Paying it Forward with Non-Profits

What is a Non-profit?

Maybe over the years you’ve realized that you want to dedicate your life to ending world hunger, fighting poverty, rescuing animals, and generally making the world a better place. If so, you should consider working for a non-profit organization! A non-profit organization (NPO) is a charitable group that provides a way for people to come together to help others in need. They typically advocate for a certain cause, and their primary goal is to serve the public - not to make money. The core of an NPO is a shared mission, such as advancing religious, scientific, environmental, literary, or educational ideals.

Non-profit organizations can play many philanthropic roles. They can provide services to the public, advocate for certain interests, preserve cultural values and traditions, bring communities together, and provide the space and resources needed for innovation. In that way, religious organizations, like churches and synagogues, can also fall under the non-profit umbrella. There are two main types of non-profit organizations under the 501 code granted by the IRS. A nonprofit organization (NPO) falls under the 501(c)(3) code and exists to serve the general public, while not-for-profit organizations (NFPO) hold a variety of different codes under the 501 prefix and serve a smaller group of members. Examples of this type of organization are labor unions and social welfare programs.

America has 1.3 million non-profit organizations. In Virginia alone, there are roughly four non-profit organizations per 1,000 people, with 36,210 registered organizations total. There are so many different causes and organizations that address each of those causes, so the sky's the limit when looking for an organization that fits your needs. Some popular non-profits that you may have heard of include Doctors Without Borders, charity: water, the World Wildlife Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation (ACLU), and UNICEF.

What to Expect in the Workplace

For those unfamiliar with the world of non-profit organizations, the culture and expectations upheld in the workplace can feel foreign. There are certainly some differences between a non-profit organization and a business entity, both in the way you work and the way the office works. First and foremost, you have the potential to achieve great satisfaction from your work at a non-profit organization - you are helping to change the world, after all! Whether it be community-focused or nationwide, your efforts will induce a positive change. There is also lots of potential for professional growth when accepting an entry-level position at a non-profit organization. But, as with any job, be ready to upgrade your skills and learn through experience to move up the ladder. You can take online training courses, attend seminars, or ask someone to help you learn a new skill.

As you will always be learning and growing, you should expect to be flexible with the type of work you do and the amount of responsibilities you may need to take on. You have to be able to adapt to a changing work environment that is heavily impacted by changes in funding and public policy. Superiority and rank may also be in flux or may lie on some blurred lines, given the sharing of responsibilities, so prepare to be comfortable with working on a team both as a manager and a subordinate.

These are just a few aspects of non-profit work that any interested individuals may need to be aware of, but this list only scratches the surface. Try talking to someone who already works in the non-profit sector, preferably in a field you are interested in, to get an idea of what to expect in terms of responsibilities, salary, and culture.

Getting Ahead of the Game

There are several steps you can take before heading out into the job market, the first of which is to start volunteering as soon as you can. This will help you gain familiarity with the type of work you may be doing, explore different areas of work, and get some experience under your belt to add to your resume. The goal with gaining experience is to demonstrate commitment and passion for the cause you support, as well as a willingness to work hard. It’s ideal to get some volunteer experience with the organization you would like to work for, but if that’s not possible, look for opportunities in your area that address the issues that interest you. Some websites that can help you find local and national opportunities include, All for Good, and JustServe, to name a few.

Furthermore, ask to spearhead projects or take on more responsibility within your volunteer organization, if you already belong to one, because going the extra mile will help demonstrate a very important skill on your resume: leadership. It may also help you work your way up within the organization, if you are already volunteering where you would like to work full time. Keep in mind that you should try to commit lots of time and effort to one or a single type of organization, rather than continuously bounce around multiple different organizations. Again, demonstrating passion and dedication is important.

Through seeking out these volunteer experiences, you can familiarize yourself with how non-profit organizations work and learn a variety of applicable skills. Take some time to learn about how non-profit organizations function, how they are funded, and what common phrases and words are used in their industry. Additionally, since many non-profit organizations have small staffs, being a jack-of-all-trades is key to getting your foot in the door for a job. Employees may have to wear many hats and contribute to different departments. Speaking a different language, being a fantastic writer, taking professional photos, and excelling at public speaking and giving presentations are all great skills to have. Of course, the desired skills vary among organizations and their goals. Be sure to highlight these skills on your cover letter and your resume when you apply!

It’s also possible to intern at a non-profit organization. An internship can help you build specific desirable skills, gain rapport with the organization, and can lead to higher-paying job opportunities down the road. A few extra steps that you can take to prepare before going into an interview for an internship or a full-time position include perfecting your resume and your knowledge of the organization's mission and values - following the organization on social media can help you keep abreast of their activities and get a feel for their core issues. Lastly, build as many meaningful and beneficial relationships as possible. This can be accomplished through volunteering itself, by going to non-profit specific networking events and job fairs, and by connecting with individuals on LinkedIn. Having connections before going in for an interview helps you have a better understanding of the job market and gives you some credibility with an organization's hiring manager.