I have a lot of friends and acquaintances considering a job in the nonprofit sector. I’ve been employed within small (under $2 million budgets), community nonprofit organizations for three years now, beginning straight out of college, but have also talked to many people with many different experiences and histories in the sector and outside of it about their experiences. The following is my boilerplate advice to people that asks me about working, or finding work, within nonprofits.

Assuming that you are an intelligent, well-educated (or seeking to be), self-motivated and upwardly mobile individual, your interest probably spans a combination of two distinct (or should be in your mind) issues:

  • You want a job, with a modicum of stability, freedom, and disposable income.
  • You want to change the world, or a least do it less harm than otherwise.

My advice for you:

Find a corporate job that you like, or don’t feel too guilty about, and that provides you with plenty of disposable income and time. Find a small, local nonprofit (or church, or social group) that meets your standards for doing good, and invest your disposable income and time with them. Join their governing board, connect them with your professional and personal networks and help them grow in a direction you believe in. You will enact more change from a higher level than you could, in most situations, by being a direct employee of that organization.

Non-categorical rationale:

Nonprofits have jobs, but they don’t have a lot of them and it’s hard to break into one that distinguishes you from your peers: you can find a job answering phones, but it’s difficult to get one with responsibility and authority. Nonprofits are bad (or relatively worse than their commercial peers) at: recognizing ability, enabling it, and rewarding it.

Nonprofits are insulating. Because you are constantly understaffed, under-budgeted and under-resourced (time, training, equipment) it is difficult to find the time to truly reflect. It is difficult to critically look at what you are doing and what you have done; to connect with other practitioners and look at what you are doing as a group; to reach outside the sector to learn from others and see how you fit into that broadest context.

A job is a job, wherever you’re working. This may sound selfish (and it probably is) but you should be concerned that, whatever your job is, you:

  1. are challenged
  2. are encouraged to try and learn new things
  3. are acknowledged (even celebrated on occassion)
  4. can advance to greater responsibility and authority
  5. are provided a separate personal life
  6. are afforded physical and mental health (no 80 hour weeks or screaming matches)
  7. have fun or enjoy your work a majority of the time (no puritan work ethic for me)

By looking after yourself on an individual level, you will ultimately be in a better position to have compassion for those around you and be better positioned to act upon that compassion.