Chances are you've come across a nonprofit already. If you've ever donated
used clothing to the Salvation Army or to United Way, then you've dealt directly
with a nonprofit.
Nonprofits are organizations that support a specific cause, such as ending
hunger in poor countries, finding a cure for cancer or sheltering animals.
Unlike corporations, nonprofits exist solely to advance their cause, and not
to turn a profit (hence the name "nonprofit").
The best way to get started in the nonprofit sector is to volunteer at
an organization that interests you. "That way, you feel what it's like working
there, you get a sense of the different types of work they do," says Janice
Rapier. She's the jobs training and education director at Seattle Goodwill,
a job-training center.
"You also need to know what kind of person you are," says Rapier. "If helping
others is important to you, working at a nonprofit may be a good match."
Since nonprofits depend mostly on public donations and government grants,
salaries at nonprofits may be lower than those at private companies.
But if you're passionate about saving the environment, or helping the homeless,
there's no better place to work than at an organization dedicated to the cause.
Kristina Johnson was a newspaper reporter before switching careers. She's
now the deputy press secretary at Sierra Club, an organization dedicated to
protecting the environment.
"I've always loved the outdoors," says Johnson. "The time I've spent outside
hiking, climbing and skiing led to a natural desire to protect wild places.
I studied international development and environmental journalism, and my current
job allows me to combine all of my interests.
"I get to use my communications skills to protect the mountains and wildlife
I love, but also to help people -- to promote the kind of clean energy and
green jobs that fight global warming and make healthy communities and a healthy
Working at a Nonprofit
Nonprofits hire people from nearly all fields -- from doctors to engineers,
information technology specialists to clerical staff.
So if you have dreams of becoming a nurse, you can obtain your nursing
degree, work in a clinic or hospital for several years, and then apply to
a nonprofit. Doctors Without Borders is a nonprofit that provides medical
aid to people in war-torn and impoverished countries. It hires nurses and
sends them overseas.
Even some lawyers turn to careers in nonprofit. John Richardson is the
managing partner of Pivot Legal LLP and executive director of Pivot Legal
Society. The law firm donates its profits to fight poverty and homelessness.
The firm's summer internship program is very popular. Law students from
as far away as Europe volunteer at the firm to gain experience. Job applications
from lawyers also come in on a weekly basis.
"We're getting lawyers who are dissatisfied with traditional law firm practice,
either because they want to work with a social purpose, or because they want
a change from the traditional law firm environment," says Richardson.
"So when they look at a place like Pivot, a place with a reputation for
social responsibility and a service-oriented culture, there's definitely an
attraction, especially if they have motivations to do social justice work."
Laura Track is a second-year lawyer with Pivot Legal Society. "People want
work that they feel good about doing, work that's valued and meaningful, in
a workplace that values work-life balance," she says. Work-life balance means
a comfortable balance between work and one's personal life.
Make no mistake, working at a nonprofit isn't easy. "People work pretty
hard here," says Richardson. "We don't track hours, but I will see people
here till 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. on a Friday."
"We work long hours," says Johnson. "We fight tough battles.... And we
have lots of fun."
One thing you'll find at nonprofits is people who are motivated to help
others. "I think it's important that one enjoys helping people out, at least
within this organization," says Rapier.
"I wouldn't say it's a 'savior mentality,' but in our organization, people
want to be of service to others.... Whenever I take visitors on a tour, they
can see that people here enjoy what they do."
"When you work at a nonprofit like Sierra Club, you work with people who
are committed to something larger than themselves," says Johnson. "The people
I work with aren't here for the money. They're here because they want to leave
a better world for our grandkids."
Another less attractive characteristic of nonprofits is their lack of resources.
Track recalls the adjustment she had to make when she left her job at the
Department of Justice.
"It was a massive pendulum swing for me," she says. "At the [Department
of Justice], we had more resources in the way of legal assistance and secretarial
support. At Pivot, I've had to make more trips to the courthouse library to
do my research, but I've also learned how to be more efficient with substantially
The good news is that people at nonprofits have lots of opportunity to
grow their careers. "The upside of having a smaller staff and limited resources
is that there is a lot of opportunity to take on more responsibility and develop
your skills," says Johnson.
So there you have it. Still feel like changing the world? Remember, if
you're considering a career at a nonprofit organization, it's important to
care about the nonprofit's vision.
Loren Balisky is the community coordinator at Kinbrace House, a nonprofit
that provides housing for refugee claimants. "I don't think I'd be able to
work in any other area," she says.
"For instance, I don't think I can work on homelessness issues -- it's
just not my forte. At Kinbrace, I enjoy welcoming people from other cultures.
I feel my skills and experience are put to good use here."
Be honest about what you want out of your career, because working at a
nonprofit isn't for everyone. However, if you find yourself pulled to a particular
cause, don't be afraid to follow your instincts.
"Fundamentally, I find my work deeply rewarding and enriching," says Balisky.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything else."