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 Nonprofit HR, the nonprofit sector accounts for approximately 10.7 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 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
Lower compensation

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.

Constant need for fundraising

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.

High stress environment and burnout

Nonprofit offices can be understaffed because of limited resources, leading to higher expectations for worker output and increased levels of stress.

Results and achievements can be difficult to measure

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.

Greater disappointment

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
More non-monetary perks

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.

Passion

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.

Diverse set of skills and knowledge

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.

Nonprofits hire smart and interesting people

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.

More networking opportunities and job mobility

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.

What am I passionate about?

Knowing what excites and motivates you is extremely important. What issues or topics do you feel strongly about? Over the course of several decades, your occupation will be the single biggest consumer of time and effort. Take a look at the list of major nonprofit fields listed below. Do any of them pique your interest or generate enthusiasm? If so, it may be time to consider a career with a nonprofit.

Are my talents and skills among those in demand in the nonprofit sector?

Nonprofits need skilled workers in virtually all of the same fields as the for-profit sector. Manufacturing has traditionally been an exception to the rule, but as the reach of nonprofits expands, so does its definition. Nonprofit workers with skills and experience in the following general areas are among the most sought after: policy and management; finance and fundraising; marketing; human resources; and website management. More specific skills and experience may be needed by organizations, depending on their unique causes and mission statements.

Will I enjoy working in a nonprofit environment?

The nonprofit world can be hectic and, at times, ambiguous, which is doesn’t work for everyone. If you’re unsure of whether this type of environment is for you, try volunteering at a nonprofit organization you’re interested in. Most nonprofits will welcome the extra help and volunteering offers the chance to get a taste of the day-to-day working environment without making a career commitment.

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:

1 Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

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.

What makes it different from the private sector?

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:

$159,891

Median nonprofit sector salary:

$102,910

2 Chief Operations Officer (COO)

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.

What makes it different from the private sector?

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

Median private sector salary:

$135,653

Median nonprofit sector salary:

$95,652

3 Director of Development

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.

What makes it different from the private sector?

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:

$103,609

Median nonprofit sector salary:

$59,676

4 Grant Writer

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.

What makes it different from the private sector?

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

Median salary:

$43,718

5 Program or Project Manager

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.

What makes it different from the private sector?

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:

$80,047

Median nonprofit sector salary

$46,713

6 Communications Coordinator

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.

What makes it different from the private sector?

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:

$56,000

Average nonprofit sector salary:

$41,000

Source: SimplyHired.com

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 news skills and gain valuable nonprofit experience in a real world setting, both of which can boost your resume and help you succeed as 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.

Nonprofit Sub-sector Examples of Volunteer Roles
Arts, Culture, and the Humanities
  • Museum docent
  • Tour guide
  • Events coordinator
  • Youth arts instructor
  • Graphic designer
Education
  • ESL instructor
  • Literacy advocate
  • Disabled student assistant
  • Teaching assistant
  • Adult reading teacher
Environment and Animals
  • Conservation education docent
  • Local school environmental educator
  • Sustainable climate advocate
  • Pet adoption center assistant
  • Animal protection advocate
Health
  • Volunteer doctor, dentist or nurse
  • Clinic office assistant
  • Public health emergency response volunteer
  • Patient transportation provider
  • Newborn care instructor
Human Services/Public and Social Benefit
  • Drug counselor
  • Pro bono attorney
  • Big Brother or Big Sister
  • Community organizer
International and Foreign Affairs
  • Health clinic staffer
  • Maternal and child health instructor
  • Food security specialist
  • Community economic development promoter
  • Sustainable agriculture advisor

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.

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:

Purpose

The primary goal of a for-profit business is to make 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.

Taxes

There are countless differences in governmental rules and regulations for nonprofit organizations as compared to for-profit business, 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.

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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.

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.

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 1.9 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. 17.1 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 18 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: Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Free Masonry for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the United States of America

One of dozens of Mason lodges throughout the country that primarily supports community-level charitable causes and events.

Knights Templar of North America

Not a charity itself, but the organization raises funds and donates time to a variety of charitable and philanthropic groups.

Shriners International

A men’s fraternal organization that supports a variety of charitable causes, including the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children.

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

FAQs

expert

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?

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?

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?

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?

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:

Research

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.

Volunteer

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.

Network

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

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Bridgespan

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

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Commongood Careers

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

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Idealist.org

Comprehensive search engine for jobs, internships, and volunteer work.

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Nonprofit Career Match

Job board operated by The NonProfit Times, a business publication for nonprofit management.

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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 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 “Nonprofit University” providing 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 Good Practice Guide

Designed as an resource for Michigan nonprofits, the site offers excellent information on a variety of nonprofit principles and practices.

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.

Updated: June 8, 2017