How to get a job at a nonprofit


Phone:  412-496-9542

Hardly a week goes by without someone emailing me to ask how they can break into the nonprofit sector.  Whether they are a recent graduate, an experienced employee trying to make a career transition, or a stay-at-home mom ready to re-enter the workforce, their questions are typically the same.  While I wish that I could have personal conversations with everyone, the reality is that I just do not have the time.  Instead, I will provide my most frequently-given advice here, and I hope that it will help some people to achieve their goals.

Clarify why you want to work for a nonprofit.

So why do you want to work in the nonprofit sector?  It sure can’t be the money.  Before you embark on that job search, make sure that it is what you really want.  I hear a variety of reasons from people who reach out to me:

  • they are passionate about certain causes
  • they want to give back
  • they want their work to be meaningful
  • they think it will be glamorous and allow them to work with high-status people
  • they think it will be easier to get a job at a nonprofit than at a traditional company
  • they want a kinder, gentler work culture
  • they are looking for a lower-pressure job with flexibility.

This is the part where I have to delicately disillusion some people.

It is fantastic that you are passionate about a cause and that you want to do meaningful work that contributes to your community, but working at a nonprofit is not all about saving the world every day.  In reality, it is a lot of paperwork, fundraising, and relationship-building.  Someone who does hiring at a large-scale national organization once told me that he actually rules out candidates who seem overly excited about the job.  I was initially surprised, but he explained that the people who are too fired up and passionate often either burn out quickly or get bored when they realize they have been hired to do filing and data-entry, not to personally save the world.

Likewise, it is typically far from glamorous.  Sure, the posed pictures of celebrities standing next to orphans overseas get lots of attention.  However, this is not really what nonprofit work is about, and most people who go into it with the fame-seeking mindset will rapidly become tired of the daily grind.  Some people hope to meet the many rich and famous donors who contribute to various charitable organizations, but unless you work your way to the top or work in development soliciting major gifts (extremely high-value monetary contributions), you will likely never meet such people.

It is not easier to get a job at a nonprofit, and working at a nonprofit is hard.  There are not enough positions for everyone who wants to do that type of work, so the application process can be extremely competitive.  I do sometimes hear people say that those who were not good enough to get corporate jobs settle for jobs in the nonprofit or governmental sectors.  This is simply not true.  You will find people with years of experience, advanced skills, and multiple degrees working in these positions, and they work very hard.  Many organizations are understaffed due to budgetary constraints, and employees are often expected to cover more than one job description or “wear many hats” to fulfill the entities’ needs.  It can be a very high-stress, time-sensitive environment, and just as inflexible as any corporate job.  There is also the issue of burnout.  Especially for those who work with sensitive populations and difficult subjects, sometimes it just becomes too much to handle after a while.

Have something valuable to offer.

So the first section of this post was not enough to scare you off, and you are still focused on working at a nonprofit, but want to know how to make that happen.  OK.  You need to have something of value to offer to organizations if you want them to hire you.  This sounds rather simple, right?  Obviously you want to be a valuable candidate to show the person doing the hiring that you are the best choice.  No.  Notice that I did not say that you should be a valuable candidate.  I said that you should have something valuable to offer.

What does that mean?  The difference between those two statements is the difference between someone who does not get hired and someone who does.  That is not to say that it is not important to have strong application materials and credentials, and I recommend Ask a Manager (bonus: the author worked in HR at a nonprofit) for putting together a resume and cover letter that show off all your awards, degrees, volunteer positions, internships, and work experience.  Oh, you have all those, right?  Because if you don’t, you need to go know that your competition will have all of them.  However, if you only look good on paper, that is not enough.

To set yourself apart, you must have a serious skill that is going to solve a problem, relieve a pain point, or demonstrably improve an organization’s work.  These skills go beyond a degree in something, and actually show what you can do for the potential employer.  Skills that are often hot commodities in the nonprofit sector include:

  • web design
  • IT
  • programming
  • GIS analysis
  • land use, zoning
  • social media and traditional marketing
  • database design and management
  • accounting, bookkeeping, or other financial training
  • grant and contract management
  • fundraising, grant writing
  • logistics management
  • high proficiency in multiple languages
  • program monitoring and evaluation, outcomes assessments

Some of these skills are things that you can learn on your own (try something like Udemy or your local community college), while others are best learned formally or through work experience.  If you are planning to apply for nonprofit jobs in the future, a good strategy to prepare for your eventual job search is to look up the listings for the types of jobs that are available now and see which skills are required.  Then, go get those skills so that you will have them when the time comes.  Where can you find those job listings?  In the Pittsburgh area, try Nonprofit Talent.  For other areas, see if Career Services at your university has reciprocity arrangements, and look at sites like Idealist.

Know the right people and be in the right places.

Someone else has already told you about the importance of networking.  You know that you are supposed to network, and that it is critical to getting a job.  What you probably do not know is how to network, which people you should be meeting, and what you should be discussing with them.  I have found that most universities and “how to find a job” books sing the praises of networking, but never actually tell people how to do it effectively.

Get in the right mindset.  For years, I found the whole concept of networking to be repulsive.  What, you are just supposed to scheme and weasel things out of people?  I wanted nothing to do with it.  It honestly took starting a business for me to really understand what networking is, as well as what it is not.  I actually enjoy it now.  You are not trying to get something for nothing, or use people, or trick anyone.  You are building relationships that ideally turn into a two-way street.  Remember how I said that you need to be able to deliver something of value?  That applies here, too.  If you know someone who could help the person you are talking to, then make that referral.  Did you read an article that addresses an issue someone mentioned to you?  Make yourself into a useful resource.

Understand that it is a marathon, not a sprint.  This is not what job-seekers want to hear, because they want a job right now.  They have bills to pay.  However, real networking is a long-term process.  Ideally, you would start the networking process a year before you intend to start intensively applying to jobs.  If you do not have a year because you recently lost your job or graduated and are unprepared, then you may want to take a temporary position to hold you over.

Find out who the important players are.  This requires research on your part.  If you want to work in a certain subject area, then you need to figure out which organizations to target, who works there, etc.  This research not only guides your networking efforts, it also shows others that you are serious.  For instance, if you tell me that you are looking for a nonprofit job in Pittsburgh, but have never heard of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management, I am going to be skeptical of your community knowledge base.

Get involved.  Join or at least attend an event put on by the alphabet soup of relevant acronym organizations: YNPN (I am biased because I served on their board, but they are a great networking tool), PANO, GPNP, AFP, etc.  I also strongly encourage volunteering somewhere.  When deciding which groups to join and where to volunteer, keep in mind that your involvement will only be useful if it is actually meaningful.  That is to say, don’t join every group and go to one meeting, or help out at a food pantry and call it a day.  Join a board, get elected to an office, volunteer somewhere every week and make sure to meet the staff.   Do not make your efforts a mile wide and an inch deep, or they will not be useful to you.

You have to actually talk to people.  This is a tough one for many people, and who among us has not pretended to be doing something on our phone in order to look less awkward at an event?  While some people seem to just be naturally social and likable, others have to work at it, and there is no shame in that.  Make it a priority to talk to lots of people, especially people you might not be comfortable talking to, and eventually it will get easier and easier.

Follow up.  You can meet a million people and get their business cards, but if you never follow up with anyone, you could have just stayed home and gotten the same results.  Deeper relationships with a few people can sometimes be more valuable to you than superficial contacts with many people.

Do not waste people’s time.  If you are coming straight out of school or transitioning from a different type of work culture, you may not realize just how precious and limited people’s time can be.  Especially if you are meeting with someone who is self-employed (such as the many solo nonprofit consultants) or who is high-level, show that you respect the sacrifice they are making by agreeing to meet with you.

  • An informational interview is not a job interview.  It may feel as if you’ve gotten your foot in the door and this is your big chance to impress someone, but you have to resist that urge.  You are there to get information and build a connection.
  • Do not forget the appointment.  People will likely not reschedule with you, as they were doing you a favor in the first place.  You have not only not gained an ally in your job search, you have left a negative impression.  The same goes for being late.
  • Take what you can get.  If I accepted every invitation to have a cup of coffee with someone, I would never get anything done.  If I really want to help someone with networking, I will offer them a 20-minute phone call.  I am always amazed by the number of people who say they will just wait until I am less busy.  I will never be less busy.
  • Come prepared.  Show up with an understanding of what the person does and have questions ready, but do not make it an interrogation.  Do not ask questions that you could have just Googled.
  • Take notes.  Someone once asked me to summarize our conversation in a typed document and email it to her to read later.  No.  If someone is reeling off resources and people they want you to contact, you need to be writing all of that down.  If you sit there and just stare at them, it will become clear that you are not valuing their time and that you have no intention of following any of their advice.
  • Thank the person.  Write a real, honest-to-goodness thank-you card, made of paper with ink on it and everything.  They work wonders.

Get social.  When I suggest this, some people groan that they do not want to participate in social media.  Well, the fact is that nonprofits and nonprofit professionals are very active on social media, and you can’t get a job if you never hear about it.  For instance, there are many Facebook groups devoted to local nonprofit goings-on, and people will often post jobs there that will not be posted elsewhere.  Follow organizations that interest you on Twitter.  Whatever platform(s) you choose, try to get involved and make valuable contributions to discussions.

Understand that you will have to pay it back and forward.

If someone takes the time to help you, it is only fair for you to help others.  A certain doughnut company may tell you otherwise, but I am here to tell you that America runs on favors.  My personal policy is that if I help you to connect with someone, you can be sure that when you get yourself established, I will ask you to help someone else.

Keep trying and do not give up.

This is not an exhaustive guide on how to get a job in the nonprofit sector, but it should get you started.  You will need to do a lot of your own research and legwork, because no one can do it for you.  If this is what you really want for your career, then persistence is the most useful trait you can have.  Good luck to you.

Please note:  This blog is intended as general educational information only, and should not be considered legal advice or a substitute for consulting a lawyer.