Neelanjana Gautam is a Senior Content Writer at Vocatio. She is passionate about social reforms, and has experience working with several nonprofits such as Sustainable Silicon Valley, Iridiscent, AiducateNow, Sunnyvale Community Services — organizations working in the space of environment, education and poverty alleviation.
A major criteria for many people in choosing their career and life path is a desire to help people and to have a positive impact. You want to make a difference in the lives of the hungry, the disadvantaged, the marginalized; you’re passionate about the environment or wildlife; you want to be a part of development and urban renewal. Perhaps you’re passionate about a specific issue–education, healthcare, nutrition, sustainability–or maybe you just want to do meaningful work. Either way, it’s natural to think about working for nonprofits as an avenue to do those things.
After all, nonprofits are often the most direct touchpoint toward specific issues.
But the nonprofit world can be confusing and overwhelming to try to understand–it is an industry named after what it isn’t. The term can encompass many different types of organizations with vastly different structures, styles, and missions.
While it can be a perfect career choice for many people, it’s not necessarily for everyone, and for some people, there may end up being more fitting avenues to find purposeful, impactful work. Before you decide to pursue working for a nonprofit, there are some things you should understand and consider.
Overview of a Nonprofit
A nonprofit is an organization formed to accomplish a social or societal goal, without trying to earn a profit. Its aim is to benefit society in a tangible way. Their main sources of funding are grants, donations, subscriptions from members, income from investments, and in some cases, direct revenue from sales or services.
A nonprofit organization cannot distribute dividends or excess revenue to any owners or members. Any funds that remain after paying the bills are poured back into the mission or the growth of the organization. There are no shareholders. Nobody owns the company. Organizational affairs are usually managed by a managing/executive committee elected by its members.
They can, however, (and do) pay their employees. Many nonprofits do leverage volunteer workers to maximize their impact and let more people get involved, but full-time staff are paid just like in any organization. Just don’t expect to get rich off it.
Common Types of Nonprofits:
The terms of nonprofits entities can get one confused, here’s a quick rundown. Note that they aren’t mutually exclusive, and many real-life organizations can fall in several of these categories.
A quick search on the Internet may swamp you with an array of nonprofits that have a 501(c)(3) status. These are the public charities and by far the most common type of nonprofit. They typically carry out some type of charitable activity through educational, religious, scientific, literary, animal welfare organizations etc.
Advocacy organizations try to effect change by advocating on behalf of an issue–usually through government or grassroots action. They work to change laws, regulations, or societal norms by raising public awareness, lobbying lawmakers and leaders, or mounting legal challenges. Some are very hands on, like the ACLU, which actually employs lawyers and takes on cases itself. Other examples include Stand for Children, Center for American Progress, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Education Reimagined.
Foundations look to advance their mission by strategic grants and donations to other organizations, programs, research, and events they believe will have the most positive impact. The funding often comes from a single individual, family, or a corporation. Working for one of these is less likely to offer direct work with those you’re trying to help, but they usually have more stringent analytic metrics and outcome accountability to see that their money is put to the best use. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and MacArthur Foundations are a few examples.
When people think “nonprofit” they think of organizations that work directly with people to change their living conditions. These organizations cover a wide gamut of social issues, for example, providing skill development programs, shelter services, literacy classes, medical care and other developmental modules. It involves hands-on work and responsible initiatives to cater to its user base within the community. Rebuilding Together is one such example which brings volunteers and communities together to improve the lives of low-income homeowners. Organizations like Feeding America, local food banks and soup kitchens also fall under this category.
“Nonprofit” doesn’t mean you can’t sell things or make money. It just means excess money made goes back into the mission instead of to owners or shareholders, and that the overall goal is not solely to maximize profit. Some nonprofits are entirely self-sustaining and don’t rely on any grants or monetary donations. Good examples are Goodwill (and most thrift stores), which accepts donations of goods and clothing and sells them to fund its various skills training and job matching programs. Another example, Inspiration Kitchens, operates several restaurants and a catering service to fund its chef-training program for individuals with criminal backgrounds. Its own students and graduates are employed in the business.
Working for a Nonprofit: Pros and Cons
Let’s get on to simplifying the underlying objectives of working for a nonprofit.
Nonprofits, being mission driven, allow you to get a sense of accomplishment and make you feel good about the work you’re doing. They can also provide an outlet to work for the advancement of a specific cause or mission you’re passionate about.
Much of the nonprofit industry consists of small, local organizations. These usually have small teams and wide organizational structures, giving you the opportunity to grow close to coworkers and superiors and get an almost family-like atmosphere. You’ll also be able to more easily see how your work fits in with everyone else’s.
Most nonprofits run tight on resources and often are understaffed. So in the majority of the nonprofits, you’ll be wearing many hats that can help you advance in ways you may not have dreamed. This means that (1) you won’t have to worry about the monotony of doing the same thing everyday and (2) you can develop a variety of different skills that can help you in the future (and show you which parts of the work you find most fulfilling).
Importance and impact
Because so many non-profits have small and wide organization structures, you can end up with greater responsibilities and more important work than you might get in another entry-level job.
Things to Be Aware Of
There is, however, no denying that every coin has a flip side, and so is it with some nonprofits. These aren’t issues with all organization and won’t be a problem for all people, but they’re things you should consider if you’re looking at the nonprofit world.
Obsession with funding
Funding is a recurrent concern in any nonprofit, and the struggle to attract and retain a steady list of sponsors or donors is a challenge many organizations have to face. If you work the fundraising or grantwriting side and enjoy that type of work, this isn’t a problem. But if you have a hybrid role or a role in programming or operations, you could end up frustrated by having to constantly ask for more money when you’d like to be focusing on “the work.”
And if you’re exclusively on the program or operations side and are a very analytic person, you may be frustrated by what feels like an organizational prioritization of making programs look successful (in order to talk them up to get continued funding) rather than evaluating them critically, admitting shortcomings, and improving them to be successful.
Nonprofits with small teams and wide organizational structures offer some positives, as mentioned above, but they can also have negatives. Less top-down leadership can lead to a haphazard, disorganized environment. There is often much less direct oversight and supervision than in for-profit sectors. It takes a certain type of person with strong initiative to thrive in these environments.
Constrained funding and prioritizing service over “frills” means that many nonprofits endure with outdated tech, tools, and software long after for-profit sector companies would have upgraded. If you’re the type to do a little McGyvering and make the best of what you have, it’s fine, but it can still get a little frustrating.
Most nonprofits attempt to track and analyze their results and performance. However, there’s often no cut-and-dry way of doing this, and there’s no reference point to measure against. For-profit businesses can simply figure out if they made money or not–there’s one simple measurable goal. If a nonprofit’s main goal is to, for example, “end homelessness,” “save the rainforest,” or “promote recycling,” it’s tough to find one particular measurable, and it’s tough to isolate your organization’s impact independent of exogenous factors. Usually there are enough positive stories and goals accomplished that you can be sure that you are doing good in the world, but for the analytically-minded, it can be frustrating to try to really measure impact quantitatively.
Does it Sound like Me?
There are a wide variety of job roles available at nonprofits–with the largest buckets being Business Development/Fundraising, Marketing & Outreach, Operations/Program Management, Analytics & Evaluation, and Finance. As more nonprofits turn to or utilize digital platforms, there are more roles in IT, User Experience, and related fields. FastCompany outlines their “Top 3 Nonprofit Jobs of the Future” here.
Vocatio’s platform is designed to help you find high-fit roles perfect for your personality and then explore the industries that best align with your passions. Our Nonprofit Industry Group has more excellent content to continue to explore whether the industry is right for you, and you can also explore other Industries to find other difference-making careers.