everything you need to know about nonprofit jobs

As someone who has spent my whole career working for nonprofits, I can tell you that the nonprofit sector has its own quirks, plusses, and sometimes minuses. Here are eight things you need to know about how nonprofit jobs are (and aren’t) different.

1. It’s true – you’ll probably make less money. But while nonprofits generally pay less than their for-profit counterparts, salaries in the sector vary widely, and smart non-profits strive to pay competitive salaries and benefits so that they can hire strong talent.

2. Nonprofits often have fewer resources for other things too. Often—but not always—you’ll find nonprofit organizations have less money for office space, staff expansion, training, and equipment. Part of life in this environment is making due with less.

3. Commitment matters. Nonprofits often look for job candidates who care deeply about the issue they work on, and who won’t see the work simply as a job. You’re going to be spending every day working to change the world. If you’re not enthusiastic about that change, you’ll probably be happier somewhere else.

4. … But commitment alone won’t get you the job. If you have passion for the issue but lack the skills to do the job well, that passion won’t take you very far. Because nonprofits are often smaller and have fewer resources, employees who don’t perform at a high level will be quickly noticed – and at a well-run organization, replaced.

5. If you’re expecting a more laid-back or less rigorous work environment, you might be disappointed. Many nonprofits are fast-paced, demanding, and disciplined; in fact, there’s a growing movement in toward accountability and rigor in measuring results and impact.

6. Nonprofit work doesn’t have to mean dishing out food in a soup kitchen, walking dogs at an animal shelter, or other direct service work (although it can). There’s a wide range of nonprofit jobs — you can work as an accountant, event planner, web designer, manager, editor, researcher, or almost any other job that you find in the private sector.

7. Nonprofits can afford to be picky about who they hire. The sector generally attracts large pools of well-qualified candidates who want to feel their work is making a difference. Among nonprofits that pay competitively, the competition for jobs is often fierce.

8. Funding can control everything. It’s not unusual to find particular positions in a nonprofit funded by a grant. If that grant goes away, so do those jobs. So make sure that you’re clear on the organization’s finances and how your particular position would be funded.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    As a recent grad who began their career as a Fundraising and Event Coordinator last year, I feel like I need to send this article to a large number of family and friends.

    Yes, I make a salary that is competitive with my friends who are working similiar positions at for-profit companies and no, I don’t sit around all day talking about my feelings and playing with puppies (although I definitely wish I did, the puppy part at least!)

  2. ChristineH*

    I can definitely vouch for #5!

    Maybe it’s because my whole career has mostly been in nonprofits so I don’t really know anything else, but another thing I find with nonprofits is that staff tend to be more personable.

  3. kbbaus*

    I work at a non-profit and my salary and health benefits are definitely not competitive. However, they make up for it with our vacation and sick time, and flexibility in schedules and working from home.

    It’s a Christian publishing house and I’m Jewish, and although I don’t wholeheartedly believe in the mission of ‘propagating the faith’, I do believe in providing quality resources to customers, so it works for me!

  4. Janet*

    After working for 7 years in non-profits, I went to for-profits and I want to go back to non! Yes, the salaries weren’t as high and there were fewer resources but . . . I felt it was a better family/work balance. Also, in the PR realm, in my non-profit job I got to do so much more: Blogging, social media, ghost writing, media relations, community relations, speech writing, etc. In my current for-profit role? They can afford people for each of those positions so I just do one aspect of PR and not every aspect.

    1. Anonymous*

      Thank you for pointing out the family/work balance! I find the expectation to work late to prove “dedication” is almost non-existent in my current position (exception being when we’re approaching a major event and need all hands on deck). During our slower times my boss often encourages us to leave a bit early and take breaks. Compared to for-profit positions I’ve held, I’m much more motivated to work extra hours during our busy times because of the down time during our “off-season”.

      I also experienced a huge positive change in my stress levels and health once I switched from for-profit to non-profit. The work is equally challenging, but the encouragement to have a life outside of the work place and stay healthy has been a great benefit!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Keep in mind, though, that this does vary. I’ve worked places where 10-12 hour days were routine and the culture was very much one of long hours.

        1. Janet*

          Good point – and even inside a non-profit there is a big difference between working later. I know that in non-profit marketing/pr I’d only have to work the occasional night or weekend but that my co-workers in fundraising or event planning would have to travel more often and work later.

  5. Catbertismy hero*

    All great points. Other differences I have experienced is that decisions tend to be made more collaboratively, and that there is real skill set needed for dealing effectively with volunteers. The flexibility you mention is a key benefit; I rarely miss activities with my kids now.

  6. InkStained*

    I’d love to see your thoughts about a related field — philanthropy. Like, working at a grant-making foundation. Obviously part of the “non-profit” world, too. But a lot of the stuff you highlight in the article seems to not apply to that arm of it. I’m new to that world and it is quirky, passionate and, at least where I am, highly political. (That part is hard for me.) There are tons of positives about working in that sector that drew me in, and really few negatives I can see so far. But I’d love to hear your take on it, if you have one.

  7. Jen M.*

    Thank you for this. I’m trying to make the transition to non-profit from for-profit, and this information is very helpful.

  8. Recent HR Graduate*

    I would love to get your advice on what a recent HR graduate should do to break in the field when volunteering is not an option and entry level openings do not exist their local or surrounding area’s.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Generally, you mean, not related to nonprofits? That’s a pretty broad question, but there’s tons of advice on this site that would be a good place to start!

  9. Dani*

    Great article.

    I could have only added one piece of advise for working in a non-profit, especially a smaller one and that would be to be professional, even off the job.

    You never know when a potential donor may be watching if you get sloppy drunk on a Friday night or join the local Slut Walk protest.
    It would be nice if our personal lives never influenced our work lives, but in truth, you may alienate yourself and the organization you work for if a donor wishes to distance themselves from you.

    No matter how good you cause is, there are other worthy causes in the community and you never want to send donor dollars to another organization because you were protesting something they believe in, or have ties to.

    It may seem innocent and socially responsible to protest the deforestation of your area, but if a donor has a son who owns a logging company, odds are he’ll see you as harassing and uninformed about the way things really work.

    When you work for a non-profit, you should have no discernible politics of your own.. only those which represent the interests of your organization.

  10. Anonymous*

    Between the market, real operational needs, and the higher education sector’s hunger to get a piece of the pie, many roles in this sector that your 90s sociology grad might have gotten have been professionalized. An overview of what I’m seeing managers want (which I do not have), as I look for work:

    For administration and office management roles: diplomas (or indeed degrees) in Business Administration are preferred to qualifications in social sciences/humanities. Accountants, for accounting.

    Small scale fundraising: people with diplomas in Fundraising.

    But, major gifts and business development: people with MBAs.

    Project management: Masters-holders (quant fields), and certified Project Managers.

    Grant-writing: Masters- and PhD-holders are safe here, for now.

    PR: self-evident. (Maybe not: I mean a PR diploma, which offers for-credit internships and maybe a whole course or even two in “Issue Management”, and NOT a BA in Communications, or anything involving Foucault or Aristophanes or David Foster Wallace.)

    Events management: diploma in that.

    Evaluation: This is a new thing that is also leaning towards professionalization, as in, certificates and Masters in this (“evaluation”, i.e. program auditing) are coming to be available. Also relevant are quant social science and policy and administration quals.

    I might have missed a few.

    Hiring managers also definitely want area-specific experience. It’s no good going from arts fundraising to fundraising for medical charities. They have nothing to do with each other, apparently. (And 5 years minimum, please.) Alternatively, especially for areas like major gifts, corporate experience is welcome.

    Experience in larger, high profile charities is more useful than time spent in other kinds.

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