Breaking into the Non-Profit Sector
by Katherine Nesbeda
Reprinted with permission of onPhilanthropy
Copyright © Changing Our World, Inc. 2006
Breaking into the Non-Profit Sector
In the past five years, the philanthropic sector has seen a growing interest from recent college graduates and young professionals. More and more often, these students and recent graduates are realizing that a career at a not-for-profit organization, or serving at another organization in some philanthropic capacity, does not have to lead to a life of destitution. There are real jobs – dare I say: careers – to be had in this industry, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
As people come to realize this fact, an increasing number of young professionals are now seeking to break into the non-profit and/or philanthropy sectors, and as a result, jobs are becoming more competitive to land. What follows here aims to answer the question: How do I get a job in the philanthropic sector?
Before even embarking on the job search, it is necessary to hone your areas of interest. For students, take a look back over classes and extracurricular activities. While academic/disciplinary background is not necessarily the most important, it is helpful to assess what types of courses have been of particular interest and why. What types of clubs and/or volunteer work have you participated in? And be sure to take advantage of all the resources provided to you. These resources may include your school’s Office of Career Services or Alumni network. Speaking with career advisors or alumni may provide you with insight into jobs you never knew existed.
For those of us no longer in school, similar reflection may be beneficial. What were your academic and extracurricular interests in college, and in what types of civic or volunteer outreach do you currently participate? Also, look at the skill-sets that you have developed since entering the workforce. Identify the areas you believe these skills can be applied to the non-profit sector, and play to these strengths. The may be more applicable to non-profit work than you’d originally thought.
I spoke with Judith Kidd, Associate Dean of Harvard College about how her students are getting into the philanthropic sector. First and foremost, she recommends that those looking for a job ask themselves what they want to get out of it. For those who want to be trained in a specific manner, Dean Kidd recommends larger institutions with established departments and programs will provide structure and specialization. On the other hand, smaller organizations may allow for more flexibility and a variety of responsibilities within a given area, allowing for the opportunity to dabble in many different things.
Dean Kidd also tells her students to be realistic in the type of jobs they expect. She notes that entry level positions at foundations and other grant-making institutions are few and far between and most work within these organizations requires years of experience and particular expertise.
One of the most valuable things one can do when exploring any industry is to speak with those who are currently in it. Find out what they do and don’t like about their jobs and the organizations for which they work. Nicole Anderson at Tufts University states that this is easier for most students than they tend to think. Tufts, like many other schools, has an alumni network composed of people working in jobs that run the gamut. Ask your career advisor about opportunities to be connected with alumni that appear to share your interests. Don’t be afraid to ask for an informational interview, people will generally be glad to talk with you about themselves and what they do.
The same goes for young professionals, tap into your network of friends, family friends, past professors and people you volunteer with if they know anyone working in your area of interest.
For these interviews, do your homework and be prepared to maximize your time and the time of the person you’re meeting with by knowing some of the background of the person’s job and organization.
Informational interviews are a great way to start the networking process. The people you meet with will know you’re actively looking for a job, and if there are no current openings at their organization, they may be able to refer you to others. You never know where information gathering interviews can lead.
Networking is arguably the most effective way to land a job. Many positions are never posted externally and are only advertised within or by contacts of an organization. Building your network of contacts can get you insider information on job opportunities in organizations that may be of interest to you. Bear in mind that while many for-profit organizations will actively recruit on campus or through head-hunters, most non-profits do not. A search for a job in a non-profit may require job applicants to be slightly more self-directed and tenacious. Don’t expect the jobs to come to you.
What Employers Want
Like for almost any other job, employers in the non-profit sector want to see in an applicant a demonstrated interest in the sector and/or mission of the organization. If you don’t have an employment background with non-profits, volunteer and other outside activities pertaining to the sector can be a good indicator of your interest.
Additionally, emphasize your communication skills. Strong written and verbal communications skills are not as common as one might think. The ability to converse and present thoughts in a coherent and cohesive manner is an extremely marketable quality.
One final thing to bear in mind is that while most large companies and corporations do a good job of making themselves and the career opportunities they offer fairly visible, the non-profit sector does not. You will most likely have to seek out a non-profit of interest to you.
Good luck, and enjoy the search!