Monday, January 7, 2013

So You Want to Work in the Nonprofit Sector……..Tips for Success

By Norman Olshansky: President
NFP Consulting Resources, Inc.

I am frequently asked for advice from students, recent grads and job seekers who are entering work within the nonprofit sector or who want to transition from the for profit sector to work in nonprofits.   Nonprofits are businesses, albeit with special tax status and missions, which are focused on community benefit.  A few of my suggestions are listed below.   What would you add?

1.    Nonprofit work starts with passion for mission
Make sure that you sincerely care about the mission of the nonprofit in which you seek employment.  Nonprofit work is first about mission.  Whatever your position, work, or engagement within a nonprofit, it is to add value to the mission of that organization and its community benefit endeavors.  Don’t work for a nonprofit if you can’t be a sincere and strong advocate for its mission.  Job satisfaction will be directly related to how much pride you have in your work and how it enhances the overall impact of your organization.
2.    Get involved with a professional or trade association
Jobs in nonprofits are varied.  Some are in direct service while others are in back office supports, administration, management or fundraising.  Nonprofits employ marketing, accounting, human resource and other specialties.  Whether it is the National Association of Social Workers, Association of Fundraising Professionals, Association of Healthcare Philanthropy, American Marketing Association, American Accounting Association or other local, regional or national groups, seek out the one that can best assist you in your new position.  Take advantage of their offerings, benefits and resources they provide.
3.    Find an experienced mentor
Seek out someone who has a lot of experience doing the work you will be doing or will want to do, i.e. counseling, human resources, marketing, accounting, fundraising, management, etc. There is more to being a good nonprofit employee than proficiency on the technical side of the work.  Nonprofits are all about relationships with clients, consumers of service, members, donors, co-workers, volunteers and other stakeholders.  The art of nonprofit work is as important as the science.  A mentor with lots of nonprofit experience can help someone new to nonprofit work address the various issues and relationships that impact nonprofit employees.  Choose a mentor who also has experience within the sector you are employed i.e. human service, education, arts and culture, government, healthcare, etc.  It is helpful to use a mentor who is not currently employed within your organization, who is trustworthy and who is able to maintain complete confidentiality.
4.    Seek out good supervision
Look for a position where you will receive good supervision by someone who will provide you with professional guidance, honest input and evaluation.  While any good employee seeks to learn more, it is especially important for new nonprofit employees to seek out leaning and growth opportunities.  Look for an organization that will provide you with those experiences.  Also check out leaning opportunities at your local colleges and universities, nonprofit resource centers, community foundations, and with national associations.
5.    Always be a student
Take advantage of opportunities to attend workshops, conferences, participate in online webinars, and continue to read as much as you can related to your work and the overall nonprofit sector.  Be curious.  Learn as much as you can about what others in your organization do, how your role intersects with theirs, and is part of the overall mission.   Ask lots of questions and be willing to try new approaches that will add value to your organization.   Be focused on outcomes and not outputs.  The number of things you do may not be as important as the quality of what is accomplished by your work.  Use your time wisely.  It is a valuable resource.   Nonprofits are just as concerned about return on investment as are for-profit organizations.  Human and financial capital is limited so your employer is going to look at how you add value to the organization.  A good student will sort out lots of information, make critical decisions and use their time and organization’s resources wisely.  Even the most experienced nonprofit professional needs to constantly seek out learning opportunities if they are going to keep up with the ever-changing nonprofit sector.
6.    Mistakes, change and risk
Nobody is perfect.  You WILL make mistakes.  Good employees learn from their mistakes and take advantage of new learning to go the next level.  Ask any professional how they have learned to be effective and they will include in their responses examples of learning from mistakes and failure.  In addition, be willing to take calculated risks.  Change does not occur if an organization or employee continually does everything the same way.  If something needs to be better, more effective, more efficient than is currently the situation in an organization, then change (which often involves risk taking) is necessary. Be willing to explore different ways of doing your job that can improve your impact within your organization.
7.    Be a role model and enjoy your work
Try to find a position where you will do work that you find enjoyable.  No job is perfect and there are always aspects of employment, which are not fun. Successful employees are typically the ones who sincerely love their work and want to be part of helping others in their organization succeed.   Be trustworthy.  Avoid office gossip.  People like to work with positive co-workers.  Be the type of employee that you would want to work with day to day.  You may be faced with tough decision based upon the positions and behavior exhibited by others.  Always take the moral/ethical high ground and avoid doing anything that you wouldn’t want to read about on the front page of your local newspaper.
        8.   Compensation and Benefits
               If your interest in working within a nonprofit organization is to make the big
               bucks, you will be disappointed.  While there are a few exceptions,
               nonprofits have historically paid less than comparable positions within the
               for-profit sector  Most established nonprofits offer reasonable compensation
               and benefits.  However, if your main motivation for looking at potential
               positions within the nonprofit sector is a highly competitive financial
               package,  it’s not the place for you.

As someone who has worked within the nonprofit sector for over 25 years I still love what I do and encourage those who are serious about nonprofit work and have a passion for community service to consider a career within the nonprofit sector.  There are few jobs that offer the satisfaction and feeling of service and accomplishment as those within nonprofits.


  1. You are correct in putting passion or belief in the mission and purpose of the organization first. Most non-profits are mission driven and make it their sole purpose for existence. This is exhibited from everyone who works for the organization. It is hard to fake passion for a mission.

  2. All good points and timely advice for me. Most of my work experience has been in for profit organizations. In my current job search I'm opening up to possible opportunities in the non profit world after having worked for a fundraising consulting firm.

  3. These tips are really very good,helpful.Specially i am agree with "always be a student".

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  4. Working in a children's non-profit is a very big help to those who are in need. This organization has helping a lot of poor children all over thre world in providing food, shelter, clothing and many basic needs of a child. Let us help to promote this organizations

  5. Very interesting article! # 3, 4 and 7 are great points as good, ethical supervision and inclusion is a must anywhere and it is a must that any employee at any organization at any level be treated fairly, respectfully and with no discrimination or abuse at all. It is always nice how one can take the effort in learning everything, do his/her best and follow passion. One of the biggest challenges lies when a person is the best he/she can be and always tries to act in the most ethical manner and kind to others but is not treated back the same way or when there could be others in higher position acting unethically and not cooperative. Wonder what the key answer to this is anywhere and how anything can be handled well? Thanks!