Featured Expert
A Guide to Job Options, Education, and Experience Through Volunteering

A Guide to Nonprofit Careers

Last Updated: 11/24/2022
Advertising & Editorial Disclosure
By     |  

When you think of nonprofits, you may think of long hours, low wages, and recognizable organizations like Planned Parenthood, but the sector is much more than that. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nonprofit sector accounts for over 12 million jobs in the U.S., and these jobs are increasingly appealing to people who want to make money and make a difference. This guide explores nonprofit careers, from potential jobs to required education to developing skills through volunteerism. Find out how you can turn your passion into a rewarding and gainful employment.

The Good and Bad of Working in Nonprofit

Job titles in the nonprofit sector are similar (and sometimes identical) to those in the private sector. However, while similarities may be prevalent, nonprofit roles encounter unique challenges that set them apart from private sector jobs. Here's a brief look at the benefits and challenges of working in the nonprofit sector.

  • Challenges
    In most cases, salaries at nonprofits are likely to be lower than the salaries of equivalent private sector jobs. However, some larger nonprofits may offer salaries that are competitive with the private sector for senior-level roles or for applicants with specialized skills.
    Nonprofit executives are almost always under pressure to raise funds. This can mean taking focus away from the day-to-day goals in order to keep things moving and to ensure paychecks are delivered on-time.
    Nonprofit offices can be understaffed because of limited resources, leading to higher expectations for worker output and increased levels of stress.
    When working towards a goal that can't be measured in revenue or profit, it can be hard to see how far you and the team have come on a day-to-day or even month-to-month basis. Some nonprofits may also be disorganized or processes may not be in place, making it even more challenging to track and measure progress.
    Disappointment comes with the territory sometimes. It's one thing to be unhappy when a product doesn't sell as well as expected. It's quite another when you're unable to carry out a project or have to cancel a big event because the organization didn't meet fundraising goals. When you're passionate about a cause and know that a community depends on your organization's support, failing to miss a particular goal can feel far more disheartening.
  • Benefits
    As a nonprofit professional you may earn less than your private sector counterpart, but to make up for this, some nonprofits offer unique non-monetary perks such as flex time, more sick and vacation days and a less formal work environment.
    There's nothing wrong with working to support yourself and your family. But for some people, a job is more than just a paycheck. Nonprofits offer employees the opportunity to contribute to a cause they are passionate about, which is can be much more fulfilling.
    Nonprofit employees must often wear many hats, giving workers a diverse set of skills, as well as enhanced multi-tasking and organizational skills and adaptability.
    The environment may be somewhat hectic, but the people around you will likely be among the best and brightest and most passionate, making the challenges a little more bearable.
    Particularly if you work in a small nonprofit, you'll likely have the chance to interact with a wide variety of people such as donors, sponsors, government officials and corporate executives who often serve on nonprofit boards. These networking opportunities can also lead to greater job mobility.

Is a Nonprofit Career is Right for Me?

Understanding the good and bad about nonprofit work and environments can help you figure out whether this career path is right for you. For some, though, that still isn't enough. Below are a few crucial questions to consider before entering the nonprofit world.

The Different Hats to Wear in Nonprofits

Many nonprofit job titles sound familiar, if not identical, to those in the for-profit world. Below is a closer look at a few common nonprofit positions:

tip icon

The top position in practically any corporation or organization, nonprofit or otherwise, the CEO is responsible for all aspects of a nonprofit's operations. This person makes the vast majority of strategic, executive-level decisions.

Differences depend greatly on the size and purpose of the nonprofit, but typically the biggest difference is that substantial time and effort that a nonprofit CEO must invest in fundraising.

Median private sector salary: $154,660
Median nonprofit sector salary: $105,408

tip icon

This senior executive position normally answers directly to the Chief Executive Officer. The COO is responsible for the daily administration of the organization's offices and the operation of equipment and facilities.

The major difference is that nonprofit COOs often directly oversee a staff of volunteers as opposed to paid employees.

Median private sector salary: $141,583
Median nonprofit sector salary: $94,266

tip icon

Typically considered a senior executive position in most larger corporations and nonprofits. The Director of Development's main responsibility is to develop and coordinate necessary strategies to insure efficient operations throughout the organization.

The Director of Development at a nonprofit primarily works to develop, implement, and oversee fundraising operations. He or she may also be responsible for the group's overall financial condition.

Median private sector salary: $103,933
Median nonprofit sector salary: $64,436

tip icon

Grants are a significant source of funding for many nonprofits, but successfully obtaining grants requires a well-written, persuasive application. Large nonprofits may keep one or more grant writers on as full-time staff, while smaller organizations may hire freelance grant writers on a case-by-case basis. Grant writing services are also sometimes provided to smaller nonprofits on a volunteer basis.

Grant funding is normally the purview of nonprofit organizations and projects only.

Median salary: $49,118

tip icon

Working under senior executives, particularly at larger nonprofits, the program or project manager is in charge of a discrete program, project, or fundraiser within the larger scope of the organization. They may also manage a specific aspect of the organization's business, such as coordinating volunteers.

The major distinction between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors for this role concerns the nature of goals (earning a profit versus fulfilling the nonprofit's mission) and the types of programs/projects this person works on.

Median private sector salary: $73,596
Median nonprofit sector salary $51,167

tip icon

This entry-level role focuses on an organization's inside and outside communication. One of the top priorities is enhancing and maintaining the organization's reputation through marketing publications, outreach materials, fundraising initiatives, press coverage, and social media campaigns.

The overall responsibilities of communications coordinators in both private and nonprofit organizations are very similar, but the way in which communication is delivered may be different. For example, coordinators at a nonprofit may have to write fundraising proposals and announcements, email solicitations for donations, and donor acknowledgement letters/newsletters.

Average private sector salary: $44,219
Average nonprofit sector salary: $38,505

Source for all salary figures (unless noted otherwise): Payscale.com

How to Land a Nonprofit Job: Getting the Right Education & Training

Nonprofit organizations want smart and talented people who ideally have had some exposure to the organization's mission or cause. While you can't get an undergraduate degree in nonprofit work, a liberal arts or business degree covers many areas that are applicable to the nonprofit field.

  • Liberal Arts
    Some of the most important skills for nonprofit work involve communication. Most liberal arts graduates have strong written and oral communication skills that can be applied to areas such as public relations, marketing, social media, event planning and organization, community outreach and fundraising.

  • Business
    Although the primary goal of a nonprofit isn't making money for owners and shareholders, the organization must still run efficiently and economically. A degree in business covers important skills such as accounting, finance, marketing, management, and project management, all of which lend themselves well to various roles in the nonprofit sector.

Earning a master's degree is also a good option, particularly for anyone who wants to move into administrative or leadership positions. Among the most popular master's degrees for nonprofit employment are business administration, nonprofit management, and public administration. Many colleges also offer certificate programs in nonprofit management or administration.

Gaining Skills as a Volunteer

Nonprofits place a high premium on relevant experience. But how do you gain the type of experience nonprofits are looking for, particularly as a new grad or if you're switching from the private sector? Volunteering. Volunteering is advantageous for anyone considering a career in nonprofits for a few different reasons:

  • You'll gain new skills and relevant experience
    As a volunteer, you'll learn new skills and gain valuable nonprofit experience in a real-world setting, both of which can boost your resume and help you succeed as a nonprofit employee.

  • You'll encounter great networking opportunities
    You'll have the opportunity to work with knowledgeable people and build relationships with industry contacts.

  • Volunteering may lead to full-time employment
    Volunteers gain insider knowledge of the organization and the way it operates, which could increase the possibility of becoming a full-time, paid employee.

Take a look at some of the most popular volunteer opportunities in nonprofit.

Here are examples of volunteer roles for the listed nonprofit sub-sector.

If you have substantial professional experience or a strong fundraising network, becoming a member of a nonprofit's board of directors is also a great way to gain volunteer exposure to the field.

You may also consider joining AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. You can develop valuable skills and experience as you plan your career path, as well as take advantage of the many benefits they offer. Before you become a member or volunteer, you may want to plan your finances and budget accordingly.

Navigating the Nonprofit Sector

What exactly is the nonprofit sector? It's a collective of nonprofit organizations that work to raise awareness and support for individuals, communities, and causes.

Nonprofit vs. Private Sector

Nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses share a lot in common. Both entities are dedicated to reaching a set of goals and work under the guidance of investors and directors. They also carry out similar business functions including financing, budgeting, and personnel management. While similarities may be prevalent, there are a couple of key distinctions:

  • This is an icon


    The primary goal of a for-profit business is to make a profit for its owners and shareholders. The primary purpose of a nonprofit organization, however, is its stated mission. Money generated by the organization gets reinvested towards its goal.

  • This is an icon


    There are countless differences in governmental rules and regulations for nonprofit organizations as compared to for-profit businesses, the most significant of which concerns the tax code. Under tax code section 501(c), nonprofits are able to register for income tax exemption and donors to nonprofits can take advantage of tax incentives for their donations.

Sub-sectors of the Nonprofit Industry

The breadth of America's nonprofit sector is expansive, encompassing hundreds of functions, causes, issues, and goals. Below is a list of the most popular sub-sectors of the nonprofit field, with a brief description of each.

  • Health
    Provides support to hospitals, community health clinics, nursing facilities, public health, and occupational and environmental health issues. Nearly 60 percent of total nonprofit revenues are attributable to this sector.

  • Environment and Animals
    Advocates and supports the protection of domestic and wild animals, and the Earth's environment. Nonprofits in this sub-sector work on issues involving animal rights, wildlife preservation, and environmental protection and account for one percent of total nonprofit revenues.

  • International and Foreign Affairs
    Includes organizations advocating for international human rights, foreign policy, peace, security, and economic development issues. 1.9 percent of total nonprofit revenues are attributable to this sector.

  • Arts, Culture, and Humanities
    Involved in the promotion and support of performance groups, symphonies and orchestras, museums, community theaters, dance, fine arts, and folk art. This sub-sector is responsible for approximately 2.1 percent of total nonprofit revenues in the United States.

  • Education
    Covers a tremendous range of nonprofit groups supporting and advocating for colleges and universities; elementary, middle and secondary schools; libraries; education-related research projects; and preschool facilities. 17.9 percent of total nonprofit revenues are attributable to the education sub-sector.

  • Human Services / Public and Social Benefit
    Encompasses pro bono legal services, community outreach, family counseling, housing development, anti-discrimination advocacy, homelessness, and poverty issues. Accounts for approximately 11.8 percent of total nonprofit revenues.

Understanding the Types of Nonprofits

Another way of looking at nonprofit organizations is by nonprofit type, as categorized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c). While there are nearly 30 different nonprofit types delineated by the tax code, the most notable are:

501(c)(3): Public Charities and Private Foundations

By far the broadest category, this classification encompasses all nonprofits termed "charitable organizations." Subgroups include: religious, educational, charitable, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, amateur sports, and prevention of cruelty to children or animals.

Examples include:

  • American Cancer Society
    Works worldwide with the goal of finding cures for cancer and helping people stay well.
  • Make-A-Wish
    Grants the wishes of children diagnosed with life-threatening medical issues.
  • Sierra Club
    The nation's largest and most well known environmental nonprofit dedicated to wildlife, natural resource, and environmental protection.

501(c)(4): Civic Leagues and Social Welfare Organizations

This type includes social organizations operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare and those whose membership includes employees in a specific municipality with net earnings devoted exclusively to charitable, educational or recreational purposes.

Examples include:

  • Healthpartners, Inc.
    Serving communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Healthpartners is the largest consumer-governed nonprofit HMO in the nation.
  • Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation, Inc.
    A veterans' organization providing opportunities for engagement, camaraderie, and support among Purple Heart recipients. It also supports programs that aid all veterans.
  • Miss America Organization
    Competition-based group providing opportunities to young women who want to be involved in culture, politics, and the community.

501(c)(10): Domestic Fraternal Societies

Domestic fraternal societies devote their net earnings exclusively to religious, charitable, scientific, literary, educational, and fraternal purposes, and operate under a lodge system.

Examples include:

Other nonprofit types, as recognized by the IRS, include:

  • Labor, agricultural, and horticultural organizations
  • Social and recreational clubs
  • Voluntary employees beneficiary organizations
  • Mutual insurance companies or associations
  • Cemetery companies


There are many assumptions and misconceptions regarding nonprofit work, making the field somewhat of a mystery to those outside of it. Georgia Center for Nonprofits CEO Karen F. Beavor discussed some of the most common misconceptions and frequently asked questions concerning careers in the nonprofit sector:

What's the most common misconception people have regarding working for a nonprofit organization?

Karen F. Beavor:

The most common concern I hear from younger people entering the job market is that they are afraid they might get stuck in nonprofits and won't be able to move between the for-profit, government, and nonprofit sectors. This, however, shouldn't be a concern. With the growth of social enterprise and corporate social responsibility within companies, the lines between the corporate and nonprofit sectors are continuously blurring. The result is that many of the skills gained in nonprofits are highly transferable. But there has always been some [skills] that are not particularly transferable, such as those in direct service, something very specific like a caseworker or social worker. But a lot of the typical jobs - accounting, marketing, communications, project management, those sorts of things - are very transferable.

Many think working in nonprofit means working for free. Does salary differ between nonprofits and for-profits? Is so, how?

Karen F. Beavor:

The second question I get the most often is about pay and compensation. Although it has certainly improved, particularly as the job market has tightened, salary at nonprofits is still somewhat below what you will find in the for-profit sector. Nevertheless, it is fairly competitive. Surprisingly so. I would say, with certain jobs that are higher in demand, you can get pay into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A lot of folks aren't aware of that.

Do nonprofits look for different skills and experience than private sector employers?

Karen F. Beavor:

There's a recent study concerning job competencies and the differences between for-profit and nonprofit entities. This study showed that nonprofits scored higher on things like flexibility, adaptive leadership, and adaptive management - skills more notably needed in nonprofit organizations. Skills such as decision-making and speed were more notable in the private sector.

Are there certain degrees or programs that students should focus on if they want to work in the nonprofit field?

Karen F. Beavor:

There are certain degrees that lend themselves to getting a nonprofit job right out of school, such as marketing, as opposed to something like archaeology. Still, people can find jobs in the sector regardless of their degree. Nonprofit employers tend to look at experience more than what the individuals' particular degree is in. I would say, however, that a master's degree is increasingly preferred, be it an MBA or a graduate degree in nonprofit policy or nonprofit management.

Tips for Landing a Nonprofit Job

Sound advice for landing a job with a nonprofit is not that different than for landing a job in any other sector. Here are a few solid tips:



The nonprofit sector encompasses almost every professional and occupational field out there, each requiring its own set of skills and talents. Job seekers should approach their search for a nonprofit job like any other, matching the nonprofit's unique mission and activities to qualifications and interests.



Nonprofits always need competent and enthusiastic volunteers. Just like private companies who hire interns, nonprofits will look first to their volunteer talent when looking to fill paid positions.



Spend time learning who the main players are at prospective organizations and be proactive about meeting these people. This can be done through volunteering, attending charitable events, participating in info sessions and outreach events, and contributing to an organization's online blog or discussion group.


Highlight your nonprofit experience

Many for-profit skills and experience can translate to the nonprofit world. Be sure these skills are clear on your resume so recruiters and hiring managers can see how you're qualified for a role.

Job Search Resources

  • Bridgespan
    Search engine for nonprofit jobs and board positions. Users can set up alerts to provide email notification when positions open up.

  • Commongood Careers
    Search engine primarily for executive and management-level positions in nonprofit.

  • Idealist.org
    Comprehensive search engine for jobs, internships, and volunteer work.

  • Nonprofit Career Match
    Job board operated by The NonProfit Times, a business publication for nonprofit management.

  • Opportunity Knocks
    National job board that allows users to search and browse nonprofit jobs by category, function, and location.

Additional Resources

  • Alliance for Nonprofit Management
    Comprehensive website for academic and practitioner research on nonprofit management. Includes an extensive resource library with both free and fee-accessible resources.

  • Center for Effective Philanthropy
    The CEP conducts research and analysis on philanthropy-related issues of every kind. Visitors to the site can access research reports, an informative blog, and other helpful resources.

  • CompassPoint
    Provides a full array of online tools and resources for nonprofits in areas such as management, teaching, consulting, and peer learning.

  • Corporation for National & Community Service
    A federal government-sponsored agency focused on working with nonprofit and faith-based groups to create positive change in the lives of American citizens. The CNCS is home to numerous government programs including AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps.

  • Georgia Center for Nonprofits
    Comprehensive website for nonprofits that spans well beyond Georgia's borders. Includes an excellent section for "Nonprofit University" courses, clinics, certificates, and executive leadership programs.

  • Grants.gov
    Comprehensive federal government website providing information on grants in general and federal opportunities in particular.

  • National Council of Nonprofits
    Billed as the nation's largest network of nonprofits, this website offers information on several topics, including advocacy, employment, ethics & accountability, and financial management.

  • Nonprofit Technology Network
    The NTN is an association of nonprofit technology experts with the common goal of helping nonprofits engage with technology more effectively.

  • Urban Institute
    The Urban Institute offers a huge amount of data and information on social and economic matters, including aging, children, health and health policy, and housing.

  • Volunteer Match
    If you're looking for volunteer opportunities, Volunteer Match can help. This organization focuses on making it easier for people to connect with causes and issues they're passionate about. Volunteer Match works with more than 75,000 organizations across the U.S.

About the Author


The MoneyGeek editorial team has decades of combined experience in writing and publishing information about how people should manage money and credit. Our editors have worked with numerous publications including The Washington Post, The Daily Business Review, HealthDay and Time, Inc., and have won numerous journalism awards. Our talented team of contributing writers includes mortgage experts, veteran financial reporters and award-winning journalists. Learn more about the MoneyGeek team.