If spending your days helping people or working for a cause you feel passionately about sounds like your dream job, then working for a nonprofit might be the best career path for you. In addition to supporting the common good, nonprofit jobs often offer some attractive perks, such as more flexibility, generous vacation time, educational opportunities, or professional development support. However, depending on the organization and your role there, they can also pay less than a similar job in the private sector, and some may be understaffed and underfunded.
If you’re considering working for a not-for-profit organization, here’s a detailed look at the benefits and drawbacks to consider.
What Is a Nonprofit?
Essentially, a nonprofit organization is one whose main goal is something other than making money. These organizations can have a number of different missions based on their specific charters and how and why they were established. But the essential unifying factor is that they’re not set up to generate revenue like a traditional business does, which is usually through selling an item or service.
Nonprofits are also tax-exempt, which means they don’t pay income tax on the money their organization brings in each year. For example, corporations must pay taxes on the money they make. Nonprofits, on the other hand, are exempt from paying taxes, in part because they’re not trying to generate a profit.
There are eight federal government-approved categories that define nonprofits. To be classified as a nonprofit organization with the federal government and thus avoid paying taxes on property, donations, and any revenue, an organization must apply to the IRS for status as a 501(c)(3). Once they’ve received approval and been granted this status, they can accept tax-deductible charitable donations from individuals and companies, which is one of the ways nonprofits are funded.
Different Types of Nonprofits
The IRS recognizes 27 different types of nonprofit organizations. However, not all of them have the same tax exemptions and rules, so the list focuses on 501(c)(3) organizations, which make up the biggest and most diverse category of nonprofits. They’re also the ones you’re most likely to donate to, volunteer with, and work for. These organizations fall into the following categories:
These types of organizations include churches, temples, and mosques. They are, generally speaking, any place of worship for a group of people who share the same religious beliefs.
This includes schools that serve grades K through 12; colleges and universities; museums, zoos, and planetariums; and organizations that host lectures and forums for the public.
Defined as organizations that seek to uncover scientific truths or want to find a cure for a disease, this category includes the American Heart Association and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
Public libraries are probably the best-known literary nonprofit organizations, although this category can also include book festivals, nonprofit book and magazine publishers, and organizations that teach and promote literacy.
6. Public Safety Testing
The organizations that fall into this category are ones whose sole mission is to test products and processes to ensure public safety, instead of with an eye toward profit or for advertising money. There aren’t a lot of organizations that fall into this category, but the Consumers Union, which publishes the popular website and magazine “Consumer Reports,” is one of them. Another is the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, which works to ensure the quality and safety of fireworks bought and sold in the United States.
7. National or International Amateur Sports Competitions
These include youth sports leagues meant to get children interested in sports, such as t-ball or kickball, and adult recreation leagues designed to help members be more active and healthy while playing a sport for fun.
8. Prevention of Cruelty to Children
The name of this category is pretty self-explanatory. It includes organizations like The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the American Society for the Positive Care of Children.
9. Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
This category includes the nationally focused American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). It can also include your local animal shelter or humane society.
Nonprofit organizations offer many of the same types of jobs that for-profit organizations offer, with some more specialized or technical work opportunities as well. For example, many nonprofits need employees in categories such as accounting, human resources, IT or tech support, marketing and communications, outreach, and project management.
The bigger and more independent the organization, the more likely they are to have positions that fit wide varieties of skills and qualifications. For example, many large schools and universities have their own facilities team, which includes electricians, architects, plumbers, and janitors. Even if you never saw yourself working at a school or didn’t think you’d qualify for a job in higher education, you never know what kind of opportunities are out there for all types of professions.
Many nonprofit jobs are unique to the organization. If you’re interested in working for an animal rescue group, for example, they’ll likely mainly be hiring people who have the qualifications or background to work with animals. If disaster relief is more your interest, having a degree or experience in project management, logistics, or disaster or medical training will make you more desirable to these kinds of organizations. If you want to do community outreach for a public theater, having at least some theater experience will help set you apart from other candidates.
That said, if you’re looking to break into a new area and don’t have the necessary skills for a particular job, you could consider volunteering with the organization or a similar one to build up your resume and field-test your interest before you completely change careers.
The Best Things About Working for a Nonprofit
There are many possible advantages of working for a nonprofit, depending on your skills and abilities, what you’re looking for in a job, and the type of nonprofit you work for. While none of these will be true for every single organization out there, and every job is different, here are some general perks of not-for-profits.
1. Supporting a Cause You Care About
One of the biggest advantages of working for a nonprofit is the opportunity to be a part of an organization whose mission you feel passionately about. Both of my parents were college professors, and while I knew I didn’t have any interest in teaching when I grew up, I’ve always felt that access to education has the potential to change someone’s life for the better.
I also like the cyclical nature of life on a college campus – the rush of new students every fall, the frenzied anticipation of finals and graduation, and the happy, peaceful quiet of summer break. For these reasons and more, when I graduated from college and began looking for a job, I focused my search on writing positions located on college campuses.
2. Opportunities for Growth & Advancement
In addition to matching your skills to an organization you support, working for a nonprofit can often mean you’ll get opportunities for growth and innovation in your work. Smaller organizations especially often need employees who are willing to wear many hats, be nimble, and learn new skills as new challenges arise.
For example, if you work as an outreach coordinator for a community arts organization that wants to overhaul its online presence to reach more people, you might find yourself asked to spearhead a Web redesign or launch a social media campaign. Even if you’ve never done these things before, you could become an expert by simply being the only one in the organization with the bandwidth to tackle such a challenge. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.
3. Passionate, Dedicated Coworkers
One of my favorite things about working at a university is that my coworkers are some of the smartest people in the world. When you work at a nonprofit that’s the right fit for your interests and skills, there’s a good chance your coworkers will be interesting, like-minded individuals.
There’s no guarantee you’ll like every single one of your coworkers – we’re all human, after all – but if you work at an animal-focused nonprofit, for example, many of your coworkers will be animal lovers too. If theater is your passion, working at a community theater will put you alongside people who also love the stage. When you’re poring over balance sheets or scrambling to submit a big report before the deadline, it’s more bearable if you like the people who are toiling along with you.
4. Sense of Purpose
Working at an organization whose mission you believe in also means you get to see the impact your job has on making the world a better place. That can be hugely gratifying. Given that we spend almost 50 years of our lives working, why not spend that time working for an organization you believe in? It might make you a happier employee.
A study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that, controlling for other relevant factors, people who worked for nonprofit organizations reported being happier, both in their jobs and in their day-to-day lives, than their private-sector peers. Surveys and studies have also shown that people are willing to take lower pay for work they find purposeful and fulfilling, compared with financially lucrative work that’s boring or meaningless to them.
5. Perks & Benefits
The low pay that comes with some nonprofit jobs is often offset by perks offered to employees. If organizations know they aren’t able to compensate their workers with high salaries, they’re often more willing to be generous with paid time off, flexible schedules, and summer hours. Nonprofits also often give employees perks such as professional development opportunities, better health care, and better retirement matching. It’s fairly common for universities to offer tuition remission for employees, their spouses, and their children. With the cost of higher education skyrocketing, this perk alone might be worth taking a smaller paycheck to work at a college or university.
The Disadvantages of Working for a Nonprofit
As with any job or industry, there are disadvantages of working for a nonprofit organization. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules – for example, some nonprofits pay surprisingly well, especially if you’re in a senior leadership or technical role – but they are general themes that seem to plague these types of organizations more than for-profit companies or industries.
1. Lower Pay
One of the drawbacks of working for a nonprofit is that they often pay less than for-profit companies, even for positions with the same job title. Part of the reason for these smaller salaries is that these organizations often operate on slimmer margins. They’re not beholden to investors, but they do sometimes have a much smaller operating budget, and their reliance on fundraising galas, box office revenue, or support from individual donors sometimes means they can’t pay as competitively as companies that make big private-sector profits.
2. Funding Issues Affect Employees
If a nonprofit isn’t in good shape financially, it can negatively impact its employees. Because nonprofits often subsist on a combination of funds from individual donor contributions, public and private grants, ticket sales from events, and sponsorships and donations from companies, they are affected by the ebbs and flows of these revenue streams.
For example, in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, both foundations and the federal government reduced their grantmaking significantly for several years, which meant that organizations that relied on these grants saw a huge reduction in the amount of money coming in to support their cause and fund their operating budgets. As a result, many smaller nonprofits were forced to reduce the services they provided, lay off staff, or close their doors altogether.
Depending on the type of nonprofit you work for, there can be a near-constant focus on the financial health of the organization and raising funds both for its mission and to keep the lights on. Even if you’re not part of the finance or fundraising team, working at an organization that seems to be perilously close to financial insolvency, or one that’s constantly talking about reducing costs and laying off staff, can be stressful and make for a less stable work environment. If you want to work for a nonprofit but crave financial stability, choosing a bigger organization with a sizable endowment will probably be a better fit for you.
3. Potential Burnout
From a relentless focus on the bottom line to the nature of a nonprofit’s work, burnout among nonprofit employees can be high. If you’re working at an organization that helps the most marginalized people in our communities, it can be emotionally draining to face these kinds of crises regularly. Organizations that deliver services to people in need of mental or physical health care can be inspiring but also daunting.
Even less dire initiatives like getting art and music into inner-city schools can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task. Carrying that kind of mental load can mean higher burnout rates in nonprofit employees compared to for-profit workers who aren’t faced with these issues day after day.
4. Potential Lack of Innovation
Larger nonprofit organizations are often more financially stable than smaller ones, especially if they’re well-funded or have a large endowment. However, these kinds of organizations – especially colleges and universities – can be slower to innovate or change with the times. Whether that’s a function of bureaucracy and red tape or the fact that a large institution can’t change overnight, if you’re the kind of person who craves a fast-paced environment or loves change and innovation, working at a nonprofit – especially a large or long-established one – might not be the job you want.
How to Get a Job at a Nonprofit Organization
If working for a nonprofit piques your interest, there are several ways to get experience in this world before jumping in with both feet. Consider volunteering with a nonprofit whose focus fits your passion, whether it’s animals, the environment, or with a particular religion. Volunteer roles can vary, and even those as simple as cleaning out litter boxes at the animal shelter or picking up trash by the river are worthy endeavors. These less-glamorous volunteer positions will give you an idea of what it’s like to work for the organization, and it will likely strengthen your application for a paid position if you’re already a reliable, well-regarded volunteer.
If you’re interested in communications, volunteer to put together an organization’s monthly newsletter, help out with its social media account, or write grant proposals and fundraising appeals. If you have leadership experience, consider joining a nonprofit’s board of directors or steering committee, or coordinating and managing other volunteers. If you’re well-connected in your community, make introductions and host meetings and networking opportunities that could help the nonprofit expand their reach and impact. Whatever skill you have to share with an organization, contact them and ask how you can help. You may be surprised with what they come up with for you to do.
Perhaps you’re sold on the idea of working for a nonprofit but don’t know how to find a job at such an organization. There are a number of job boards and websites that focus on the nonprofit world. HigherEdJobs lists opportunities at colleges and universities across the nation. Peruse listings on Nonprofit Talent, Idealist, and The Chronicle of Philanthropy, using the various search functions to narrow down results to location, job type, and experience level.
Finally, if you’re interested in working at a particular nonprofit organization, look at their website for openings or reach out to them directly about current or future opportunities. You don’t know what the answer will be, but they’ll probably appreciate your initiative.
As with any career, there are benefits and drawbacks to working in the nonprofit sector. These jobs can be as diverse and varied as any job in the private sector, with the same range of ups and downs. However, if you’re interested in pursuing a career in the nonprofit world, think creatively and keep an open mind about the kind of position you could fill given your skills and experience level; you might be surprised by what you end up liking.
If you work for one organization and don’t have a positive experience, don’t let that be the reason you leave the nonprofit world altogether. Look around and see if there’s something in the nonprofit sector that would be a better fit.
Have you ever worked for a nonprofit? Would you be willing to take a pay cut to feel happier and more fulfilled in your job?