I started working in nonprofits nearly 10 years ago. And in the beginning, my career choice often got me pity (and some slightly disgusted looks) at cocktail parties: “That must be, um, rewarding?” folks would say, sneaking a glance at my scuffed shoes.
Then, about five years ago, the perspective changed. By this time, the number of nonprofits had grown by nearly 25%, and Millenials, who were entering the workforce in the shadow of 9/11, were more interested in giving back to their communities.
Suddenly, those same cocktail party attendees were excited to talk to me about what I do. They had watched TED talks or Clinton Global Initiative videos of experts in health, education, and democracy, and it finally made sense why someone would be interested in changing the world. “Oh!” they would say. “That must be so rewarding!”
As an early adopter of a nonprofit career, I’m tempted to scoff at this surge of interest—but as a fundraiser and occasional hiring manager, I’d much rather leverage it. The fact is, nonprofits can offer fantastic opportunities for individuals who are willing to work hard to make the world a better place.
Beyond the obvious reason of affecting change for something you care about, here are three more reasons you should consider working for a nonprofit.
You'll Get a Foot in the Door of Your Field
One of the best things about working for a nonprofit is how easy it is to get started, no matter your background. It’s simple: Volunteer.
For example, let’s say you’re interested in an industry that you have no education or experience in, like marketing. Without the right background, it might seem impossible to get a foot in the door to land a full-time, paid gig. But, that’s not necessarily a barrier for a volunteer. If you approach an organization and offer to help design marketing materials—for free—many nonprofits will be happy to bring you on board. And, voilà! You have your “in.”
The nonprofit world is also smaller than you think—and volunteering is an easy way to make connections. In fact, I started my own career as a volunteer for local anti-violence organizations. Although I didn’t pursue a full-time job in the organization where I volunteered, my supervisor there knew a manager at another nonprofit, where I was eventually hired.
You'll Wear Tons of Hats
Every nonprofit is understaffed. Even the big multinational organizations like UNICEF and the Red Cross need more people. And while that’s obviously a disadvantage for the organization, it can actually benefit you. As a newcomer, you won’t only learn your role—you’ll have opportunities to learn what your boss does, what his or her boss does, and basically, what everyone else in the organization does, too.
So, you can be a program assistant who also helps out with grants, a financial manager who organizes the annual gala, or a grant writer who influences and shapes program goals. In short, you’re not locked into one job function—you’ll gain experience in almost every department. Sure, that also means you’ll probably spend some of your time making copies and running errands—but the Executive Director will likely be right there with you.
And it turns out, such a wide range of experience can help you move up in ways you may not expect. Katie Murphy is a prime example—she started out at Ubuntu Education Fund as an intern, but was soon hired on full-time as an Executive Assistant. And eventually—because she was able to gain experience in so many departments—she worked her way up to her current position as the Programs Coordinator. Now, she’s responsible for analyzing client data, assessing program needs, and regularly visiting Ubuntu's headquarters in South Africa.
She may not have known that’s where she’d end up when she started as an intern, but the flexibility of nonprofits gave her that unique opportunity.
You'll Get to Flex Your Creative Muscles
They say insanity is doing the same things over again and expecting different results. And so, it’d be pretty crazy for an organization to use same methods over and over, hoping to suddenly produce a new outcome.
That need for ongoing creativity is one of the most exciting aspects of working in many companies, but it’s especially true for nonprofits. Because these organizations have little money and high stakes, you’ll constantly be challenged to figure out how to fulfill your mission quicker, cheaper, and better and reach people in new, innovative ways.
For example, when Hollaback! set out to reframe the age-old feminist issue of street harassment, the organization started a blog that recorded instances of aggression. It was something that hadn’t been done before, and it successfully ignited interest in how we can use technology for social justice. Hollaback! is now in 62 cities and 25 countries and has its own mobile app that reports and maps your experience (and a picture of the perp, if you choose to take it).
In the same way, if (and when) you can come up with effective ideas that haven’t been done before, your creativity just may help people get the support and assistance they need.
I won’t tell you that nonprofit roles are always the happiest or best-paid jobs in the world. In fact, it can be incredibly frustrating to see overwhelming need and underwhelming interest day in and day out. But, like I responded to those people at the cocktail party so long ago: It really is rewarding.