Description of the Field
Careers associated with nonprofits are commonly misunderstood. People sometimes think, for example, that nonprofits pay lower salaries than for-profits, that they are reluctant to hire full-time workers, that nonprofits are part of the public sector, that nonprofits have little power to make an impact, or that nonprofit careers are for people without advanced degrees. This handout will dispel those common misconceptions to give you a better understanding of what it means to work at a nonprofit.
To start, let us define "nonprofit." Nonprofit refers to organizations that are neither for-profit businesses nor government agencies. Nonprofits are considered a subset of private industry, but generally have goals for the public good. Nonprofits restrict the use of surplus revenues and cannot redistribute these as profit or dividends. They may, however, use surplus revenue to sustain the organization for the future. This does not mean, however, that nonprofit employees do not get paid. Workers for nonprofits usually do receive salaries and nonprofits generally operate much like private companies. In addition to paid staff, many use a volunteer workforce: Volunteers are usually involved in fundraising campaigns, hosting events, service to the community, etc. and the paid staff manage and make the key decisions. Often, advisory boards comprised of volunteers have relevant experience or are influential in the community provide advice and direction to nonprofits. Nonprofits can also receive funding and oversight from the federal or state government or by an international body, such as the United Nations (UN). Nonprofits include charitable organizations such as hospitals, private schools, religious institutions, and social welfare organizations. Examples include Amnesty International, UNICEF, the American Red Cross, Wikimedia Foundation, and the Grameen Foundation. Other examples include the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Make a Wish Foundation, and many educational institutions.
A nonprofit organization can work in nearly every sector of the economy. The most common areas for nonprofits include environmental services, global and community development, general education, arts and music education, health services, and humanitarian assistance. As an economics undergraduate, there are potentially thousands of career options at nonprofits, each unique to the specific sector and nonprofit organization. If you can’t find the right niche among the many available options, you can even be a social entrepreneur and start your own nonprofit.
In any field, there are many challenges. That's especially true in the nonprofit sector because of its wide variety and diversity. At smaller nonprofits, you may be expected to work simultaneously on many projects; working hours may be erratic. People who work at nonprofits often say that every single day is different and sometimes unexpected. While for some this may be the ideal working situation, for those who prefer more structure, it may be difficult adjusting to this work style. Furthermore, depending on the type of nonprofit, it may be difficult to transfer to the for-profit sector with only nonprofit experience.
At the same time, working at nonprofits may bring tremendous rewards. Nonprofits often engage in work that impacts the well-being and livelihood of countless others. Work can be difficult but meaningful. Though your work may cover areas in which you have no experience, these new experiences can present the opportunity to exercise creativity and ability to think on your feet and outside of the box, a reward in and of itself.
This handout covers careers in nonprofit in all sectors except hospitals and private schools. Those latter two types of nonprofits have particular requirements and operations that differ from careers at most other nonprofits. For details on working at hospitals, refer to the handout “Careers in Healthcare Public Sector.”
On the Job
Since nonprofits vary widely in scope and every nonprofit is organized differently, it is difficult to make generalizations about working at a “typical” nonprofit. However, some commonalities can be found among nonprofits of similar size, which is how the following sections are organized.
For the purposes of this handout, nonprofits with one or a few locations will be considered small- to-medium sized. Exceptions are not-for-profit colleges and universities with single locations but large student populations. Entry-level positions at small-to-medium-sized nonprofits usually consist of intern or volunteer jobs. Though these positions are typically unpaid, they are important steps toward full-time employment at a nonprofit. They are also good opportunities to learn how a specific nonprofit operates and to make connections for future employment. When interning or volunteering at a nonprofit, one may perform a variety of tasks. If the nonprofit is looking to expand to a new location, you may be tasked with researching the costs and assisting in the associated duties. If the nonprofit is short on elementary art teachers in an after-school program, and you have experience in the arts, you may become the new teacher’s assistant or be tasked with reaching out to the community to find more instructors. It really depends on the type of nonprofit and its current needs, which can change often.
More traditional and typical roles for an intern or volunteer consist of researching methods and costs, branding and marketing, organizing fundraisers, managing social media, and writing articles and reports. Since many nonprofits depend on volunteers and interns from a variety of backgrounds, nonprofits will use each individual's unique talents and skills. For example, if you have experience in web and graphics design, you may update or improve the website, and create new graphics for marketing and branding. Much of what you accomplish in an entry-level position at a nonprofit will emerge from your initiative, creativity, and innovation. That's why it is important to learn to manage your own time and multitask.
Work done well as a volunteer or intern can lead to future employment with that nonprofit or another similar organization.
Nonprofits with many nationwide and/or international locations will be considered large, again with the exception of colleges and universities. For larger nonprofits, the entry-level positions and internships are more likely to be paid and the work more focused. In a large nonprofit, since there will be more employees, there will likely be more structure, organization, and task specialization. You will likely be placed into a department and work with a team on specific tasks. For example, you may assist in such departments as financial, marketing, outreach and fundraising, technology and web, recruiting, development, operations, and many more.
Since nonprofits cover such a diverse range of fields and industries, it is best to research specific nonprofits that interest you by mission or region. That way you can learn how they operate and determine which entry-level positions are available. It is usually a good idea to call someone working at the nonprofit for more information before applying to volunteer, intern, or work. Ask questions about the types of duties entry-level workers perform. Since many nonprofits work all over the world, it's also useful to find out where you might be located if you work for them.
Career positions vary widely at nonprofits. However, a few roles are common among nearly all nonprofits. These include the positions of marketing director, director of operations, outreach coordinator/fundraising coordinator, and finance director.
The Executive Director/CEO is in charge of all business for the nonprofit and has ultimate responsibility for managing the organization. Chron.com columnist David Ingram describes this role as “Executive directors oversee the heads of each department in a nonprofit, including marketing, fundraising, program development, HR management and accounting. Executive directors can also oversee one or more lower-level executives in larger organizations.
Department leaders look to the director for strategic guidance in their areas. The executive director leads the fundraising department in setting annual income goals, for example, and works with program development managers to set standards for serving the organization's targeted needs groups. The smaller a nonprofit organization is, the more directly involved the director is likely to be in each departmental function. In the smallest nonprofits, for example, an executive director may handle all accounting duties and half of the fundraising duties, in addition to executive-level duties.”3
The Marketing Director/CMO is in charge of all marketing and advertising activities and marketing fund allocation. The marketing director may head an entire marketing department of many specialized units, or be a sole individual, depending on the size of the nonprofit. The marketing director is in charge of branding, managing funds for marketing, devising, and executing best methods and techniques for advertising. The director may also oversee other members of the team who may be in charge of creating graphics or social media promotion. Those with training and interest in business, management, or advertising would fit this position.
The Director of Operations/COO is in charge of managing the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit. The operations director often acts as an overseer and mediator who ensures plans are thoroughly carried out and all activities and staff operate efficiently. This role may look very different for various nonprofits. A director of operations at an organization working to provide healthcare for impoverished people in South Asia may manage all members of the health team so that they are organized and fulfill their duties. They may ensure an adequate supply of health supplies, facilitate communication among teams (healthcare, technology, logistics, and so on), establish firsthand connections and relationships with local healthcare organizations, and assist in the opening and closing of temporary facilities such as refugee camps.
At the other end of the spectrum, a director of operations at an afterschool education program in the United States will have very different tasks, such as ensuring that teachers and assistants are in their proper classes and have the necessary materials, organizing class flow, supervising various classes, coordinating with the school or facilities manager, and managing special activities and events. Organized individuals with good people skills who are not afraid to manage others or take the lead will do well in this role.
The Outreach Coordinator/Fundraising Coordinator is often put in charge of public relations mechanisms as well as fundraising for the nonprofit. This role serves a publicity function, in managing media relations as well as communicating with the nonprofit's other partner organizations. As nonprofits often depend on public perception in order to raise funds, this role is very important. Furthermore, the fundraising coordinator also creates and delivers innovative methods to raise money for the nonprofit. Whether this is in the form of writing grant proposals, organizing charity events, requesting support from existing corporations or celebrities, selling merchandise, or all of the above. Fundraising is crucial to the success of a nonprofit.
The Finance Director/CFO ensures that funds are being used efficiently. Efficient nonprofits spend minimal amounts for administrative purposes and allocate a majority of funds and resources toward their intended goal, whether that is providing healthcare, education, or environmental services. As Finance Director, you may also be in charge of determining how funds should be allocated to various sectors of the organization, based on historical trends and preferences. Furthermore, you may be tasked with achieving continual improvement for financial efficiency and setting budgetary goals for your organization to meet. Analytical skills and financial knowledge are key requirements for this position. Business and economic aptitude will also be an asset.
A Program Manager at a nonprofit is in charge of an organization's specific program. For example, a healthcare-oriented nonprofit may be starting a new program in Guatemala that educates the local population about health standards, hygiene, when and how often to visit a doctor, and symptoms of common diseases. Extensive experience in medicine, health education, and management may put a candidate in charge of this program as program manager. Your job will consist of recruiting team members, establishing goals and groundwork, determining the material and monetary costs, and other duties associated with implementing the program in Guatemala. This is just one example of a program manager position. A manager of a corporate environmental damage assessment program will have much different work. Program managers need strong leadership skills and expertise in a specific field. Familiarity with collecting and managing data will also be an asset for program managers. They may need to use data to track the program for reports.
Non-traditional careers are becoming more prevalent among nonprofits as the number of nonprofits continues to grow and technology advances. Below are some descriptions of the most common newly-emerging careers in nonprofits.
Policy Associates are becoming more common as policy-oriented nonprofits emerge. There are nonprofits which exist to analyze and publish materials on environmental, economic, development, and education policy, to name a few. As a policy associate, you will research specific types of policies. After conducting research, you may analyze those policies in the context of current events or the aims of your nonprofit and consolidate your findings in the form of published materials in print or on the web. A graduate with a Public Policy Concentration or a Master’s degree from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy would be well-suited for this role.
Research Assistants are common positions at nonprofits. Research subjects may include the following: the costs and benefits of using a new technology, environmental issues, or the history, politics, and culture of specific developing regions, among other topics. Research assistants help the nonprofit stay current with emerging information and knowledge. This allows the nonprofit make informed decisions as well as communicate these issues to donors.
Microfinance Specialists/Bankers' positions have grown in number since Muhammad Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, one of the first microfinance institutions. (Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.) "Microfinance" refers to the provision of financial services to poor people. Microfinance Specialists/Bankers manage microfinance accounts and credit and, in some cases, may also determine who qualifies as a microlender. Most likely, microfinance specialists will use technical accounting skills and knowledge about savings, risk management, remittances, management information systems, and governance. They will also need business knowledge, management skills, strategic thinking, and analytical expertise to help operate a microfinance institution in a developing country. Those with interests in international development and strong skills or experience in accounting may be a good fit as microfinance specialists or bankers. For more details on microfinance careers, see the handout “Careers in Microfinance.”
Being a social entrepreneur for a nonprofit is now simpler than ever, thanks to the internet. Even small organizations may receive as much publicity as larger nonprofits because of web marketing through social media. Paper advertising has lost ground to Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Kickstarter campaigns, YouTube channels, and many other web-based communities and crowdsourcing techniques. Launching your idea for a nonprofit can be as simple as creating a Facebook page and YouTube channel and hiring a few employees. This also makes the field more competitive. Because the internet has made things so simple, a wide array of innovative nonprofits are competing for the attention and support of the public. However, if your idea has the potential to affect many and appeal to the masses, you may become a nonprofit-founder yourself. [See the section titled ‘Nonprofit Entrepreneurship’ under Resources for Additional Information].
Finally, other new careers in the nonprofit world include Social Media Chairs, Technology Officers, and Web Graphics Designers. Also, keep in mind that for small-to-medium-sized nonprofits, many positions may be combined based on interests, talents, and skill-sets, so you may be engaged in many different roles.
Nonprofits are constantly hiring staff members, taking volunteers, and training interns. New nonprofits are emerging quickly and chances are you will find an organization in the field of your interest that is currently hiring. In recent years, interest has increased in the environment and sustainable development in developed nations. This wave of interest has sparked the growth of nonprofits worldwide. For the candidate looking for work in nonprofit, now is the perfect time! At the same time, while many nonprofits are hiring, nonprofit organizations can have fairly high turnover rates depending on how they are managed. (Turnover is the rate at which an employer loses employees, and measures the length of time employees stay at a company or industry.) Employees who are fired, laid off, or leaving for a better job or personal reasons are all measured in turnover. While not all turnover is bad, as turnover can help bring fresh ideas and skills through new hires, high turnover rates can often leave a company with too few experienced workers or be too costly (as new hires require more training and resources). Poor nonprofit management can lead to unnecessarily high turnover rates; smaller nonprofits tend to have higher turnover rates than larger ones.
An excellent resource for finding nonprofit job opportunities and internships, or to learn about various organizations can be found at www.idealist.org, which is also listed under Resources for Additional Information below. The sample group of employers below is pulled almost exclusively from their database.
Qualifications Necessary to Enter the Field
Generally speaking, education or degree qualifications differ according to a particular nonprofit's work. For example, if the nonprofit seeks a microfinance assistant, you can probably bet they want to hire someone with background in finance, accounting, or economics. Nonprofits usually prefer previous experience working with other nonprofits (volunteering, interning, for example) or previous experience working in their specific field/industry. Nonprofits that engage in specific and advanced technical work, such as health technology research, environmental policy and consulting, or microfinance, will often require advanced degrees and professional experience. Again, it's best to research the nonprofits with jobs that interest you.
In addition to your academic qualifications and previous experience, nonprofits care about your enthusiasm for the work they are doing. Nonprofits want candidates who share their unique vision of a better world and are passionate to achieve it. Since working with nonprofits often includes working closely with other people, they also want candidates who can collaborate well with others and have good communication and social skills.
Sample Group of Employers
Acumen Fund – http://www.acumen.org/
Village Capital - http://www.vilcap.com/
Grameen Foundation - http://www.grameenfoundation.org/
The Carter Center - cartercenter.org
United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – https://www.unicef.org/
Women’s Microfinance Initiative - http://wmionline.org/
A Glimmer of Hope - http://www.aglimmerofhope.org/home
Education & Community Focused
Education Reform Now - https://edreformnow.org/
The New Teacher Project - http://www.tntp.org/
Grand St. Settlement - http://www.grandsettlement.org/
Center for Community Change - http://www.communitychange.org/
International Center for Art & Music at Ouidah (CIAMO) – http://www.ciamo.org/
Documentary Arts Asia - http://www.doc-arts.asia/
Environment & Resource Management Focused
Consortium for Energy Efficiency - http://www.cee1.org/
Ceres - http://www.ceres.org/
Amazon Aid Foundation – http://www.amazonaid.org/
National Audubon Society - http://www.audubon.org/
Food and Water Watch - http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/
Health & Medical Focused
American Red Cross – http://www.redcross.org/
Amida Care - http://www.amidacareny.org/
The Lown Institute - http://lowninstitute.org/
Village Care - http://www.villagecare.org/
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation - cff.org
Humanitarian Aid / Disaster Relief
International Rescue Committee - http://www.rescue.org/
Rebuild Globally - https://rebuildglobally.org/
B Lab – http://www.bcorporation.net
Selected U.Va. Organizations/CIOS
For a full list of organizations at UVA, please see: https://atuva.student.virginia.edu/Organizations
Alpha Kappa Psi
charity: water at the University of Virginia
Global Medical Dental Brigades
Global Water Brigades
Habitat for Humanity
Hoos for Heifers
Net Impact at UVA
Nicaraguan Orphan Fund
ONE at UVA
Oxfam America at the University of Virginia
United Nations Women at UVA
Sample UVA Career Programs
Georgetown Government and Nonprofit Career Expo
Public Policy and Non-Profit Career Talk sponsored by ECO
Public Service and Government Community Office Hours
Resources for Additional Information
- Acumen Fund - http://acumen.org/ (A nonprofit global venture fund founded by Jacqueline Novogratz, U.Va. Economics alumna)
- Village Capital is a nonprofit global organization founded by Ross Baird, U.Va. alumnus:
- List of Nonprofits in Charlottesville:
- Better Business Bureau Charity Ratings and Reviews:
- Charity Watch rates and evaluates nonprofit charities:
- Vault Career Guide to Nonprofit Careers
- Starting & Building a Nonprofit: A Practical Guide by Peri H. Pakroo
Basic guide to starting a nonprofit.
- How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation by Anthony Mancus
In-depth information on how to
- The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit by Trey Beck and Jacob Smith.