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Thinking About a Nonprofit Job? Here's What You Should Know

Alison Green

If you'd like to spend your days helping people, working for a cause or otherwise doing something to improve your community or the world, working at a nonprofit might be for you.

Here's what you should know about the vast and growing world of nonprofit work.

What does it mean to be a nonprofit? Nonprofits are organizations that work to improve the common good of society in some way, typically through charitable, educational, scientific or religious means. Their defining characteristic is that they don't distribute a profit to private individuals (such as owners or investors); instead, they use all available revenue to serve the public interest in some way.

When you think of nonprofits, you might first think of animal shelters and soup kitchens, but there are also other kinds, such as advocacy groups, which work for social change; trade associations, which offer membership and services like research, training or lobbying for the industry they represent; religious institutions, like churches and temples and private foundations, which focus on making grants to other nonprofits.

What types of jobs do nonprofits hire for? Nonprofits hire people to do all the same jobs as for-profit businesses do: They hire people to do Web design, accounting, research, management, communications, administrative work, IT, lobbying -- all the same jobs that you're used to seeing. But on top of that, they also have additional roles likes fundraisers, grant writers, volunteer coordinators and community organizers.

Does "nonprofit" mean that the staff aren't paid? No. It's the organization itself that isn't making a profit, not the employees. With the exception of some very small organizations, most nonprofits are staffed by paid professionals. Some organizations employ volunteers in addition to their paid staff, but many don't use volunteer help at all.

Do nonprofits pay competitively? Some do and some don't. Salaries in the sector vary widely, but smart nonprofits do strive to pay competitive salaries and benefits so that they can hire talented staff members.

However, when nonprofits can't afford high salaries, they often try to make up for it by offering excellent benefits, such as flexible hours and generous vacation time. But this too varies by organization -- and there are certainly plenty of nonprofits where long hours are the norm.

What's different about nonprofit work? The biggest difference is that there's a different bottom line. In business, the ultimate goal is to make a profit. For nonprofits, the goal is to have a positive effect in the world. And staff members are generally expected to share that perspective, which can sometimes translate into longer hours and pitching in wherever you're needed to help advance the mission. But staff members often derive an enormous sense of personal fulfillment from their work (particularly if the organization is well-run and getting results).

In addition, nonprofits often (but not always) have fewer resources, which can mean less money for salaries, office space, training and equipment. For this reason, it's not uncommon for nonprofits to be understaffed. You might be expected to wear several different hats, which can be a great opportunity to get experience in multiple areas, but can be frustrating if you want to just focus on one thing. (However, there are also larger nonprofits that are well-funded and well-staffed.)

How can I get hired by a nonprofit? For the most part, nonprofit hiring works the same as anywhere else. However, in addition to screening for skills and talents, nonprofits also usually look for candidates who care about the issues they work on and who won't see the work as just a job. That means that you should write in your cover letter about why you care about the work the organization does, and you should expect it to come up in your interview as well.

How can I find out about nonprofit job openings? Nonprofit jobs are advertised everywhere that other jobs are advertised -- but there are also sites dedicated specifically to them, such as Idealist.org, one of the largest and best-known. Additionally, if you have a favorite cause, you can look at the websites of the groups that work on it; job postings are usually posted on their websites.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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