Why Work for a Nonprofit? Creating a Career with Impact
When you try to picture yourself working in your dream career, your mind comes up blank. You know you want your daily work to have meaning and hopefully make a positive impact on others. But working in jobs like nursing or social work really aren’t a fit for you—you’d much rather find your fit in something closer to an office setting. So does that mean you’re stuck as a corporate ladder-climber?
Not necessarily! There’s another option you may not have considered: working for a nonprofit organization.
So why work for a nonprofit? Not only do these workplaces often give back to individuals and communities in need, they rely on employees with savvy business skills to help them make the biggest impact. We spoke with experts to learn more about working in fulfilling nonprofit careers. Read on to see if you can envision yourself working as part of a nonprofit organization.
First, what is a nonprofit?
You’re probably familiar with the term, but you might not know the specifics of what a nonprofit organization actually is. Just like the name suggests, nonprofits don’t exist to earn a profit. Instead, they raise money to fulfill a purpose related to charity, education, science, literacy and others, as defined by the IRS. If a nonprofit adheres to all the necessary IRS tax laws, they can be recognized as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.
Just because these organizations aren’t interested in turning a profit doesn’t mean they all lack resources and must skimp on employee pay to get by. Nonprofits can be incredibly successful organizations with in-demand products and services. In addition to those potential revenue sources, nonprofits often raise funds through grants and donors, social media campaigns, events and other fundraisers.
After covering operating costs (including employee wages), nonprofits ensure their remaining revenue goes toward whatever their cause is, be it fighting childhood cancer, caring for the homeless, providing healthcare services or preserving wildlife.
Why work for a nonprofit?
There are several appealing advantages that employees at nonprofit organizations appreciate. Learn more about five of the benefits.
1. Your work can make a difference
One of the biggest potential draws to working for nonprofit organizations is the fact that you can use your skills to earn a living while still feeling like you’ve contributed to the greater good. Working for a nonprofit gives you the opportunity to make a positive impact by spreading awareness of your organization’s cause and helping the organization run as efficiently as possible.
“Nonprofits offer the opportunity to change the world or to help your neighbors in your local community, all while continuing to build your professional skills,” says Rick Cohen, spokesperson for the National Council of Nonprofits. Whether you’re a fiscal genius or a marketing wizard, your skills can make a difference in the world when you put them to work at a nonprofit.
2. Your work will likely have more variety in responsibilities
“One of the main benefits I see is the chance to jump in and wear many hats at once,” says Jill Santopietro, nonprofit and small business consultant at 21Oak HR Consulting. In the traditional business world, employees are given a narrow set of tasks related to one area of business. Nonprofits, on the other hand, typically rely on a smaller team of people to handle the workload, resulting in more variety for employees.
“In a nonprofit, you may be handling operations budgets, events budgets, business plans for new services or offerings and speaking to community organizations all on the same day,” Santopietro says.
3. Varied responsibilities can help with career advancement
“Joining a nonprofit out of college will often mean more responsibility earlier in your career,” says Tasia Duske, CEO of Museum Hack. By working for organizations that tend to have lean budgets and staff, you could potentially dive in to taking on important tasks early in your career—and that experience can be a huge plus.
Obviously experience and exposure to certain job duties are a boost to your resume as you advance in your career, but don’t overlook the value of learning more about what you’re not suited for. Maybe you’re excellent at keeping a budget in line but not so great at event coordination. Learning this may have been a little painful, but potentially having a chance to try your hand at or assist with multiple types of work can help you put your plans for the future in focus.
4. You could be eligible for student loan forgiveness programs
Many of the business positions that nonprofit organizations need filled require a bachelor’s degree. If you’re afraid you can’t afford a degree program, remember that nonprofit careers can come with benefits—like student loan forgiveness—not accessible to those who choose the corporate path.
Employees who have made at least ten years’ worth of payments on their student loans and who work full-time for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit may be eligible to apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). If you meet all the necessary requirements, this program will forgive the remaining balance of your student loans.
5. Connected work environment
Private sector business careers often get a bad reputation for being a hamster wheel of tasks that feel cold, boring or detached from the world. Work in the nonprofit sector, however, gives employees a sense of connection that comes from working together on a shared mission to do good.
“Another benefit of working at a nonprofit as a business major is working with other smart people with similar values as yours,” Duske says. “A nonprofit whichoperates with a strong mission and guiding principles provides value to its employees.”
Why nonprofits need business majors
You might be surprised to learn that nonprofits are in need of business-savvy employees since these organizations’ goals don’t revolve around money. “Nonprofits are businesses that don't set out to make a profit for shareholders, but that doesn't mean there's not a lot of money at stake!” Santopietro says.
“Nonprofits are just as much under pressure to conduct their business in a professional, organized and fiscally responsible manner as are for-profit businesses, and having strong business professionals on hand can be critical to the nonprofit's success,” Santopietro says.
In addition to managing money, business professionals are vital to helping the nonprofit sector achieve their goals and operate strategically. “Bringing the business acumen to nonprofits can help that nonprofit operate more efficiently, which would enable that nonprofit to better advance their mission and serve the community,” Cohen says.
The nonprofit need for employees with a business degree isn’t much different from the needs of a for-profit corporation, according to Cohen. “Nonprofits need finance staff, operations staff, executive staff. Someone with a business major could be the CFO, COO or CEO of a nonprofit, just as they could with a for-profit business.”
These are just some of the positions that business-degree holders are needed to fill for nonprofits:
- Executive director
- Fundraising manager
- Associate director
- Chief operating officer (COO)
- Chief executive officer (CEO)
- Financial manager
- Human resource manager
- Grant director
- Community outreach specialist
A career that makes a difference
Now you can see that your business skills could have a home working for a nonprofit instead of a large corporation. But first, you need to increase your business acumen and gain the specialized skills nonprofits are looking for.
Not every business degree is right for your situation. Learn more about your options with our article, “The Beginner’s Guide to Different Types of Business Degrees.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.