometimes it does. But “nonprofit” has many different meanings and many different funding sources. (Famously, the National Football League operated as a nonprofit until 2015.) As a result, salary structures can be all over the place.
When researching nonprofits, using a tool like GuideStar can allow you to look up organizations’ financial reports and see their leaders’ salary information.
As a rule, you should avoid any generalizations about nonprofits based on your experience with one or two of them. Keep stereotypes out of your mind and approach each organization individually.
Look in Different Places
Although many nonprofits use the typical job boards like LinkedIn and Indeed to advertise their open positions, if you just stick to those, you may be missing out on opportunities.
The largest directory of nonprofit job openings nationwide is Idealist, but many nonprofits choose to advertise their positions on specialty boards related to their mission or their region.
For example, in Philadelphia, arts organizations, museums, and other cultural institutions list their openings on the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance Job Bank. If you lived in Seattle and were interested in nonprofit policy and financial planning, then you might check out Philanthropy Northwest.
Whatever your region or area of interest, there’s probably a specialty job board to match it.
The world of nonprofits can be a challenge to break into, but the results can be spectacularly rewarding. Use these tips and you can be on your way to a successful career making the world a better place.