4 Tips for Breaking into the Nonprofit Sector

By Michelle Shapiro

Lucky for Planet Earth (but maybe not so much for job seekers!), lots of people want to make the world a better place, so nonprofit jobs are increasingly competitive. Whether you’ve just graduated or you’ve been working in the private sector for years and want a change, finding a nonprofit job can be a challenge.

Here are a few tips to jumpstart the process:

1. Decide What You Want

You’ll never find your dream job if you aren’t sure what that is. Is your intention simply to work for a nonprofit? Most likely it’s a bit more specific than that. You may prefer a small nonprofit or a big one, local or international, policy-focused or program-focused, with a mission to end hunger or spread literacy.

Before you begin your search, decide which attributes are most important to you. For example, you may be passionate about HIV/AIDS, and as long as you work on that topic the organization size or geographic reach is less important. On the other hand, you may be set on working for a local community nonprofit in DC, but you’re more flexible on the programmatic focus of the organization.  Talk to friends who work in the nonprofit sector to gain insight into the pluses and minuses of different types of organizations.

Determine your priorities first to guide your job search and keep you focused on your goals.

2. Show Your Face

List the top five organizations you want to work for and find ways to get involved with them, such as volunteering at an event, joining their young professionals network, or offering pro bono services.  Idealist.org is a great place to discover organizations based on your priority areas.

If you aren’t sure where to start, request informational interviews with key staff and use those as opportunities to discuss how you can benefit the organizations if they are not currently hiring. Proving your dedication to these organizations now will put you at the top of the list when a job opens. Also, it gives you the opportunity to test the waters to see if the organizations really are the right fit.

3. Know Your Strengths

Not having any full-time nonprofit work experience seems like a setback, but nonprofits look for a wide range of talents and backgrounds, so you just need to know how to position yourself. Take some time to evaluate your skill-set, and make note of the areas in which you can add the most value to an organization.

If much of your previous experience was in sales, for example, you have probably mastered the interpersonal skills and polite persistence of a successful nonprofit fundraiser. Instead of hiding your lack of nonprofit experience when applying for a fundraising job, you can highlight your business-minded work ethic and your firsthand knowledge of the very corporations you will be reaching out to for money.

4. Compensate for Gaps

As you browse job descriptions, keep track of common requirements you don’t fulfill. Employers don’t expect every candidate to fulfill every requirement, but you should still work to minimize as many gaps as you can. If most job descriptions request fluency in Spanish, consider enrolling in a Spanish class. If you keep seeing a specific software that you’ve never used popping up in job descriptions, try downloading a free trial to familiarize yourself with it, find a nonprofit that will give you a basic training in exchange for volunteer work, or look for tutorials online (for instance, check out Blackbaud’s YouTube page for a ton of free tutorials on Raiser’s Edge).

For many skills you may need to upgrade like event planning or social media marketing, getting more involved with YNPNdc can help! As a committee member you’ll gain leadership and project management opportunities you may not have had in your previous work experience. Moreover, YNPNdc’s professional development events offer the opportunity to increase skills such as fundraising and program evaluation. For a more comprehensive training, check out our Emerging Leaders Series, a four-part training that combines important skills every nonprofit leader needs such as project management, marketing, and budgeting.

Good luck to everyone on the job hunt! What has been your biggest challenge to transitioning into the nonprofit sector? Let us know in the comments.


Michelle Shapiro is Communications Associate for CORE Group, an NGO that improves and expands community health practices for underserved populations. She also helped launch a nonprofit called Unlock Foundation that works to improve primary education in rural African schools. Michelle is slowly making her way down the East Coast after graduating from Boston University, working in NYC, and following her passion for international development to DC.

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