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Trying the Non-Profit Route

By David Pekema
Quick Tips
  1. Don’t obsess over pay – You’re joining a nonprofit to save the world, not take it over. A few years at the right NPO will provide you with an experience for more valuable than any amount of money.
  2. See the world – Many nonprofits give you the opportunity to travel abroad, a worthy tradeoff for reduced pay. But hey, I guess being paid to explore the world while being surrounded by beautiful exotic women isn’t for everyone. Here’s an example of an English teaching program
  3. .

  4. Jumpstart your career – Experience working for an NPO is invaluable and looks more impressive on a resume than a similar for-profit position. The skills you acquire as a nonprofit employee are directly transferable to other post-NPO jobs, and they’re very attractive to interviewers and recruiters.
  5. Show you care – Positions at NPOs are usually more competitive than their for-profit counterparts, so make it clear that you’re in it for the cause and not just to pad your resume. A great way to do this is to volunteer for your target organization before you apply for a job there.
  6. Life after nonprofit – When applying to a nonprofit, it makes sense to seek out a position in an industry similar to what you want to do once you start a career. Along those same lines, while at your NPO, try to develop skills that will help you once your humanitarian days are nothing but a rosy-hued memory.

What do you get when you cross communism, granola, and Al Gore? Those of you that guessed “Ford’s new marketing campaign” are close, but the answer I was looking for is “the nonprofit sector.”

As the name suggests, nonprofit organizations are groups whose primary cause is not to make spectacular profits and please shareholders. Nonprofits often operate for a noble cause—usually connected to the arts and sciences, education, or the environment—but can also include political and religious organizations. Although the entire concept would have caused Joseph McCarthy to have a conniption fit, these organizations can provide you with an excellent steppingstone between college and a corporate career. Working for a nonprofit does not force you to give up a regular paycheck and benefits, go without bathing, or hump baby sea lions. Working for a nonprofit is surprisingly like working for a company of the for-profit variety, and in many cases offers something far more rewarding.

Pay and Benefits

There are many myths associated with nonprofits, and most of them have to do with pay and monetary benefits. Passing up that job on Wall Street does not mean you’ll have to sleep out of your VW van, surviving on canned tuna and peanut-butter sandwiches, with your only “splurge” being the occasional Nalgene bottle purchase.

Compensation at most nonprofits lags behind their corporate counterparts, but, in order to attract the most talented workers, it is becoming much more competitive. Not only are base salaries increasing, but comprehensive benefits packages—including health insurance and retirement savings plans—are becoming the norm. As an example, entry-level accountants at for-profit firms earn roughly $45,000 on average, while a similar position at a nonprofit will pay between $37,000 and $40,000, about ten-percent less. There’s even plenty of room for advancement, with senior level workers pulling down very respectable salaries.

Supporting an Important Cause

The reason people seek out nonprofits isn’t to retire at 30, it’s to support a cause they feel strongly about—and what better time to do so then right out of college when you have fewer ties and more flexibility. Organizations like Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the World Wildlife Fund are doing more than tacking a “.org” to the end of their websites, they are making a real difference.

My last girlfriend—who ironically enough didn’t shave her armpits—worked for UNICEF, educating teens about health and nutrition. She was constantly in a good mood, because she knew she was working with like-minded individuals, and making a real difference with her life.

Even if you’ve already decided on a job at a for-profit company, you can still make a huge impact in your free time. Spending a week clearing trails at a national forest or helping build a house would be an incredible experience and look great on a resume. Find more vacation volunteering options here.

Travel Opportunities

Many NPOs (most notably the Peace Corps) give you the opportunity to travel to places you otherwise may never have seen. It’s far easier to stomach that reduced salary when you get an all expense paid trip to Asia out of the deal. All I can say is that if someone ever creates a nonprofit to save the world’s nude beaches, sign me up.


Your time at a nonprofit will stick out more than anything else on your resume. Jobs in the nonprofit sector require the multitasking, managerial, and problem-solving skills that jump out at recruiters and interviewers. Those two years offering your services at a discounted rate could end up paying major dividends down the line.

There’s much more to nonprofits than saving the environment. Many afford you the opportunity to strategize and engage in challenging business ventures. An organization like Business Development Solutions, located in Rochester, New York, assists women and minorities in creating new businesses, and offers support once they are running. The Global Education Partnership offers these same services to low-income residents in rural areas of Kenya, Tanzania, Guatemala, and Indonesia. Drawing up business models, applying for financing, budgeting, and analyzing are all skills you’ll use in a nonprofit that carry over seamlessly to the corporate world.

Getting the Job

The process for getting a job at most NPOs is pretty much the same as in the corporate sector—resumes, interviews, and begging on all fours. Initially, finding the perfect company to work for can be daunting, as there are nonprofits in nearly every field. Two great ways to get started are job fairs (many colleges sponsor nonprofit-only fairs), and job posting websites. Idealist.org has links to over 60,000 NPOs, and thousands of job postings. The search feature allows you to specify job type, category, location, and area of focus. “Area of Focus” includes fields as far ranging as “mental health,” “gardening,” and “Bonsai Reforestation.” I may have made that last one up, but it’s still a great resource. Charity Navigator is another excellent tool for finding an organization you can support.

Because nonprofits cannot afford to make mistakes when hiring, they can be much more selective when filling open positions. For this reason, anything you can do to make your resume stand out is a huge benefit. List any past volunteer work, even that one weekend painting a Habitat for Humanity house. An excellent way to get your foot in the door is by volunteering for your targeted organization. They will be far more likely to consider you for a paid full-time position when one becomes available. Even if it’s just one afternoon a week, you are showing you care about the organization’s cause, a demonstration that is the best route to being hired. Non-profits are looking to hire candidates with a true passion for their cause, not individuals trying to pad their resume.

Finally, remember that if you can't find a non-profit that appeals to your cause, go out and start one.Starting a nonprofit is extremely difficult, but with a lot of hard work, very little sleep, and copious amounts of Red Bull, you can create an organization backing a cause you can believe in. We can’t offer the seed capital, but here are some valuable tips.

Bottom Line

The first couple of years out of college can be a very confusing time. Whether you’re looking for something different, aren’t sure what you want to do with your life, or are just looking to score some major karma points, the nonprofit sector is an excellent option.

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