Nearly every time I publish a column, I get responses asking me how to break into a nonprofit career. Because I fell into this type of work before it became a hot industry, I’m always a little taken aback by this question—how did I do it?
A lot of folks seem to think that you need to have years of training or Peace Corps work to prove your charitable bonafides. And when their applications don’t solicit an immediate response, they assume that the organization is swamped with better qualified candidates. But, as an experienced nonprofit job seeker and occasional hiring manager, I know for sure that’s not the case.
Nonprofit hiring processes are seldom transparent to applicants, in part because the people working in those organizations are too busy to properly communicate with everyone. So, I took some time to retrace my own job-searching steps and quiz my colleagues on the best practices for finding a nonprofit gig, and I came up with the following three tips for your search.
If you’re worried you won’t be able to land a nonprofit gig because you lack experience, think again: Nonprofits are the only businesses that regularly request help from people without experience—in the form of volunteers. Offering your assistance (even if it’s not the work of your dream job) can help get your foot in the door for a full-time position. Plus, once you’re there, if a position opens up for someone with your skillset, you’ll be among the first in line.
The best part is, it’s easy to get started, no matter your interests or schedule. For example, say you really want to work in international education, but you can’t take three months off to volunteer as a reading instructor in Uganda. You can still prove your interest and dedication by volunteering at a fundraising gala for an education organization here in the States.
If there is a particular organization that interests you, check out its website for volunteer opportunities, and if you don’t find anything listed, contact the nonprofit directly to see if there are any needs you can fill. If you don’t have anything specific in mind, websites like VolunteerMatch OneBrick, and Idealist allow you to search by issue, time commitment, and type of opportunity.
Make sure to let your volunteer coordinator know that you’re looking for a job in the field, so you can start to gather references (and maybe a few key introductions!). On that note:
2. Get to Know the Circle
I was having drinks with some fellow nonprofiteers when one of my friends mentioned that she was pursuing a position at a large health-related organization. Immediately, everyone at the table began piping up: “Oh, I know the head of HR over there,” or “My roommate used to work in the development department, if you want me to introduce you.”
You see, the nonprofit world is small—really small. But the good news is that it’s far from exclusive, and the people in it are often willing to help each other out.
If you’re not yet in the inner circle, find some local networking events, and start building your network of contacts in the industry. If the word “networking” gives you the willies, you can ease into it by getting active online—via LinkedIn groups and by following issue leaders on Twitter. Then, once you’ve developed a rapport with a few contacts, arrange in-person meetings to grab coffee and chat.
You won’t immediately befriend the president of an international NGO or the chief hiring manager of your dream organization, but that person across the room at a networking event (who looks like she’s feeling just as awkward as you) might just be in that lofty position one day.
3. Be Helpful
Depending on the size of the nonprofit you’re applying to, the person responsible for reviewing your application and interviewing you is likely not on the HR staff—because there is no HR staff. Most likely, this “hiring manager” actually has another job entirely, and the search for a new employee is just another item on his or her to-do list.
If that’s the case, you will definitely win points by presenting a clear, organized application. Delineate exactly why you want to work for this organization and on behalf of this mission, and make sure your resume and cover letter are targeted to show not only your volunteer experience, but also the specific skills you can bring to the table—like how your event planning experience will help you organize a killer fundraising gala.
And remember: Even though an organization isn’t focused on profits, it still expects the same professional standards as any other company. Don’t think that just because the person reviewing your application has dedicated his career to helping others that he’s going to let your spelling and grammatical errors slide. When I’m hiring, I look for candidates I can trust to do a good job with little oversight—so if you misspell my name or the name of the organization in your cover letter, I know immediately that you aren’t the right fit.
Now, these are all good guidelines for any job applicant, but they’ll be extra beneficial for nonprofit candidates. After all, a nonprofit hiring manager balances a variety of projects on tight deadlines and needs to hire someone because he or she needs help. If you start the application process by proving that you can make his or her life easier, your resume may find its way to the top of the pile.
Breaking into a new industry can be challenging, but there are lots of points of entry for nonprofits. With these three simple strategies, you’ll be well on way to establishing yourself as an official “do gooder.”