Searching for a Job With a Non-Profit

Notre Dame is proud to state that over 10% of each graduating class chooses to spend the year after graduation working in a volunteer capacity through a service program.  For many of the 200+ graduates who choose this course, the experience will be formative and direct them to a career working in the non-profit sector.  Many non-profits have a lack of future leaders on their staffs, so this career choice can be very rewarding as many graduates find themselves in leadership roles within a few years of joining a non-profit organization.

As many of the volunteers from the Class of 2010 will be completing their year of service in the coming month/s, I thought it would be good to offer some tips to those who choose to pursue a position in the non-profit sector.

This is not a “Year Off”

As I work with students and alumni who are considering entering into a year of service, I have heard the phrase, “I want to take a year off before I …” or “I want a less stress…” Working at a non-profit is not a “year off” or a stroll through a garden, any hiring manager at a non-profit who gets this attitude from a candidate will quickly move onto other applicants.  If anything, working at a non-profit is an exercise in embracing the last line in most position descriptions, “…and other duties as assigned.”

Almost all non-profit organizations are in a constant budget battle.  Because of this need to run a tight ship, and due to the high turnover in the industry, non-profit organizations are often understaffed.  This means staff need to wear many hats – and with so few hands to pitch in, one quickly realizes this is not a “year off”.  Additionally, the lack of funds and the nature of the work many non-profits do, can create stressful environments.  Never knowing if your position will be funded next budget year will weigh on a person.  Additionally, if your position is one of direct service, working with those who are in greatest need will take an emotional toll that is considerable.

Mission Alignment

“I want to work at a non-profit.”  I hear this phrase from many alums, what I never hear is “I want to work at a for-profit.”  Instead I hear an individual who states that he/she wants environmental engineering, public relations, brand management, investment management, etc. – specific industries or job functions within for-profit organizations.  This type of focus needs to be carried over to those who seek positions in the non-profit sector

While non-profit organizations often lack potential future leaders within their staffs, this does not mean these organizations should feel lucky that someone of your talent level is considering them.  There has to be a “mission” match.  When alumni tell me they want to work at a non-profit, I counter by forcing them to dig deeper – what cause/mission/theme are you passionate about and are willing to fight for?  Homelessness? Education? Immigration? Healthcare? Children’s issues?  Be specific with your focus as your passion needs to be aligned with the mission of the non-profit.

Timing is Everything

Most non-profits are in a constant budget struggle – applying for grants, soliciting funding from companies and individual donors, and rubbing pennies together in hopes of producing a nickel!  Because of the need to be very tight with money, it is very difficult for a non-profit to forecast its hiring needs with any certainty.  Often, organizations have plans to implement a new service and hire staff that is in a holding pattern until a grant comes through or donor steps forward.  And once the money does come, the organization needs to move quickly as most foundations will want to see action and results almost immediately.

With this in mind, one needs to be in contact with hiring managers at non-profits on a consistent basis because when funding for the employment opportunities comes through, the corresponding employment opportunities are often filled fairly quickly.

Be the Internal Candidate

With the need to hire quickly, non-profits will often look within its ranks for any possible candidates before hiring outside applicants.  Internal candidates have already proved their ability and commitment to the mission of the non-profit – so it is a good idea to be the ‘internal’ candidate.  How?

Volunteer at your target non-profit/s 5-10 hours a week.  This face time with staff is invaluable in being considered for openings at the non-profit (or similar non-profit organizations).  After you have volunteered at an organization for a while, meet with decision makers and let them know your interest in being considered for full-time positions when they come available.  If you have been a rock star volunteer and the higher-ups know you are interested in employment, offers are soon to follow.

Nonprofit organizations, as with every industry, have their own unique quirks when hiring employees.  Talk to those who have secured full-time jobs to find out what paths current employees had to travel before they took their jobs.  I hope some readers may be willing to share their insights into their experiences in finding a job at a non-profit organization.

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About Kevin Monahan

I have 10+ years experience in coaching clients in their career management and career change efforts. Personal career consulting services combined with employer outreach to help find opportunities for both constituents.
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