The Benefits and Challenges of Nonprofit Jobs and Working In The Sector (Shared Article from Foundation List)

In this article we will be discussion the benefit and challenges of nonprofit jobs. We will also discuss the issues and the realities of working at nonprofits which can be very helpful to understand while working in the sector. These topics apply to all core nonprofit jobs at nonprofit organizations, foundations, associations, unions, schools and related organizations as well. Ok, let’s start with the benefits of nonprofit jobs.

Nonprofit Job Seeking 101; first it always best to know what the challenges are, and what you get out of seeking a job at a foundation/nonprofit.

(1) Nonprofits, foundations, and educational institutions are attractive to work at because they are mission-driven and they offer a do-good feeling from working at them. Being able to work, accomplish real results and feel like you are making an impact is very rewarding. More so:

  • At a foundation, nonprofit, or school you can work accomplishing that you care about and that really makes a difference. And because of this (in the job-seeking stage) they also expect you to offer more than just a resume match. Modernly more than ever job seekers are looking for a real connection to the work that they do. Also, remote opportunities to work a more hybrid schedule is something that the sector is struggling with finding balance with, so stay open to the organization’s needs. This is an area rapidly changing and evolving.
  • To secure a position in a nonprofit you will need to demonstrate an experience fit, positive work approach, and a proven passion for their mission and/or area of program focus. Even your outside activities all matter to nonprofit/foundation employers such if you volunteer, are active in your community and have a passion for philanthropy.
  • Focus on the why: Why are you experienced in the specific responsibilities of the position. Why would you stay in this role long term. Why are you a match long-term for the organization.
  • Tip: do not focus your interests in an area that is different than the job you are applying for. Nonprofits are accustomed to not hiring staff that are so passionate about their mission they will do anything. They are not looking to hire you, and then have you within the first year of employment (or 2nd!) express interest in a different job or responsibility. Stay focused on the job you have applied for, and your match for their long-term goals. Ask about what they are trying to accomplish, and what success looks like in the role at the end of year 1.
  • Bottom line: foundations, nonprofits and schools are all looking for people who care about their purpose as much as they do.

(2) Another Big Benefit Are “The People” In The Sector.

  • We are progressive, open to change, and care about our communities; where else can you find this?
  • In general, nonprofit jobs and employers truly care about their staff and are normally open to committee decision making.
  • This is different than for-profits. For-profit companies are top down only decision makers (traditionally) and normally do not “discuss” their decisions openly before they are made in the same way. This is a great strength but also a great challenge. For this reason, expect the hiring process to take a bit longer.
  • Though the process is time intensive, it is also offers stability, reliability, and employee buy in. Things that are very important when considering nonprofit leaders are responsible to boards, and many times must justify their decisions. Another benefit of difference in seeking in the nonprofit sector is that it allows us to passionately work in an area without appearing like “fanatical jobseeker.”
  • If you approached a for-profit with as much direct experience as many nonprofit jobseekers do, you would probably be labeled a stalker or out for personal gain. Honestly, try telling a Finance Director at Gap Inc., that you watched them speak at the most recent event at a conference, that you volunteered at their two last gala/events since 2019, met their personal assistant at an art show last week, read the last three publications they had written, that you are very devoted what they do, and really want to work with them. They would be either terrified of you. But nonprofits are different. You are expected to network in their area of expertise, read their works, meet their employees, and volunteer at their events. In fact, that is fastest way to get hired at one.
  • Unlike for-profit corporations the information you need to secure a job lead is very available in the nonprofit sector. You always hear people say this, getting a job is all about networking. For better or worse, finding the best job for you often comes down to knowing the right people. Maintain relationships from past jobs, internships and volunteer experiences.” Thus, having the correct experience volunteering, and the right approach is a strong way in.
  • The staff at many nonprofits are devoted and many bring (well deserved) expectations of work ethic, professionalism, and impact.
  • Remember that in the nonprofit world it is much better publicized when their events are, and how to get involved with an organization.
  • Each of these are opportunities to get your foot in the door.
  • So, go to their website, and you will find many doorways in.
  • Information on how to volunteer, and even the Executive Director’s email is normally located right there.

The challenges of seeking nonprofit jobs:

(1) Finding the position you are right for and sticking with it. If you can choose a position that you are interested and stick with it you will always be employed.

  • Story: many people feel and say, “wow I would be great at event fundraising,” but if they get the opportunity only stay in the department (if they can get their foot in the door) for two to three years on average.
  • This is the same for Grant Writers, why are they so in demand? This is because most people do not stay in these roles for long as W2 staff. Once they learn the trade most move up into larger roles or choose to leave staff positions so they can instead consult as an experienced grant writing professionals.
  • The key is to find a position/area you are right for and sticking with it.
  • This is the key to your professional success and it is also your hardest decision.
  • Don’t attempt to switch employment from development to programs unless you have specific experience or volunteer experience in the area. Or try to go from operations to marketing, or finance to programs or another large change without planning. These leaps are very hard to pull off unless you first gain real and applicable experience volunteering or working.
  • Decide what you want to do today and start working in it; if you don’t have enough experience in it to get paid yet; volunteer.
  • If you are senior level and are not working in it now, join a board or nonprofit committee. You can then get the right experience that will make nonprofit decision makers confident in your background.

(2) Choosing and sticking to a general area of interest and overall mission or niche within the nonprofit sector.

  • Jobseekers everyday are surprised when they are not selected for an opportunity and may have come in second or third in the interview process.
  • I would say 8 out of 10 times it is because another person had prior exact industry and functional experience in the position or systems/programs that the position will use.
  • So, if you are working in education, stay in education if you can, if you are working in an arts organization, your prior knowledge makes you a strong candidate to organizations that are similar to where you are working now. This is also why it is important to be strategic about where you choose to work and gain your experience in.
  • Of course people inevitably seek new challenge, or need a change. This is the biggest challenge in nonprofit job-seeking: finding an area that you like and sticking to it.
  • Remember you are most qualified for working in the area you are currently in, so choose wisely the positions and roads you enter.

(3) Organizational structures and historic thinking.

The nonprofit sector is extremely diverse in the makeup of it staff compared to many other industries. But not always diverse in beliefs or open to new ideas within each organization. This can be limiting in some ways and is one of the challenges of nonprofit organization governance.  The physical makeup of only having one executive report to the Board (the big boss) can create roadblocks and strategic challenges for department leaders with revolutionary ideas. Also, Board Members many times see their role as being the no person or the people that make sure bad decisions are not made. They prefer to stay more conservative so they do not make mistakes. This organization structure, and removing the lack of self-interest (as no profits exist) also can be a very limiting factor in nonprofits going after big ideas or super impactful change. Limited thinking, or not trying new tactics as it failed once in the past many years ago is one way you will see this take place. Many nonprofits also do not think big enough. They relegate themselves to a mindset of not having enough resources and limiting their own growth. Instead more nonprofit need to ask: where can we make the biggest impact? What would it take to make this happen? What is required? What staff would we need to hire to fund this, and execute the work? Do we want to grow and expand our impact? Are we willing to believe in ourselves to impact the mission the absolutely most as possible?

  • Since they mission-driven entities most nonprofits hire individuals that agree with their actions, programs, values this can limit their expose to outside beliefs and competitive information.
  • Organizations hire individuals aligned and experienced with their mission, and way of working. Thus, normally are less likely to hire staff that may come from other industries. They have limited resources and time to train overall. This, can create a roadblock in hiring the best of the best.
  • Having an active board is so important for nonprofits, but not as important as having an executive directors/CEO who can influence the board, recruit new board members and advocate for an organizational structure that provides them the space and independence to run the organization and fulfill its mission. It is best proactive for board to be policy making groups, and not in the weeds of running an organization.
  • These problems do not exist as much for the for-profit sector. For-profit stockholders  have a finance stake in the company and thus are incentivized to grow the organization, advocate for best practices and get the best returns. Nonprofit board members are by the very makeup of the structures not as incentivized to push for change, growth or as open to investing in growth when the possibility of any failure exists. This in the shorter-term makes these organizations stable, but long term more likely to fail, become less competitive and less effective. We highly suggest a tactical path that is a hybrid to keep your organization growing and financially healthy.
By Meaghan Wood (She/Her)
Meaghan Wood (She/Her) Career Coach Meaghan Wood (She/Her)