do you want to work at a nonprofit?

I’ve spent most of my career working in nonprofits, and I am here to tell you that — if you care about doing something you believe in and making the world a better place — it rules. Well, it can rule, if you pick the right one. (If you pick the wrong one, it can suck, just like in other sectors.)

Here’s what you should know about working for a nonprofit.

What does it mean to be a nonprofit?

Nonprofits are organizations that work to improve the common good of society in some way, typically through charitable, educational, scientific, or religious means. Their defining characteristic is that they don’t distribute a profit to private individuals (such as owners or investors); instead, they use all their available revenue to serve the public interest in some way.

When you think of nonprofits, you might first think of animal shelters and soup kitchens, there are also all kinds of others, such as advocacy groups, which work for social change; trade associations, which offer membership and services like research, training, or lobbying for whichever industry they represent; religious institutions, like churches and temples; and private foundations, which focus on making grants to other nonprofits.

What types of jobs do nonprofits hire for?

Nonprofits hire people to do all the same jobs as for-profit businesses do: They hire people to do web design, accounting, research, management, communications, administrative work, I.T., lobbying—all the same jobs that you’re used to seeing. But on top of that, they also have additional roles likes fundraisers, grant writers, volunteer coordinators, and community organizers.

Does “nonprofit” mean that the staff aren’t paid?

No! It’s the organization itself that isn’t making a profit, not the employees. With the exception of some very small organizations, most  nonprofits are staffed by paid professional staff. Some organizations employ volunteers in additionto their paid staff, but many don’t use volunteer help at all.

Do nonprofits pay competitively?

Some do and some don’t. Salaries in the sector vary widely, but smart nonprofits do strive to pay competitive salaries and benefits so that they can hire talented staff members.

However, when nonprofits can’t afford high salaries, they often try to make up for it by offering excellent benefits, such as  flexible hours and generous vacation time. But this too varies by organization – and there are certainly plenty of nonprofits where long hours are the norm.

What’s different about nonprofit work? 

The biggest difference is that there’s a different bottom line.In business, the ultimate goal is to make a profit. For nonprofits, the goal is to have a positive effect in the world. And staff members are generally expected to share that perspective, which can sometimes translate into longer hours and pitching in wherever you’re needed in order to help advance the mission. But staff members often derive an enormous sense of personal fulfillment from their work (particularly if the organization is well-run and getting results).

In addition, nonprofits often (but not always) have fewer resources, which can mean less money for salaries, office space, training, and equipment. For this reason, it’s not uncommon for nonprofits to be understaffed, so you might be expected to wear several different hats – which can be a great opportunity to get experience in multiple areas, but can be frustrating if you want to just focus on one thing. (However, there are also larger nonprofits that are well-funded and well-staffed.)

How can I get hired by a nonprofit?

For the most part, nonprofit hiring works the same as anywhere else. However, in addition to screening for skills and talents, nonprofits also usually look for candidates who care about the issues they work on and who won’t see the work as “just a job.” That means that you should talk in your cover letter about why you care about the work they do, and you should expect it to come up in your interview as well.

How can I find out about nonprofit job openings?

Nonprofit jobs are advertised everywhere that other jobs are advertised – but there are also sites dedicated specifically to them, such as, one of the largest and best-known. Additionally, if you have a favorite cause, you can look at the websites of the groups that work on it; job postings are usually posted on their websites.

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

{ 167 comments… read them below }

  1. Laura*

    For Canadian readers, I highly recommend for non profit jobs. Idealist occasionally has Canadian jobs, but rarely.

    1. Esra*

      Seconding this recommendation. The non-profit I worked at before my current job posted all openings on Charity Village and it was popular with a lot of the orgs we worked with as well.

      1. Laura*

        I believe Charity Village would be the Canadian equivalent to idealist. I’d say that’s where you’d find most of good non profit jobs posted, in a variety of fields. They are posted elsewhere, but it’s a great resource! For students, it’s a great resource for non profit internships too.

  2. Lily in NYC*

    I work at a private non-profit (that is also quasi-governmental). I was hired when the economy was doing well, so I have a good salary; the pay is much worse now for new hires. However, the benefits are fantastic – great medical/dental, vision, free classes and tuition reimbursement, vacation buy-back, and best of all: no social security is taken out of our checks and they put 15% of our annual salary into a retirement fund. We also have a normal 401K-type fund that we contribute to – so when you add 15% to the 10% I contribute, I am investing 25% of my salary each year. We have a very corporate atmosphere and most days I don’t even realize we are a non-profit.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        We are hiring! We have 400 people, so there are always open positions, especially now because we are in a new mayoral administration.

    1. Joey*

      No social security deductions? How is that possible? I would think that feels good now, but you’ll miss out later.

      1. Persephone Mulberry (also Kelly L.)*

        I’m pretty sure it’s something like this, which my employer does:

        Basically, while you’re working there, you pay into the state’s retirement plan instead of the national one.

      2. fposte*

        She didn’t use the word, but 15% employer contribution is pretty clearly participation in a pension system.

        1. Joey*

          I didn’t realize it was possible to forego ss with a pension. I assumed the only exemptions to ss are for non residents, foreign govt, some students, and very small religious groups.

          1. De Minimis*

            My in-laws were both California State employees and did not pay into Social Security. I think it is also fairly common with county/municipal employees.

            1. Emily K*

              I didn’t have SS taken out of my pay when I worked for a research lab attached to a state-funded public university in Virginia.

          2. fposte*

            I think pensions are probably the most common reason. Federal employees, state employees, municipal employees–they’re still deeply engaged in the pension system.

            1. De Minimis*

              Most feds these days will have a combination of a pension, Social Security, and their thrift savings [more or less a 401k.] They overhauled their retirement system quite a while back and made it less pension-focused. It’s still there but they really want people to save in the thrift plan.

              1. fposte*

                Oh, right, the TSP–I forgot about that.

                I know states are trying to get out of the business too, and I expect there will be quite a shift in the next few decades. Oddly, the state municipalities pension is doing extremely well, though.

            2. Joey*

              Oh I know. I worked in muni govt with a pension, although foregoing ss was never an option.

      3. Lily in NYC*

        Hi, it’s what Persephone/Kelly wrote. I’ve been here 10 years and am starting to wish I could get social security taken out because I’ve been here so long. But we aren’t allowed to change our minds.

      4. Lily in NYC*

        Joey, I admit that worries me a little. I have enough quarters to qualify for social security, but at a very low monthly payout.

        1. fposte*

          Well, and depending on how your company’s retirement is legally structured (do you know what code it’s under? Is it a 401a?), you could be subject to the Windfall Elimination Provision, which means that your SS payout is lessened because of your retirement payments from the job that didn’t pay into SS.

          1. Lily in NYC*

            fposte, it’s a 403b. We are a 501c non-profit. I’m actually in pretty good shape for retirement even without social security because I’ve been and contributing to my various 401K/457b funds since my very first job out of college and investing independently as well. I’m determined not to have to live in a cardboard box in Central Park during my retirement years! But I don’t like the sounds of that Windfall Elimination Provision. off to google more, thanks for letting me know about it.

            1. fposte*

              Definitely Google it to be safe, but I think a 403b is probably safe. (And one other advantage of the nonprofit is having both 403b space and 457 space, assuming you’ve got good options–you can put one heck of a lot toward retirement between the two.)

      5. some1*

        If it’s eligible to be rolled over to an IRA, she could come out better than she would have with SS.

        1. fposte*

          That’s true of defined contribution plans in general, though–fortunate market years and decent investments will generally outpace social security, and they should, because social security is generally intended to keep you fed and housed, not living in the standard to which you were accustomed. In a pension system with decent COLA, annuitization is usually better than a lump sum. There are some good online calculators to figure out which way is better for an individual.

    2. Leah*

      I’m also curious about not paying social security. I’ve worked at multiple non-profits and government but they’ve always taken out social security. Not paying into social security means you’re not going to be eligible for anything they offer in the future. There may be other exemptions but the only ones I know of are: non-resident aliens, working for a foreign government, working for the school you’re currently attending, or individual membership in a religious group that specifically does not use social security payments on principal.

      Social security is usually coded as OASDI on a pay stub.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        We are a quasi-governmental municipal agency. I had a choice when I was hired – if I didn’t want to particpate in our non-contributory retirement fund, then I could have social security taken out. However, now that I’ve made the choice I can’t alter it.

        1. Doreen*

          When I started working for NYC , permanent employees had to join the pension and pay SS. Provisional employees had a choice to either pay both or pay neither. By the time I left in 1994 ,there was an option to contribute to a deferred compensation plan as alternative to FICA but only if you didnt join the pension.

          It’s a guess but I suspect Lily works for one of those agencies that everyone thinks is a government agency but really isn’t-like the Port Authority of NY &NJ

      2. fposte*

        Or: working in a place with an established pension system. As far as I know, most American public school teachers are in pension systems, not SS, for a start.

        1. JustKatie*

          Yup, when I was a teacher we didn’t pay into SS. My mother retired from teaching last year, and receives a pension, no SS.

  3. Kevin*

    I would like to add a phrase I heard once, “At a non-profit who’s job is it to fundraise? Everybody’s.”

    What that means is that at most non-profits fundraising is crucial and even if you don’t work in the development department at times you may need to assist in the process. For example, I work at an arts organization and the employee who is in charge of guest artists took a donor back to meet an artist once.

    1. Bwmn*

      Practically speaking – this means that just about anyone can have an outward facing position at some point. This can be as visible as giving media interviews or just meeting with donors. An organization I used to worked for received a grant specifically for computer/server related issues – so when the donor came to visit, they wanted to meet with our IT staff person. Similarly being in finance can almost guarantee that you’ll have contact with donor entities.

      Basically if having an outward facing roll is something that sounds highly unappealing – it’s harder to be guaranteed that, particularly in a smaller nonprofit. The larger the organization, those chances do go down.

      1. Kevin*

        Really great examples. I can’t imagine IT staff usually think of themselves as outward facing.

        1. De Minimis*

          I was a bookkeeper for a non-profit and found myself covering the front desk/phones numerous times….

        2. Jeremy*

          I happen to work in IT at a large health related non profit. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I run one of our largest rest stops in our multi million dollar bike fundraising event.

          I call it “recharging the batteries” because it helps me to remember why I work where I work.

  4. B*

    I would put a caution out with nonprofits. It is easier to work for one if you believe in the mission, especially if you are not getting paid well. If not, it can be extremely frustrating and not the idolized job that many think of.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, yeah — I’d argue that’s the whole point of working there. If you don’t believe in the mission, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

      1. Joey*

        It would seem to me that its easier to believe in the cause when you don’t have many options, no? And that your passion is more likely to fade as you gain options to do better financially?

        1. Persephone Mulberry (also Kelly L.)*


          There are causes I’d never begin to agree with no matter how poor I was, and causes I’d still praise to the skies if I had Uncle Scrooge’s money bank. Now, maybe desperation might drive someone to take a job at a nonprofit they didn’t really care about, but I don’t think your blanket statement is true.

          1. Joey*

            I’m not saying that I’m saying that it would seem to be easier to get fired up about a cause I’m kinda lukewarm on when I know they probably aren’t as competitive pay wise and I’m not having any luck finding something higher paying.

            1. JennyS*

              That may be the case, but in my experience (14 years working at non-profit arts organizations), it’s not easy to just jump in and out of non-profit and for-profit. Yes, you can bullsh*t your way through “getting fired up”, but many non-profits are going to question your motives if you’re moving sectors. They know they aren’t paying what a for-profit can pay, so they really want to be sure that you actually care about what they do – that way you’ll be less likely to jump ship when a more financially lucrative opportunity comes along.

      2. Amanda*

        It’s possible to believe in part of the mission but ultimately frustrated with broader mission objectives. I worked for an historical organization that was part of the church. On paper, the historical part was secular and separate. In reality, there were very real religious implications to taking that job that were enormously frustrating for someone not of that faith. (This wasn’t obvious from the outside or from the interviewing process – in fact, they were at pains to present a secular public face and reassured many of us that we wouldn’t be involved in religious matters.)

    2. Anonymous*

      I’d like to add believe in the mission and how that org is carrying it out. I work in research because I believe in trying to make people’s lives better, and so does my religious university employer (and there are people that are really committed to that) but I have serious issues with decisions that clergy have made about what actions are universally against that mission (codoms and HIV for an example).

  5. some1*

    Keep in mind that Alison’s advice about “dream jobs” can apply even more here, because when you are working for a cause you really believe in, in can be that much more demoralizing if you get the job and the environment is toxic or your coworkers behavior seems to counter the mission.

    I’m not saying non-profits are more likely to be toxic, I’m saying if they happen to be it can be harder to resolve than if if you are working at a privately held company where you have no personal stake beyond getting your paycheck.

    1. Nicole*

      ^ This

      I worked at a non-profit I really believed in. Saw how it operated and later ended up being fired due to bad management.

      1. some1*

        I’m sorry that happened to you :( my friend went to work for a prominent feminist org. The place turned out to be like high school and the cool girls went behind her back to the Director and made stuff up about her & got her fired.

        1. Nicole*

          I ended up getting a job at a super prestigious non-profit with a huge raise that wasn’t a toxic environment so it worked out eventually. I had some friends at the old job there so I know the news got around :D.

      2. saf*

        I have a similar story – got the job I dreamed about at the place I really wanted to be. It was great, until new upper management came in and made wholesale change.

        They are sinking now, and I got “laid off” because I didn’t kiss enough management butt.

    2. Bwmn*

      To add to this – especially in small nonprofits, directors/management often do not come from a true management background. Well intentioned and committed long time staff often end up in management positions, with no real training, experience or management mentoring.

      It remains a joke amongst my friends that when I was working for a human rights organization, I (and my coworkers) were treated awfully by our director. I think that my old director was a particularly bad case – but I know other people who have had very well intentioned bosses who just can’t manage their way out of a paper bag.

      1. FarFromBreton*

        So much this. I’m on my way out of a nonprofit that itself might not survive much longer. The ED is incapable of working with most people, but especially bad at managing subordinates. The whole situation is a huge mess, but part of the problem is that the ED starts crying about how we need to pull together for the sake of our cause whenever anyone tries to correct their behavior or change course. Spending your life working for a cause can be a handy way of deflecting any criticism of your work or ethics.

        (Which is not to say that this is an epidemic among nonprofits! Fortunately, I’ve had enough experience with well-run organizations to know that they’re out there.)

    3. Laura*

      I was just about to add that. I did an internship with a non profit that I really believe in, and still believe in, but it was a toxic environment to work in. I think non profits are equally likely or unlikely as anywhere else to be toxic, but some people don’t realize that they can be. And because of that bad experience, I am reluctant to be involved with them and have found another non profit that does similar things to support.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Worked for a few NPs in my time too and what people fail to realize is that they are a business. They may not be making a profit, but they are a business nonetheless that must answer to a board, grantors, etc. They can have a fantastic mission, but be just as toxic and greedy, etc. as for-profit businesses.

    4. Leslie Yep*

      To add to this, even if your workplace isn’t toxic, there can be this added layer of emotionality in your work that is just something to grapple with if you’re thinking about nonprofit work.

      Of course people in all kinds of jobs and careers, non- and for-profit, take their jobs extremely seriously and care deeply about their work, so the point isn’t to say that only nonprofit employees feel emotional about their work. But in my organization at least, there are often a lot of feelings of guilt and insufficiency that come along with spending 10-12 hours a day thinking about an issue you’re really, really passionate about. It’s so easy to feel like you’re never doing enough, no matter how hard you work, and every coffee break and vacation is you turning your back on the mission. We talk a LOT about self care and work/life balance, but it can be really hard to put into practice when you’re trying to balance it against acting with urgency toward whatever vision you’re pursuing.

      1. Gjest*

        I totally agree. It is also harder to watch bad management continually screw up at a non-profit whose mission you really care about. At a regular business, it might be easier to just think, oh well, as long as my paycheck keeps coming in, who cares if they are wasting loads of money and time on stupid things? But at a poorly managed non-profit, it is so frustrating to be paid less, worked more, have less resources to do your job, AND feel like they are not doing anything towards their mission.

  6. MK*

    I’m a public interest attorney and feel like people don’t realize how competitive nonprofit jobs can be, especially for prestigious legal internships and jobs. Also, the people in these positions are highly skilled and motivated in what they do and are not slackers by any means.

    1. Joey*

      I’ve always assumed a lot of it had to do with the fact that its not the actual career they’re after, but that it’s more of a highly sought after stepping stone into something more lucrative.

      1. Cat*

        Sometimes, but generally not. The most lucrative jobs in law generally (not always, but generally) (a) require not paying any attention to what side of the “v” you’re on; and (b) working utterly insane hours. Conversely, you can make a very nice living at a legal non-profit or in government while still doing work you believe in. As a result, the big law firms – where the big bucks are – lose something like 30% of their associates each year. (Note: their business model is also set up to require this so it works for everyone.). A lot of those departing associates take jobs in-house but a lot go to non-profits or to government and spent the rest of their careers there.

        Now, when you talk about less prestigious government and non-profit positions, sometimes things are different and the lawyers are trying to get firm jobs. But for competitive positions, that’s absolutely not the norm.

        1. Cat*

          (By way of example, I work at a “public interest” firm – we’re private sector, but our clients are public sector. I make about half of what I could theoretically make at a big firm, but I live absolutely fine even with student loans to pay.)

          1. some1*

            I was an admin at govt law office and left about 7 years ago. More attorneys from the private sector were trying to get in there than our attorneys were trying to leave for private law firm jobs.

      2. lonepear*

        I’m also an attorney working for a nonprofit. In my niche this isn’t true at all–it is fairly competitive and people will stay in positions for years because they enjoy the work, even when they could be making at least 2x as much elsewhere.

    2. some1*

      I think some folks out there believe that if you have the means (like having a JD or MD) you are automatically going to/should use those tools to command as high a salary as possible. They just put more of an emphasis on salary than the JD who chooses to work in the public sector or the MD who chooses to parctice at a free clinic.

    3. Leah*

      When I was in law school, my non-lawyer friends were shocked that I went through as much if not more work to get an unpaid internship in legal services as they did to get their private-sector jobs. When I had trouble finding a job, some people suggested that I “consider” applying to Legal Aid as if it was a second-rate backup plan. It doesn’t help that I’m in NYC, which is flooded with lawyers.

      1. Dan*

        I, uh, know some people in the DC public defender’s office. You basically can’t get a job there if you’re not a Harvard, Yale, or Berkeley grad. Damn. So much for that being a “backup” plan.

    4. Lily in NYC*

      I agree – it is extremely difficult to get hired where I work. Mainly because once you have this place on your resume, you can write your ticket when you are ready to move to the private sector and almost be guaranteed a job with a great salary. And the young project managers who decide to go back for a grad degree always get into their top choice because of the experience and recommendations they get from us. We are a non-profit with a very corporate atmosphere full of high-achievers.

  7. Ash (the other one!)*

    To this I respond simply with, if you are really interested in working nonprofit, you need to read Working at a Nonprofit Tumblr —

    (and beware about fundraising. Part of why I want to leave so badly is they brought me in to build a program because they thought it would bring in tons of money. I managed to get a nice amount of funding last year but significantly lower than what they expected. Have I mentioned that I am not a development person and never advertised myself that way? Ugh.)

    1. Esra*

      “When your ED says there’s no need to hire a graphic designer because the admins can just use Photoshop.”

      Oh god, that site is giving me the shakes. I was art directing, designing, and executing a campaign entirely by myself, begging senior management to hire a junior designer rather than burning through new ones with three month contracts. They instead suggested I get the (awful) programmer to help me design and prep print pieces for one of the largest campaign events.

  8. jill*

    I worked at a nonprofit and made 31k. I now work for government and make 75k. Both were social work positions. I wish I could afford nonprofit!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Keep in mind that some nonprofits do pay competitively (and some don’t — but it’s not universal). I started at a nonprofit that paid incredibly low wages but later on worked places that paid well. Just depends where you go.

      1. Joey*

        I know there are non profits that pay well, but do you have any sense of how common they are? I know a lot of people (including myself ) have the perception that they’re few and far between.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t have hard numbers or anything close to it, but I can think of a bunch that pay well off the top of my head so I’d say that they’re not uncommon (although they’re not the majority either).

          1. Laura*

            I can think of a lot of non profits that pay really well too. And most of the ones I can think of that don’t pay particularly well also don’t pay particularly poorly, and I can think of a lot of non profits that pay roughly what any for profit would pay for a similar role. I think it depends on the field though, and the job level – I am not in a field that’s known to be especially well paid. I’ve had quite a few interviews with non profits, and they’ve tended to pay at a comparable level for similar roles at for profits. They were national non profits for the most part, t hat many people would have heard of, though, which might make a difference.

            1. Joey*

              Maybe I’m biased because the majority of time I see someone with non profit experience they usually leave because of low pay, no funding, or issues with getting paid on time.

              1. Cat*

                Well, yeah – you’re not seeing the people who stay or who leave to go to other non-profits! Of course you see the people who are dissatisfied with the sector for one reason or another.

              2. Dan*

                You have adverse selection issues, for one thing. People who are well paid are less likely to leave their job — you certainly won’t see me apply at your company.

            2. Joey*

              Really well in relation to whom? Really well compared to other non profits? Competitive compared to private? Higher than most privates?

              1. Dan*

                I get paid far better than my “industry” counterparts. I work in transportation research for the government, and if I were to do similar work at places you’ve certainly heard of, I’d take a large pay cut.

            3. AndersonDarling*

              I think the difference comes in if you are working for a local/small Charity. I haven’t met anyone who is making a good wage at a charity. But many non-profits aren’t charities and have strong revenue streams and can pay competitively.

              Although you can make a competitive wage, I don’t think many folks at non-profits will make a salary at the top end of the market rate.

          2. Majigail*

            I think the number that pay well is growing as well as those that really don’t. Smart, well run organizations understand how to pay competitively while still meeting their mission.

        2. Samantha*

          Also, it’s not JUST about the pay. Many nonprofits I’ve worked for have paid below average, but made it for it with things like excellent benefits, more time off than most people I know who work in the for profit world, a more relaxed/casual work environment, flexible work schedules, etc. For many people, factors like those are just as important as the paycheck.

          1. Dan*

            We have an obsession with $ in this society. At a certain point (and I’m there), compensation is about more than what goes in to make bank account every pay period. I always think about what it would take for me to leave my current job, as good working conditions are worth a lot.

            If I make $80k working 40 hours a week, is switching to a job paying $160k but requiring 80 hours a week a “raise”?

        3. Dan*

          It depends on how you define “pay well” and by what measure. At every job I have ever had, everybody always thought that they were underpaid :)

          I don’t believe that some sort of “industry average” is an accurate gauge either. The thing is, in order for an average to exist, some employers have to pay below it. And then you have regional differences and all of that crap. It can actually be HARD to determine what “industry average” truly is. On top of that, you’ve got to consider the QOL associated with “lower pay.” If I can set my own hours and do no more than 40 in a week, that’s truly worth some monetary compensation. Why? Cause if I have a job like that, and you want me to work insane hours, you’re going to have to pay more.

          All of that said, I work for a ~7000 person non-profit that provides professional services to the federal government. The pay is pretty darn decent, with a strong 403b match. I more or less set my own hours, and rarely work more than 40 in a week.

  9. Cath@VWXYNot?*

    “The biggest difference is that there’s a different bottom line. In business, the ultimate goal is to make a profit. For nonprofits, the goal is to have a positive effect in the world.”

    Preach! I spent two years in the for-profit sector, and left as soon as I could. I’m by no means an anti-capitalist, but everything being about profit all the time just didn’t work for me personally.

    I took a small pay cut to come back to the non-profit world, and have never regretted it. Working towards something I believe in, plus the extra flexibility of the job, more than makes up for the difference between what I make now (we get cost of living raises if we’re lucky) and what I could have been making if I’d stayed in the private sector.

    1. Anon1973*

      Interestingly, I did the opposite. I left the non-profit world for the corporate world. It’s not that I didn’t believe in the mission, I did, a lot, but I had a hard time dealing with the “behind the scenes” stuff. I felt that we almost dehumanized our donors (“he’s totally loaded and should be giving more,” “he owes us for his degree, why isn’t he giving back to us?” “She said not to contact her ever again, but we should still contact her every year in case she changes her mind.”). What finally did it was when a Dean forgot to call back a high-level donor and that donor gave her money elsewhere. The VP just shrugged it off like it was no big deal.

      1. Cath@VWXYNot?*

        I can totally understand how that would get old very quickly. Luckily for me I’m in grant writing and project management, not direct donor solicitations

  10. Anonymous*

    Nonprofits aren’t always happy lovely places staffed by unicorns and fed by rainbows.

    Some places, just like for-profit or government, are toxic. And some times that toxicity is about the mission, you aren’t doing enough, if you don’t work 80 hours or more a week you don’t really care about the mission. If you don’t donate the little money we give you back you don’t care.

    Sometimes bosses are jerks, sometimes boards are turned around, sometimes you go to community meetings and deal with NIMBY issues that will make you go home and cry because people care so much about their house price that they are advocating for people to stay homeless.

    (Not that these things don’t happen at for-profits but I’ve seen a lot of people surprised that they happen at non-profits too.)

    1. MK*

      Yes! My first job out of college was at an arts nonprofit that was horribly managed by the ED (looking back, I think the ED used the nonprofit as a vanity project and an excuse to brag that he hung out with Debbie Harry and Bjork). It also didn’t help that the community members were justifiably angry at the organization. I’m surprised that I stuck with nonprofits after that experience but I had the eternal optimism of youth.

  11. Amanda*

    I would also add that nonprofits can be far less nimble than for profit corporations. Getting anything done has layers of bureaucracy, and often the funding cycle means that you are juggling 3-4 potential projects and then either hitting feast or famine depending on whether the grants come through.

    My father has been an engineer for defense contractors all his life. When I was talking generally about my job security (which I am mostly confident about, but always have backup plans), he asked me, “so how much money do you bring in?” I tried to explain to him about a development department, and the grants I’d written, and the programs I was responsible for, and how those equations don’t always balance, but he didn’t get it. It’s a very different kind of math.

      1. Amanda*

        I work in museums – sticking around forever is an important part of our mission, and there’s a weight of organizational history over everything. So that could be coloring my perception. I’ve never worked for a museum or history-oriented organization that’s been able to move at faster than a snail’s pace. Which is mostly fine but occasionally makes me crazy.

        1. Anon*

          I’m in museums too — hi! I’ve mostly worked for larger sites (250-400 employees) and the rare times that I’ve seen things move quickly are when they’re led by a single person (no more @#$% committees!) who has put in a lot of work getting all their ducks in a row — and it helps if they’re at an exec level and don’t have to go through four layers of hierarchy before getting approval from the big boss.

          My museum now is great in a lot of ways, but the things that irk me are the roundabout decision-making processes and the fact that people are never singled out as official “decision makers.” Heck, it took me months to actually figure out what the name of my department was because everybody was so cautious about stepping on somebody else’s turf! Seriously people!

    1. Samantha*

      I think this depends more on the company or organization rather than for profit vs. nonprofit. Then nonprofit I currently work for can definitely be described as “far less nimble,” but I’ve worked for others that were the complete opposite.

  12. JC*

    I liked your message that nonprofits vary and can be very similar to other institutions in terms of hiring, salary, etc. I work for a research-based nonprofit that is funded by an industry. We don’t fundraise, and our salaries, benefits, and resources are pretty good. Experiences can really vary depending on how you get your funding.

  13. KayDay*

    Seriously, got 2 jobs and an internship from them.

    Definitely agree that salary can vary widely from org to org. My experience (with very small orgs that therefore have low salaries) was that the biggest area where there was a gap between non-profits and the gov’t/private sector (government jobs are more likely to be similar in nature, so it’s often a better comparison) was at the mid-level. Entry level salaries are low, but plenty of private sector industries have similar salaries. Executives (at smart non-profits) might be paid less than their gov’t peers (and a lot less than private sectors), but they usually still make very good salaries and often can have extremely good benefits to make up for the difference in salary. Many executives negotiate for extra benefits on top of the standard benefits (e.g. free parking, extra vacation time, flexible scheduling).

    My benefits have always been very good too. Health insurance (only one plan was offered, but it was very good) was often either completely paid for by the employer or only required a small contribution (~$20/month), I received a fixed retirement contribution that was not based on matching, etc.

    Finally, because all the employees believed in our mission at least somewhat AND because we were treated well, my coworkers were generally more positive and reasonably happy about work. Nothing extreme, just a general vibe that was more positive than negative.

  14. AnonToday*

    Just want to add there is a HUGE difference between a national npo and a local/state one. I worked at a very well-known national nonprofit and we had a crazy budget. My director signed off on just about everything without batting an eyelash. For volunteer appreciation, we literally spent thousands of dollars (and it was worth it).

    Juxtapose that with where I am now-I am struggling to get approval on a few bags of candy and some posterboard.

  15. Ali*

    I have been considering trying to work for a nonprofit for a while. I volunteered at one briefly a few years back before my job made me full-time and I had to drop the gig.

    Alison (or anyone else who knows), would you say offering your services as a volunteer for an organization is important in order to get a nonprofit job? I’m not saying volunteer at the exact organization you want to work for, but if I’m a member of the Volunteer Match database, should I look for opportunities there and in my area to help my resume? Or can I get by with for-profit work and no volunteering?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      A sensible nonprofit won’t be put off by you not volunteering if you’re otherwise a strong candidate. Sensible nonprofits are looking for talented top performers above all else.

      1. Mints*

        Sort of related, but when I see job postings for non profits, they’ll often have a line like “strong support for our mission.” Lots of times, it’ll be for organizations I would really like to support, but don’t have much evidence that I actually care. Do good candidates just talk about out in their cover letters? Or how common is it that candidates have previous experience with the cause? (I’m entry level if that matters)

        1. Laura*

          Not an expert, but I’ve done a few entry level interviews for non profits , and I think I got them by explaining how much I care in my cover letters, as I’ve had 0 experience in most of the causes. I think showing you’re somewhat knowledgeable about what they do shows passion. I think the only ones where you more often need previous experience in the cause are the religious ones. Or if you have experience in another non profit, even if it’s unrelated, they seem to like that.

          1. Mints*

            Okay that makes sense. I’ve been trying to “show not tell” in cover letters and was thinking saying I care might not be convincing. But I do care! So I’ll keep trying to explain

            1. Laura*

              I do try to explain why I care – e.g. if it’s literacy related, I talk about how much reading changed my life, or I mentioned being a long time vegetarian in an environmental one. Or I explain why one would care – like for a non profit related to mental health, I talk about the unfortunate stigma, which I know leads to these distressing statistics regarding people seeking treatment, or I just demonstrate I have some knowledge of the cause beyond saying I care. I don’t know if any of that is technically right, but it’s gotten me interviews. I also have great answers for the “Why do you want to work here?” question when I honestly do care.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes, you don’t need evidence in terms of stuff on your resume — just in the way you talk about it in your cover letter and interview.

  16. ChristineSW*

    I review grant proposals for both county government and the local United Way (both as a volunteer); thus, I have seen the variety in availability of resources. When looking at these grants, I sometimes forget that not every organization can afford a robust program development and evaluation department, hence why some grant applications are better than others.

    1. Hunny*

      We get reviewers, in the same gov/UW role you just described, asking us why we don’t track long-term outcomes. For example, if we were a teen arts program, we would be asked how many of our former participants graduated from college. How could we possibly know that!

      1. ChristineSW*

        Huh?! I would never expect agencies to track their participants that far out. It’d make more sense to ask, say, “how many former participants went on to college”.

        I’ve seen long-term outcomes as a possible indicator, but I’d only expect that from a major research institution undertaking a major program or policy evaluation, but not from a community nonprofit. The longest that I’ve seen agencies track program participants is one year post-discharge/end of program.

  17. HR Lady*

    Thanks for writing this post, Alison. I’ve worked in nonprofits for many years and love it. My husband does, too, and several of my friends.

    As Alison said, many nonprofits have very competitive salaries. I work in HR and I know that our organization does. We also use for-profit salary data to help set our salaries (instead of using only nonprofit salary data).

    Don’t forget that many of the excellent benefits that nonprofits offer can have a true monetary value that adds to your salary. I know of a nonprofit that contributes 8% to employees’ 401ks even if employees don’t contribute anything (plus 4% match of what they do contribute). I’m personally aware of two nonprofits that have crazy low costs for health insurance plans, saving people with family coverage thousands of dollars a year compared to what they’d pay elsewhere.

    1. Joey*

      This isn’t really about non profits though. Most companies decide whether to sacrifice pay or benefits. From what I’m hearing it sounds like more non profits have to sacrifice pay and benefits and make up for it with the cause.

      1. Dan*

        It could have to do with your local area and what you are defining as “non profits.” I mean, colleges and universities are all non profits, and so is the NFL. Also, are you getting applications from the same few organizations?

        I live in DC, which is probably non-profit central, and I actually work for one “in my field.” I mean, I’m a STEM dude, doing work I went to college for. My company sacrificed neither pay nor benefits to hire me (er, I sacrificed neither to work here.) I had an offer from a private-sector “competitor” doing almost the same work, and everything, and I mean everything, about my non-profit offer was better.

        1. Joey*

          Yeah I don’t doubt that there are non profits who compete with the best companies, I just wondered if anyone could put it in context.

        2. HR Lady*

          Yes, in DC, the nonprofits tend to be quite competitive (meaning, the benefits and typically the pay are comparable to for profits). The benefits are not sacrificed – quite the opposite.

          I work in HR in a nonprofit and our tradition is that benefits at nonprofits should be BETTER than what the for-profits offer (and, based on published survey data, our benefits are better). I understand that most job seekers compare salaries before they compare benefits, but nonprofits having better benefits than for-profits is how it tends to be in the DC area. I didn’t make up the strategy, I just use it :)

    2. me*

      Yes! My non-profit pays my entire health and dental insurance premiums, and contributes 10% to my retirement plan whether or not I contribute. But of course this varies by organization, and among for- and non-profits, as Joey says below.

      1. Joey*

        You might be better off with higher pay and bringing your benefits more in line with market since most people, when job hunting, compare salary first and bene’s later. Just a thought.

        1. aebhel*

          Most people who are job-hunting in the for-profit sector. I don’t work for an NPO, but I do work in the public sector (which…I guess you could consider non-profit?). I don’t have a high salary, but I do have very good benefits, including excellent, cheap health insurance and a pension. That was one of the main draws of the job. My take-home is my take-home; I’m not paying through the nose for health insurance or a retirement plan. Not everybody is going to calculate that the same way, but enough people do that ‘stop offering great benefits and just pay more’ strikes me as odd advice.

  18. College Career Counselor*

    I think a common misconception is that nonprofit = social service agency and that the positions are all direct-service, client-facing. I have this conversation a LOT with students!

  19. Sarah*

    I disagree with one thing in the article. Nonprofits should make a profit. Yes, that profit is not distributed to its shareholders (board members, donors, staff), but to be sustainable, nonprofits need to strive for a surplus every year. This working capital allows for better cash flow, the ability to execute larger projects and strategic initiatives, and security when revenue projections don’t meet the mark. If nonprofits strived to make a profit each year, the sector would be better off and those nonprofit organizations would be more stable and sustainable.

    1. Hunny*

      I don’t think Alison said anything about breaking even/taking a loss. I think she just said that the profits aren’t distributed to shareholders/owners. You are completely right, and I am very happy to be working at a fiscally responsible nonprofit today!

      1. Jamie*

        Out of curiosity how does this work with bonuses?

        In a lot of for profit companies the size of the bonus bucket has a direct correlation to the PL statement. Are they done the same way in non-profits or is that considered distributing to employees in a way salary isn’t.

        I guess what I’m wondering is do non-profits as a whole have different rules regarding discretionary bonuses than is common in the for profit sector?

        1. Joey*

          I surmise that they’re done similar to govt- they’re a budgeted item that may or may not get paid out depending on how well you did against your goals.

          1. Joey*

            Maybe that didn’t answer your question. In my experience theyre prioritized the same way all other budget items are prioritized. How important they are changes based on the climate.

              1. Joey*

                Sorry for the run on. Simply put its a question of whether there’s room in the budget for them or if they’re important enough to make it into the budget in the first place.

        2. the gold digger*

          In my org, there are organization-wide objectives – revenue, profit, membership (ie, # of members), and renewal rates – that have to be met for bonus payout. The bonus is kind of laughable – last year, everyone got $500.

          1. the gold digger*

            There are also individual bonuses, but again, very small – 3% of salary was the max I could have gotten last year.

            The board has to approve the company-wide bonus; the manager approves the individual bonus.

          2. Windchime*

            I’d love to have such a “laughable” bonus. My bonus last year was $0, same as it is every year.

            1. the gold digger*

              Windchime, you are correct – it is better than nothing. But the CEO makes a huge deal out of it – you have to go to this all-hands meeting and listen to him make a speech and clap for him and his audacity in asking the board for all that money and then he hands out all the checks personally.

              I did the math – after taxes, it comes to a little more than a dollar a work day, which is not enough to make me work harder.

        3. AndersonDarling*

          We have goals across the organization that are tied to the mission. If those goals are met a share (bonus) is distributed to all employees (not just executives).
          Although the goals are tied to the mission, they also drive revenue, otherwise there wouldn’t be revenue to give a bonus.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, what Hunny said — it’s not that they don’t make a profit, it’s that those profits aren’t distributed to owners or shareholders; they’re reinvested into the organization’s work.

        1. Joey*

          Hmm I’ve never though of income streams that are intended to be used for expenses as a profit because a profit is what’s left over after expenses and reinvesting in the business is an expense, no?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Right, that frame doesn’t quite work for nonprofits (but if you scroll back up to what Hunny and Sarah were initially talking about it, it will make more sense).

    2. AndersonDarling*

      The difference is that a for-profit earns profits and a non-profit generates revenue. Both have $$ coming in, but in the for-profit, the money goes to expenses, shareholders, and often times large bonuses to executives. In a non-profit, the revenue goes to expenses and the mission.

  20. the gold digger*

    I have worked at a few Fortune 100 companies and am now at a small non-profit. It’s not a super feelgood mission nonprofit – it’s a type of professional association. I have no experience at any other nonprofit and am not trying to universalize my experience.

    My frustrations are

    1. There is almost no money to do anything. I am supposed to be marketing and sales, but it’s kind of hard to do much with a $5,000 marketing budget, especially when your market is The Entire World. However, the CEO just spent tens of thousands on a re-branding campaign. None of that money is for actually marketing the brand – it all went to a consultant to design the new brand and the new logo. Now we have no money to promote ourselves to the market.

    2. It is either impossible to get someone to make a decision (hey! how about a link to our new product on the parent org’s website, which gets over 1,000,000 visitors a month?) or else they make decisions without data. (Of course we should spend a year developing a brand-new product even though we have done no research to see who might want to buy it, if anyone.)

    3. There does not seem to be much accountability, as in, it seems to be impossible to be fired. There are people who just do not do their job (or at least that’s what their manager tells me) yet they are still employed. By the way, these are the people who come to work in sweatpants on jeans day.

    4. At my org, the pay and benefits are not very good. Maybe I was just spoiled in my old jobs, but I have never had such bad insurance. Also, I make $25,000 a year less than I did with my old job.

    5. Again, probably just the culture where I am, but I have never worked in an environment (that I know of) where people run to HR to complain about other employees — and then HR intervenes!. This probably has nothing to do with being a nonprofit and has more to do with management. It’s still annoying.

    1. MR*

      It sounds like you work at a non-profit I once worked for. It was an affiliate of a giant non-profit that everyone has heard of (Jimmy Carter is prominently involved with them).

      Seriously, if the donors knew what was really happening to their money, the place would close within a month. I was very disappointed at not only how the local affiliate was run, but also at how little say/control the headquarters had over what happened at the local affiliates who used their name.

      For an organization that has such a great mission, they have very little control over what actually happens with their name.

  21. AndersonDarling*

    I’ve worked for a non-profit for 3 years now, and my mom still asks “But how do you get paid?” She thinks that a non-profit means that there is no revenue, or that all the revenue must go directly to the cause.

    1. Majigail*

      Paying for staff to run the organization IS part of the cause. I wish more people got that.

  22. AndersonDarling*

    Just a note on all the comments… you need to research a non-profit the same as you would any other company that you would work for.

    Many comments are about issues in management, flexibility, revenue, etc. Don’t think that a non-profit is great just because it is a non-profit. Non-profits have the same issues that develop at a for-profit. They can be great, or awful!

  23. Dan*


    I realize you’re trying to be general, but not all non-profits are about having a positive effect in this world. The NFL, for example, is a non-profit. And let’s take most colleges and universities — having spent some quality time at two of them, nobody I know ever talked about “the mission”. For them, it was a job like any other job.

    1. Joey*

      I’ve always felt too many non profits exist to further the well being of those that run them and the cause was just the means to do it.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, it’s true. I did start the article by talking about the variety of nonprofits that exist, which include things like trade associations, but I definitely overshadowed those with my “make the world a better place” focus. Mainly that’s because I don’t think anyone thinks “I want to work for a trade association!” but they do think “I want to work for a nonprofit doing good in the world.”

    3. businesslady*

      I’m sure if you asked the NFL, though, they’d say that their positive effect on the world is encouraging children to exercise & providing sports fans with entertainment. (I’m not saying I agree with this notion but I bet that’s their take on it.)

      & while it’s true that not everyone who works in higher ed is going around talking about how deeply invested they are in education or research all the time, the people who are involved with students, faculty, or fundraising definitely do need to have at least some passion for the school’s mission if they’re going to be successful.

    4. Emmy*

      Hmm, I’ve spent my career at universities, and pretty much everybody I’ve worked with (faculty, staff, etc.) is super passionate about the mission of the organization, both education in general and whatever particular take on it that university has (focus on teaching, focus on research, whatever).

  24. Anonymous*

    I think its worth adding something about working directly with clients. Although there are a good number of non-profits (and a good number of employees) that do not have clients, if you work with clients keep in mind that you are working with people with serious problems that need serious help. I’ve had too many co-workers that have either (1) been disappointed when clients did not get on their hands and knees to thank them or (2) acted paternalistically toward clients rather than helping to self-empower them.

    Many clients I’ve helped have had problems that cause an enormous amount of stress. Sometimes they can be mean, sometimes they won’t take the help you are offering, and sometimes they can be really gracious. If you want to help people, help people. Don’t go to work for a non-profit so at the end of the day clients can stroke your ego. And don’t treat clients like infantile children. You can offer advice and help, but at the end of the day they are the decision makers in their lives.

    1. ChristineSW*

      Sometimes they can be mean, sometimes they won’t take the help you are offering, and sometimes they can be really gracious.

      Whenever I think about returning to direct client interaction, I always forget about the variety of personalities there are and that it’s is by no means a walk in the park. Sure, you can get that in any industry and even with colleagues, but it’s twenty-fold with clients in difficult situations. Believe me, I’ve seen just about every personality imaginable!!

  25. Majigail*

    The other thing that I would add is that working for a nonprofit is not a retirement plan. It’s not something you going to because you want a slower way of life. It’s not something that’s going to be automatically easier than your old profession. It is going to require more nights and weekends. It’s going to require fundraising, like to commentors above said, no matter what your job is you will have to do some fundraising. You have to be committed. You have to have a whole different kind of skill set. You have to get so much more buy in from so many different kinds of people when you’re working for a nonprofit… Your donors to your board to your clients to your volunteers. And let’s not even mention community partners and collaborators. It’s not an easy thing, but if you find a mission that you love and position within that mission that you love, it’s definitely worth it.

  26. Sharm*

    I spent the majority of my career at a large performing arts non-profit. I miss it a LOT. In most ways, it was the best work environment I’ve been in, because I was well-respected and liked, got promoted a bunch, and my co-workers were my family.

    However. It being the arts and a non-profit, there was drama. I tend to be a very calm, even-keeled person, but even if I wasn’t involved in the drama, it affected me personally. I was much more stressed out there than I realized. I also felt I got promoted early, as some have mentioned above, without the training I needed to be successful. I was well-reviewed and I would be willing to be they’d take me back, but it was a tough environment or sure, especially when sales were down or slow.

    Because of the area I lived in, the pay was good. VERY good. In fact, I felt overpaid. Now I’m in an area notorious for low salaries, so even my private sector job is about 40% less than what I made in my non-profit job. I wish I could work in an arts organization here, but I just couldn’t afford to take an even bigger pay cut than I already have. The benefits were so wonderful. I started my career there, and thought getting full medial/dental/vision paid, 3 weeks of vacation AND 2 weeks sick time AND 3 personal days by your third year was normal. Oh, if only.

    On the budget/fundraising front, I was in marketing, and never felt asked to fundraise. We had over 30 staff to do that! Our budget was, IMO, huge, especially compared to what I’ve seen since leaving. But our directors/managers always complained about how we didn’t have enough. And to be fair, they cut our budget significantly ever year.

    I look on the time fondly and do want to go back, but I will say, my stress level in the private sector has been nil, and there is definitely something to be said for that.

  27. Ellie*

    I do independent contract work for several non profits in my small city (a bunch of different things including marketing, web design, graphic design and admin work). I love helping people and working for these organizations, but the pay is killing me. They just aren’t paying me what I’m worth. I feel bad because on some level I feel like they really can’t afford to pay, and I’m fulfilling an essential role in their organization. I need money though! I just want to make a real salary….

    1. the gold digger*

      The execs at my non-profit make plenty – the CEO makes almost half a million and we are not in a high cost of living area. You might want to poke around their income statements (if they are available) to get an idea if there is some spare money.

      (For ex – I make less than half of what I used to, but the director of my group found the cash to pay $90K to a headhunter to recruit two people.)

    2. HR Lady*

      Ellie, as an independent contractor, can’t you negotiate your rate for each contract? Or when starting a new contract, just say “I charge X per hour” and don’t go below that (or pick a higher number than your minimum, so that if they negotiate you down, you can live with a lower number).

      I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t have to accept the work at a lower rate than you think is appropriate. (And that might mean not getting the contract at all, but then you’d look for a contract elsewhere.)

  28. Student Affairs Program Coordinator*

    Also throwing out there, for those of us in the non-profit world burdened with student loans, you should look into the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). You have to be on an income-based repayment plan (either ICR or IBR) but after ten years of payments while working at a not-for-profit or government organization, the remainder of your loans will be forgiven.

    1. Sharm*

      I’m considering graduate school with the idea of returning to a larger non-profit in my career. Would that type of student loan apply? And if it’s a big non-profit, would it still apply?

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