non profit work life
What You Need To Know About Working For A Non-Profit

What You Need To Know About Working For A Non-Profit

Some times giving back requires a lot of giving.

One of the most common criticisms leveled at millennials is the claim that we’re selfish and shallow, and I’ve never been able to understand that. This is, after all, the generation which witnessed “going green” become a basic expectation, and which has made terms like “social justice” commonplace. For many of us, even in these lean economic times, it’s not enough for us to simply find a job which will support us–we want our work to have a positive impact on the world.  The nonprofit sector is, as a result, targeted by many millennials as a way of meeting both of those needs.

While that’s certainly a noble pursuit, if you’re looking to start working for a nonprofit organization there are a few things you should probably be aware of first.

It’s Not For the Soft-Hearted

Too often, the people who I see trying to get into this kind of work state it’s because “they want to help people.” That’s a noble cause, don’t get me wrong, it’s just totally the wrong mentality to have when you’re in this kind of work. If your motivations are at all emotional you’re going to quickly find yourself miserable, worn out, or worse yet, left completely cynical and jaded by your experience.

What happens is that you’re going to be pouring your time, effort, and expertise into people who the odds are already pretty heavily stacked against. The simple fact of the matter is you will be disappointed–over and over. You’re going to have to deal with whatever comes your way, whether it’s an addict relapsing or a felon reoffending or a family not getting the support they need to make rent this month. I’m not saying you have to be a sociopath, you just have to be made of pretty stern stuff.

You’re also going to quickly learn the irrefutable truth that you just can’t help anyone who doesn’t want to be helped. If your motivations are coming from the wrong place, you’re going to wind up exhausting yourself trying to make a difference in the lives of people who either aren’t willing or aren’t yet ready to put in the same effort that you are. And of course, if you have trouble telling people “no” you’re going to be both taken advantage of by people who are gaming the system (they are out there) and do a disservice to those who need to be pushed to become independent. If you’re the kind of person who needs to be needed then customer service might be a better fit.

There Is So Much Paperwork

Due to our culture’s crippling fear that a starving homeless man somewhere might be given a dollar he wasn’t entitled to, the non-profit world is heavily regulated. Every conversation you have with a client will need to be summarized. Any resource you need will have to be approved by five people before you get it and signed off on by ten after you do.

Say you’re working in a warehouse which stocks donated furniture and household items for incoming refugee families. You’re going to be needing to record all incoming donations in your files, record ‘em in the organization’s files, record them in a file for the state and/or federal government, and then record them once more to make sure the first three files all match up. If you’re planning on delivering the donations somewhere, well, there’s paperwork for whatever you’re taking out, the mileage, the time it takes you to move everything–and let’s not forget the regular paperwork you’ll be keeping on the truck and any and all equipment in the warehouse you’re working with. Of course, this isn’t counting all the normal regulations associated with warehouse work–making sure everyone operating the forklifts is licensed to do so, making sure everyone abides by OSHA regulations.

And again–that’s just for a manual labor job. If organization is a weak point for you, or if you’ve got issues with writing, understand that except in some extraordinary circumstance, there’s really no way to avoid it.

Your Job Description Will Change Four Times A Month

Nonprofits are understaffed and underfunded, even in the best of times, which means it typically falls to the workers to fill in the gaps whenever they show up. I’m a case worker dealing with the ex-felon population, but it’s not uncommon for me to substitute for the receptionist, help out with data entry, or even work as a busboy at organization fundraisers. Going into any job you’ll have to understand that what was described in the ad (or heck, the interview) is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will be expected of you, and this is certainly true of nonprofits. If you have a talent you will be called upon to use it. If there’s something you don’t know, you’ll be expected to learn it and fast.

You should also understand that while nonprofits (to some degree) have to be very much by-the-book, there’s still plenty of by-the-seat-of-your-pants chaos to be expected. This will be different depending on the nature of the work you’re doing, but you should be at least prepared for interruptions to your 9-to-5 schedule. Whether it’s representing the organization at a local resource fair, helping put together some project for the media, or pitching in with a community partner, there’s a strong chance you’ll be getting out of the office a few times a month (though ideally, you’ll be compensated for this in either gas reimbursement or time off). Again, there’s almost certainly going to be a shortage of hands–be ready to be called upon.

It Might Not Be Permanent

Nonprofits are typically funded through either donations or government grants (or some combination of the two). Regardless of which, you’re probably going to be dealing with what’s called a “program year”–the time you’re given to meet certain goals set so that you can (hopefully) get a new round of funding and keep on serving the public. The idea is to keep nonprofits accountable both to the population they’re working with and the people or agencies who fund them, but what it means for you is that you don’t necessarily know if you’ll have a job twelve months from now.

You might think you can just shrug something like that off, but you do need to consider the full implications of that kind of uncertainty. Any kind of long-term planning becomes purely speculation and budgeting, especially if you have major payments such as student loans, becomes an absolute nightmare.

If you happen to married to someone with a steadier job, or if you’ve got a good support network, then you can get around this issue–if not, you can expect to be pinching every penny to build up enough of a buffer to support yourself if your organization doesn’t get funded (or funded enough to keep you on).

And In Spite Of All That, It’ll Still One Of The Best Opportunities You’ll Ever Have

As much as it might sound like I’m bashing this kind of work, I really and truly wouldn’t change it for the world. Is it rough? Absolutely. In content alone the whole nonprofit sector probably makes up some of the most challenging and stressful work there is, but it also offers some of the best rewards.

The fact that you’ll be working upwards of four jobs at once means you’re going to be enjoying four times the work experience of your peers with mainstream occupations. With one of the greatest challenges facing millennials in today’s job market being “lack of experience”, as tough as it can get, you will emerge in a year or two miles ahead of where most other people will be in twice that time. Dealing with a scant resume will never be an issue again, I assure you.

The ever-changing nature of most nonprofit work, as well as the chronic understaffing, will also mean that you’re going to be constantly presented with chances to learn on the job. Grant writing, teaching, data-entry, customer service, presentations, community outreach, event planning, public relations, statistics–wherever you’re looking to expand or whatever you’re looking to develop, all you have to do is ask to learn it and your co-workers will be more than happy to oblige and have someone to share the burden with.

And last, but certainly not least, nonprofit work offers almost unparalleled opportunities for networking.

You’ll be constantly finding yourself trying to feed a crowd of 5,000 with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and even when things are going well you should still expect to be short on resources. As a result, nonprofits tend to be decent about communicating with each other–building off of each other’s services to create the best network for their clients. An organization offering job assistance will probably refer their clients out to an organization offering assistance with housing who will in turn send them along to a food bank. At the same time, major community figures and public officials will also be actively involved, and you’ll have an opportunity to meet with local businessmen, politicians, journalists, and key figures in the community. Sure, most any job will give you a chance to sharpen your networking skills, but where else but in nonprofits will you be given the opportunity to make connections with such major people?

Again, is it easy work? No. Well-paying work? Not even a little.

But if you can stick with it, and learn from the curveballs that’ll be thrown at you (and they will be), then there’s not a job in the world you won’t be able to handle.

Gordon Brown is a former ex-pat recently moved back to the US from the Middle East. He spends his time working as a vocational counselor and downing more energy drinks than is healthy and/or sane. You can find more of his fevered scribblings and subversive, revolutionary tracts over at CultureWarReporters.com..

  • Ken

    Interesting! This is one of the most detailed articles I have seen about working at a non-profit.

  • Ray

    I appreciate the praise of non-profit work, but I want to make sure people reading this understand that not all non-profits are underfunded and short staffed. There are several well established non-profit organizarions that offer competitive salaries and benefits. I always tell people looking into non-profit work to not feel selfish for accepting a fair salary.

    Most universities and colleges are also non-profit charities and offer more structured organizations in which to work. They normally provide a variety of opportunities to work with underserved communities while also using those experiences to instill a sense of philanthropy and volunteerism in their students.

    Excellent article, Gordan. All too often I have to explain my career choice to friends and family who wonder why I earned a B.A and an M.B.A with plans of earning a PhD “only to work for a non-profit.” I am certain I have acquired more skills in my career than most friends working in for-profit companies.

  • Devin

    Unfortunate to see this article focusing on things that *could* happen at any nonprofit… And at for-profits, too. Paperwork?! Paperwork can exist anywhere. But I can attest that for at least 15-20 nonprofits that I’ve worked with or had friends work at, most of this is not actually the case. And dealing with “people” issues are only one small segment of the nonprofit world. There are lots of other issues – such as the many different environmental issues – where you aren’t faced with “someone with the odds stacked against them” and where you can work hard, feel good about your work, and actually leave every day feeling very positive and that you are achieving results. To anyone interested in working in the nonprofit world, choose what you’re passionate about, research the top nonprofits in that field (and make sure to look at the 990s and annual reports), choose the most stable one that’s making a difference, and jump in. The water is fine. (Unless you’re working for a dirty water nonprofit. Then clean that mess up and THEN jump in.)

    • Gordon Brown

      You’re right, “people” certainly aren’t the only cause out there, but I guess the rule would apply to anything. Nonprofits typically exist where there’s a problem- and usually a big one. To use your own example, if we’re working in a nonprofit dealing with dirty water issues, we’re probably going to be up against a lot. Gotta be prepared for that, y’know?

  • edot

    Wait! So would should be the motivation to work at a non-profit?

    • Gordon Brown

      I presume that’s “So what should be the motivation to work at a non-profit?”, to which I’d respond, probably a more dispassionate sense of moral and ethical obligation. There’s nothing wrong with being invested in your work- that’s perfectly natural- you just have to be able to take repeated defeats with good grace.

  • CF

    Interesting read! Gordon, as a current nonprofit employee I agree with a lot of what’s written. (Clearly taking into account that each organization has its own cultural differences.) After college, I mostly accepted my job based on the ideal demonstrated in your quote: “The fact that you’ll be working upwards of four jobs at once means you’re going to be enjoying four times the work experience of your peers with mainstream occupations.” They provided a great opportunity and vast responsibility for someone with little prior work experience. (Livable, yet small salary given my degree) So my question is: what are everyone’s thoughts on how these skills then transition to for-profit work for someone looking to land a non-entry level job with increased salary?

  • Joe B.

    Very good article. After being laid off from a fortune 500 company I landed a job at a well-known non-profit. Well, the well-known is the the main company and we are just a very understaffed and underfunded chapter. I quickly advanced through the ranks and working the job of 4 people is completely correct. I am sufficient in every single part of this company, from retail to payroll, and my job title changes about 4 times a day. Still, I love it. My normal job field is IT so I also manage with my regular job duties. This one job has given me more job experience than any of my other jobs in my 15 years of working.

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  • Steve Frisch

    As a non-profit executive director my observation is that there is a lot of truth in this article but also a fair amount of assumption. Motivation entering the non-profit field should be to ‘do good’ but that does not always mean wearing a hair shirt.

    Most medium sized and large businesses (and most start-ups) today have a culture of collaborative work teams, meaning an employee is expected to wear many hats. Most workers today are going to change employers at least 8 times in their lives whether they are in the private sector or the social sector. I fail to see how either of these dynamics puts non-profits at a competitive disadvantage.

    Many non-profits are not dependent upon charity or government grants and have switched to a much more diversified revenue stream, such as fee for service work, retail or service provision in the private sector, or more entrepreneurial business models. If you are a budding social entrepreneur there is a home for you in the non-profit world today.

    Many non-profits are giving more control over program budgets to lead staff and measuring progress by outcomes. Non-profits that do depend upon government funding are changing management strategy to meet more emphasis on performance measurement.

    Finally, the nature of individual and foundation giving is changing rapidly as the generation that believed direct donations was the best way to achieve outcomes gives way to the generation who earned their corpus in new industries that value innovation and blended revenue streams (public, private, earned and equity) more.

    A savvy job seeker can suss out the NGO’s that offer real opportunity to grow professionally and personally.

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  • BankTalk

    There is a lot of truth to that. I would add that non-profit work can be very competitive. You will be seeking the same grants, media, and merit as the other talented people in your field. That makes it fun.