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 VolunteerMatch.com, 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.
Finding the Right Fit
The sheer number of organizations that exist, whether or not they align with your values, may make finding a good fit for you seem impossible. To start your search, it may be beneficial to begin looking within your own community. Reach out to the local or regional branch of your organization of choice to see if they have any job openings, volunteer opportunities, or upcoming events. Getting your start at the local branch of an organization can help you move up in the ranks and work on bigger projects down the road.
If you would like to start searching for a position at a national, multinational, or global organization, the first place you should look is online. You can look for full-time non-profit jobs on common job-search websites, like Indeed and Monster, but you can also check out non-profit specific websites, like Idealist. Most major organizations also maintain their own websites, so you can always look at the “Careers” section of their website, which should be updated continuously. Regardless of the size of the organization, make sure to follow them on LinkedIn, as well, to show your interest in the organization and keep up with their operations.
What Does CWIB Have to Say?
Some of our own CWIB members have had experiences working for non-profit organizations and wanted to share some stories and advice.
Grace Farmelo, a staff writer for the CWIB Chronicles, has had a close relationship with horses for most of her life. When she was younger, she volunteered at the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Center in Clifton, Virginia for three and a half years. From her experiences in Clifton, she felt that she gained a better understanding of therapeutic riding and its benefits within the special needs community. Grace found it so “rewarding to watch riders grow in their riding skills and understanding of horses every week.” She currently volunteers at the Virginia Tech Equine Volunteer Program, where she has loved getting to know the animals and working together with students across different departments.
CWIB’s Head of Philanthropy, Sraavani Jayanti, has always considered volunteering to be a life-long hobby. She has helped out at her local library and has fond memories of participating in the ToysForTots campaign. By starting her volunteer journey at home, she realized that a great way to make your start in philanthropy is to ask local events and organizations if they need any extra volunteers. Sraavani recommends that anyone who wants to get started in philanthropy work should pick a cause they truly care about, because having that attitude towards your work can help you derive more satisfaction and enjoyment from the effort you put into the job. She believes that volunteering “gives you an opportunity to not only work on bettering the community, but also bettering yourself!” Her biggest lesson from being Head of Philanthropy thus far has been that any amount of effort can be impactful, “so don’t feel discouraged!”
CWIB Chronicles staff writer, Allison Gray, also wanted to share about her experience volunteering right here at Virginia Tech. She began helping out at the Montgomery County Emergency Assistance Program (MCEAP) Thrift Store in Christiansburg last semester, where community members can donate to help families in the New River Valley afford basic necessities like food and electricity. Allison says that she has been greatly impacted by the daily commitment of the store owner to the cause. She enjoys getting to meet new people and says that “it felt good to spend [her] free time doing something productive!”
If you are considering joining a non-profit organization on your career journey, feel secure in the idea that your daily work will contribute to a greater purpose. As long as you show that you care and you are willing to put in the work to achieve the desired results, you should feel confident in applying for an organization that you believe in. After all, any organization is lucky to have a Hokie who is committed to carrying on Virginia Tech’s motto: Ut Prosim - “that I may serve.”
By: Lauren Miles