A wooden sign reads "mission-driven land" sits in green grass. A thought bubble says "What's it like over there?"

8 things I tell people looking to transition to the nonprofit sector

At least once a week, I find myself reading a version of the same email. The gist: Hi! I’m looking for a change and thought the nonprofit sector would be a great way to give back and make a difference. [Relative stranger] suggested I reach out to learn more. Can we connect?

I used to always patiently reply to these and offer a 30 min call (especially when people asked thoughtfully); it’s good juju. During those calls, similar themes and questions surface. Work culture, pay, transferable (and not) skills, and getting networked are top topics.

This post is selfish—I’ll send it to people asking some version of this question so that I can start saying no to calls with less guilt. But, it’s also an invitation for others to comment with what they would want people to know, too.

In no particular order, here are 8 things I tell people looking to transition to the nonprofit sector:

  1. Don’t come to this sector just because you want to do good. You can do good within any sector. You can dip your toe in the nonprofit sector through board service or other volunteerism. But don’t enter the nonprofit sector to spark your personal feel-good moment. Nonprofits benefit from staff who deeply believe in their missions. They also benefit from staff who are prepared to invest themselves in the work for the long haul, and who are willing to bring humility and learning above quick solutions. It’s a great sector, but make sure you’re entering it in true service of, and in community with, others. And if you are, know that you’ll be able to contribute to lots of good work.
  2. You will meet incredible people. This could be true of any industry, but I think it’s particularly true for nonprofits. People are driven and passionate, and often push each other to be better humans. They have diverse interests and often non-linear career paths, which makes for fascinating conversations. My ‘philanthrofriends’ are people I don’t need to explain things to; they just get it. I’m inspired on a regular basis by the people I get to work with, and you will be too.
  3. The work is always urgent. (And that’s often your own fault.) This is a fairly common thread of nonprofit culture, and also notably white supremacy culture. People wear multiple hats and work extra hours with intensity, often to meet deadlines that seem to never stop coming. But, as I hear from many colleagues, a lot of those deadlines don’t have to be there; we create them as individuals and teams because we see our missions as urgent and important, and we structure our work accordingly. Even outside of work hours, we often partake in events, conversations, and fundraisers linked to other nonprofits in our ecosystems. It can lead to burnout; setting boundaries is really important. I always recommend The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman and FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund’s guides to self-care as important references.
  4. You can get creative with your compensation package, and it’s (generally) going to have a cap. Senior leaders for the biggest nonprofit organizations can make very, very good money. At smaller and mid-sized organizations, they still do well. Working in the nonprofit sector can be a viable way to make a living. However, you should also be realistic. The budget of the organization (publicly available information) will dictate salaries. Especially in junior or mid-level roles at smaller organizations, these salaries will generally be less than what might be earned in analogous roles in the private sector. Before exploring a role, you should find out the salary range to see if it works with your living expenses. In negotiations, you should bring data to benchmark against. You should also be ready to negotiate for other things that would be valuable to you, such as a cell phone plan, additional paid time off, remote work days, and bonus incentives. Especially when an organization knows that they’re not able to pay the full salary that you are worth, they are more likely to explore alternative compensation.
  5. Get networked, but also do the work. Part of getting in the door with a job is often knowing someone who can endorse you. Part of doing your job well is often knowing people who can help you navigate the work by sharing experience, knowledge, resources, and other connections. So, you’ll need to make an effort to meet people and show curiosity about their story. But, you also need to put in the work yourself. Do not rely on other people to teach you what you need to learn, or to clarify vague pathways. Bring ideas along with questions, and show efforts to make progress on your own. If you ask someone to pass along your resume, offer something of equal value to them. Yes, people tend to be kind in this sector, but that kindness will quickly wear thin if you don’t put in what you ask others to do for you.
  6. You’ll need to navigate and reflect on your role in (fraught) power dynamics. I’d think about this from three angles: the structures, the culture, and acting within and outside of norms. (A) Nonprofit budgets come through a combination earned revenue, grants, and other avenues. The money from philanthropy in particular was made on stolen Native American land that was built on the backs of enslaved Black people and now is doled out in (mostly) five percent increments by (a majority) of white philanthropy leaders. The power dynamics brought by colonialism and capitalism and reinforced by the nonprofit sector’s structure are real. Most simply, this can result in an environmental nonprofit questioning “should we take money from so-and-so foundation whose investments are all in big oil?” More complexly, it’s why BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving organizations receive less funding. Another structural angle: nonprofits form when community needs aren’t being met through other sectors. There’s often tension between the scope of mission, what the organization can feasibly deliver on, and why government isn’t meeting that need in the first place. (B) There’s the funder-nonprofit power dynamic and then internal power dynamics to understand that mirror the above context. Grant application processes, meetings, measurement and reporting requirements, site visits, and communications are examples of places where power imbalance is particularly visible, grounded in the differential of who has money and who wants money. Within organizations, there’s tension between oft-expressed collaborative culture and deep hierarchies. “Shared leadership” and “opportunities to take ownership” are phrases that can be authentic but more often than not masquerade for creating more work at personal cost. And many BIPOC and LGBTQ+ staff still are at a disadvantage under many leaders. The sector of doing good still does not host equitable opportunities for all. (C) Simply doing your job will more likely than not make you complicit in various power dynamic structures. You will experience tensions related to “professionalism”, values, roles, and your broader context. As top-level advice, I believe it’s crucial to build in space every week to reflect on your experiences, seek advice where it is helpful, and plan your personal navigation strategy. It’s also important to pay attention to structures and decisions aimed to tackle power imbalances, like foundations giving more than 5%, increasing their cap on indirect expenses, and eliminating grant reports. (Vu Le’s #AwesomeFundingPractices hashtag is a good starting place.) This will likely turn into a follow-up blog post.
  7. Bring your curiosity, patience, hacks, empathy, and writing skills, but check your accredited expertise at the door. There are so many terrific skills that you have that will translate fully in a nonprofit environment. What I find most often is non-transferable from other sectors is the skill that you lack humility around. It’s the thing that you’re a pro in, went to school for, or published articles about that gives you your swagger. When you enter a nonprofit setting at any level, you need to ask questions, listen, and learn. You can’t have all of the solutions right away; you will alienate people and buy-in matters. And often, you’ll miss a nuance or unique point of context that can change everything. Spend time outside of “solve” mode to absorb everything you can. You do not need to agree with everything you read and hear, but you do need to recognize that others will have insights that you haven’t been around to have. This is especially true when working in less familiar contexts or with identities that do not mirror your own.
  8. Nonprofits aren’t a monolith. Like with any job hunt, ask yourself, and them, key questions about the things that matter to you. The vast majority of nonprofits are teeny tiny organizations, but there are also big organizations with (at times, shockingly) costly line items on their 990s, and everything in between. Budget matters, but so do mission, leadership, values, approach, hiring, governance, partnerships, culture, and context. Don’t make any assumptions about what will be; even this generalist could offer counterpoints to everything in this post. The sector cannot be generalized, and you’ll need to be your own detective as you respectfully investigate each specific organization.

3 thoughts on “8 things I tell people looking to transition to the nonprofit sector”

  1. This is a really great article, Jen. I think point #6 is especially important for people who are already in the sector to continually reflect on.

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