Why Work for a Nonprofit
When most people think about working for a nonprofit (NPO), the words that come to mind are “passion” and “idealism.” Working for an NPO can be an enriching career path, as you’ll make a difference for a cause you care about.
The National Center for Charitable Statistics reports there are approximately 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. These organizations contribute to several beneficial causes, including helping animals, the environment, and public health.
A nonprofit job has several benefits, and the most obvious one is working every day on a social cause you believe in. Other advantages include working with like-minded people, having the potential to advance your career more quickly, and gaining experience in a multitude of areas.
America’s nonprofit sector is also larger than you may expect. If you looked at NPOs as an industry, it’s the third-largest workforce in the U.S., employing about 12.3 million people in 2016. Only retail and food services employed more Americans in 2016.
While a career in the nonprofit world is enticing for many, it’s essential to be realistic. Nonprofit employees say they love their work, but there are downsides to be aware of. Working with limited resources can lead to burnout, and even the most financially sound organizations are prone to periods of instability.
Empire Resume delved into the world of NPOs and will let you know the main benefits of working for one and how to break into the sector.
What is a Nonprofit?
Foundation List defines nonprofit as a term used to describe an organization dedicated to furthering a social cause or advocating a shared point of view.
By their very definition, NPOs are organizations not operating primarily to make a profit. Instead, they focus on furthering whatever cause or goals they’re committed to, typically in the realm of religion, science, charity, education, public safety, or cruelty prevention.
The IRS grants tax-exempt status to nonprofits because they provide a public benefit or serve the public in some way. Examples of nonprofits include universities, hospitals, churches, national charities, and foundations. Large and well-known nonprofits include the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, The Salvation Army, United Way, and the YMCA.
When most people think of nonprofits, they think of 501(c)(3) organizations. Those numbers are based on the section of the IRS tax code that permits these organizations to operate. However, there are about three dozen different types of nonprofits based on the tax codes the U.S. Congress has created.
Nonprofits, in their many forms, are huge contributors to the U.S. economy. NPOs accounted for about 10.2% of all U.S. employment in 2016, according to the John Hopkins Center for Civil Society. The Urban Institute reports that the value of volunteer hours contributed to NPOs in 2016 was roughly $187.4 billion!
Debunking Nonprofit Myths
Before going to work for a nonprofit, it’s vital to clear up common myths about them. NPOs are among the most misunderstood types of organizations in the business world, and many people have mistaken ideas about them.
Perhaps the biggest myth is that nonprofits don’t or shouldn’t make any profit. Making a profit isn’t the primary focus for NPOs, but they must make some money to be financially solvent and sustainable.
The key difference between an NPO and a for-profit company is that for-profit firms make money for their shareholders. An NPO can have surplus funds at year’s end, but the money must go to furthering their charitable mission.
Another myth is nonprofits receive all their money from donations and foundation grants. The National Council on Nonprofits reported that NPOs received only 14% of annual revenue in 2019 from private philanthropy, which includes donations and grants from foundations. NPOs earn the lion’s share of their revenue from private fees from services and government grants and contracts.
Benefits of Nonprofit Work
While you may not change the world in a day, the idealistic aspect of nonprofit work is perhaps the most significant benefit. NPOs – or at least the good ones – are organized around a mission to make a difference on an important cause.
People who work for NPOs said there are challenges, which we’ll get to later, but it’s all worth it in the end. If you have a passion for helping homeless persons in your city, working for a nonprofit that aims to address the issue can be an enormously satisfying job.
Other benefits of nonprofit work aren’t as obvious. One advantage is that, compared to for-profit work, it can be easier to get a start in the NPO world and easier to advance in an organization.
NPOs are always in need of volunteers. So, if you’re interested in getting a foot in the door, volunteering is a great way to do so. It’s possible to help a nonprofit in areas you’re interested in but don’t have much experience with. Volunteering allows you to gain experience, build up your resume, and make valuable networking connections that could help land a future job.
Nonprofits tend to have fewer employees and resources than for-profit firms, so it can be easier to advance up the ladder. While working at an NPO, you’ll take on various duties outside your job description. This is a great way to learn different skills and work your way up in an organization.
Drawbacks of Nonprofit Work
Yes, nonprofits can make money, as we explained. And not all of them are constantly strapped for cash. But on average, NPO employees make less money than workers at for-profit companies.
PayScale reported in 2018 that NPO employees earn between 4% and 8% less than workers with similar titles in corporate jobs. Marketing managers at nonprofits earn way less than their corporate counterparts (18%). People call this the “nonprofit discount” – workers realize they’ll make less money at an NPO but take the job anyway because it’s more meaningful than corporate work.
Another drawback is the potential for burnout. Working in the corporate world can burn you out, too, but there’s an added possibility at an NPO. Some nonprofits are understaffed and stretched thin, so you’ll regularly be doing more with less and making less money while doing so.
If you’re new to nonprofit work, you’ll also need to manage your expectations. The work is meaningful, but you won’t be changing the world every day. Some days are simply like any other job, and progress can be slow. NPO workers are typically very passionate about their organization’s mission, so when progress slows to a halt, it can be disheartening.
Lastly, instability and change are constant in nonprofit jobs. Working for a startup for-profit company is similar in some ways. At many NPOs, funding sources and other variables can change very quickly. If you want to succeed, it’s vital to be flexible, resilient, and not afraid of change.
Landing a Nonprofit Job
Careers in the nonprofit sector have been more popular in recent years. Many universities today offer degrees in subjects like Nonprofit Management, and many people today build long-lasting NPO careers.
If you’d like to break into the nonprofit world, start with volunteering. Donating your time and efforts gives you a glimpse of nonprofit work and, as we mentioned, lets you gain valuable experience. Just remember that working full-time at an NPO is not nearly the same as being a volunteer.
Like all job searching, networking is crucial in landing an NPO job. Many nonprofit workers say the sector has a “small world” feel, and you’ll be surprised how connected people at different NPOs are. Attending local networking events or networking online can quickly lead to introductions and new opportunities.
Another thing to keep in mind: Even though NPOs aren’t focused on making profits, you’ll still be expected to hold the same professional standards as you would at a corporate job. Some nonprofits are stretched thin, so it’s essential to be someone who can work autonomously and work hard.
Nonprofit Interview Tips
Interviewing for a nonprofit job is similar in many ways to interviewing for a corporate gig. But there are a few key differences to keep in mind.
NPOs look for candidates with the right background experience and skills, but they also want people who are passionate about their mission. Before an interview, make sure you do more than just read the nonprofit’s mission statement. You should know all about the programs they run, their history, the people they serve, and the people who work and volunteer there.
If you’re looking to move into the nonprofit world for the first time, be prepared to talk about transferrable skills and experience. For example, NPOs will want to know about past volunteer experience, if you’re active in your community, or if you’ve ever served on an NPO board.
Saying “thank you” is crucial in the nonprofit sector, so remember to follow up after interviews with a thank-you email or hand-written note. NPO workers spend a lot of time building donor and volunteer relationships, so “thank you” is a phrase you’ll often be using if you get the job.
Lend a Hand & Advance Your Career
Working for a nonprofit can be extremely rewarding. The benefits of a career in the NPO world include making a noticeable difference in communities and the lives of others and being able to move faster into a leadership role.
There are many myths about nonprofits we debunked in this article, and perhaps the biggest is that working at an NPO is not different than volunteering. To be clear, there’s a big difference between the two. Volunteers may do similar work, but they’re often shielded from things like burnout and the inner workings of the organization that full-time workers must face.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit nonprofits particularly hard. Roughly 73% of NPOs reported revenue drops so far in 2020, according to a survey by La Piana Consulting. Demand for services is up, employment figures and donations are down, and many nonprofits are stretched very thin.
Nevertheless, landing a job at an NPO is still possible, and a great place to start is with volunteering. Nonprofits across the nation are re-examining their missions and services to provide help to communities during the pandemic, and it’s an excellent time to lend a hand. You’ll advance your career and help others at the same time.
Empire Resume can help you land a position at a nonprofit by creating a top-notch resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile for you. Contact us today at 801-690-4085 or email@example.com and ask about our free resume review.
If you liked this article, read more of our career and job insights on subjects like what to expect on your first day of work, declining industries destined to fail, and LinkedIn profile tips for when you’re unemployed.
Nick Pipitone is a freelance writer living in the Philadelphia area that contributes regularly for Empire Resume. He has covered business and management topics extensively throughout his career, and he enjoys rooting for Philly sports teams and getting lost in used bookstores.