Working for a Nonprofit: Exploring the Pros and Cons
By Jordan Jantz on 08/01/2022
You want to make a difference and better society by finding a job that serves. Whether you’d like to improve your local parks, help provide resources for the under-privileged or simply work in a meaningful position, a nonprofit organization can offer you the rewarding profession you’re seeking.
If you’re on the hunt for jobs that serve others, then it’s time to take a closer look at what this means for your career. There’s no doubt the work is fulfilling, but there’s a lot more to it that you should know before signing up. We did some digging and talked to seasoned professionals to get the scoop on working for a nonprofit.
What is a nonprofit?
To understand what working at a nonprofit is like, it’s helpful to know what makes nonprofits unique. Despite the name, nonprofits do have money flowing in. Just like any other institution, they need to stay out of the red.
However, unlike most other organizations, nonprofits don’t aim to make profits for shareholders. Instead, they use their money for altruistic purposes—like charitable, scientific, religious or educational causes. In fact, an organization that exists to benefit a private party, like owners or shareholders, is not eligible to be a nonprofit.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) actually has a special classification for nonprofits: 501(c)(3) organizations, in reference to the tax code section defining the category. The perk of this classification is being tax-exempt. In return, the organization is not allowed to lobby for or against politicians or legislation—they must stay out of politics.
One specific type of nonprofit you’ve likely heard of is a non-governmental organization (NGO). These groups typically focus on international goals, distinguishing them from many nonprofits. Some may even have political aims, though the tax exemptions for these organizations are more limited.
Pros and cons of working for a nonprofit
How do these unique characteristics of nonprofits translate to the workplace? And what can you expect when working for a nonprofit? While it’s true that there’s a huge degree of variety among nonprofits, there are some common throughlines to be found. We spoke with professionals in the nonprofit sector to identify the benefits and challenges of their work environment.
Pro: Uplifting environment and coworkers
Not everyone has the opportunity to be surrounded by colleagues who share your motivation for making a difference. But when working at a cause-oriented nonprofit, this mutual mission creates a satisfying, comfortable and exciting work environment, according to Elana Winchester, communications and marketing coordinator at Areyvut.
“It’s a work environment of dreamers and doers; of collaboration and commiseration; of sitting at a table together to solve the world’s problems, and then pounding the pavement to make it happen,” says Melissa James, marketing director for The Curtis Group. Working alongside other passionate professionals can be extremely inspiring.
Con: Budgets can be smaller
The main challenge many nonprofits face is a tight budget, often highly dependent on donations, grants or other potentially volatile sources. “We are constantly limited by budget restrictions and lack of resources,” Winchester explains. “But that doesn’t deter us! One of the amazing things about working at a nonprofit is that the office is filled with passion.”
These budget restrictions make efficiency essential. “Nonprofits are more often than not understaffed and under-resourced, which means every hour of every day is important to getting something done,” says Brian Scios, who’s worked for a variety of nonprofits. “A department that has five people in the corporate world will have one in a nonprofit.” This means you may be required to perform an assortment of tasks on any given day.
Nonprofits are also expected to explain and account for every dollar they spend, which can sway decisions. James says, “Because you are held more accountable for every dime, you learn to be more creative and really stop and think before spending your organization’s money.”
Pro: Varied roles and potential for growth
Just because you work at a nonprofit doesn’t mean you have to be focused solely on organizing donor events or writing brochures. Nonprofits need accountants, marketers, managers and much more. Whatever your interest, there’s a nonprofit that needs your skills.
If you’re wondering what sorts of roles are at nonprofits, you’re sure to find a wide variety of areas of work. For instance, all nonprofits have relationship-oriented jobs. These positions focus on fundraising and donor relations. However, nonprofits also have jobs that require technical skills (along with plenty of opportunities for introverts).
Another potential benefit? If you’re working for an organization with a small team, you’ll likely need to be a jack-of-all-trades who’ll dabble in a variety of work. This can be a great way to develop a well-rounded resume and greater career clarity for anyone new to a field.
Another potential drawback of working for a nonprofit can be the earning potential. Tight budgets often result in smaller salaries for employees. But for many nonprofit employees, it’s not all about the money. “Although your salary doesn’t always match that of a for-profit, the family environment is worth it,” says Doreen Graves, chief of staff at Bountiful Blessings.
“Working for a nonprofit means making a difference and creating a better world,” James says. “I’ve always found that a more powerful motivator to get up in the morning than just making money.”
Keep in mind that budget limitations aren’t universal across all nonprofits—some have operating budgets in line with large for-profit corporations.
What are nonprofit employers seeking?
If the info above has you intrigued about working for a nonprofit, then you’re probably curious to hear what nonprofit employers are looking for in a new hire. Read on to see which skills are in high demand.
A strong sense of purpose
“I find that those who excel at their job in the nonprofit world are those who truly care,” says Winchester. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the reason a nonprofit organization exists is because people rallied around a cause, idea or mission.
If you’re a devoted person who feels strongly about the goals of a particular organization, you’d probably be a great fit to join them. “Employers in the nonprofit sector tend to seek out passionate people,” says James. “They want to know you believe in their cause and are willing to work hard.”
Experience and skill
The minimal budget described earlier means every employee needs to carry their weight. Often, nonprofit employers prioritize experienced candidates who are skilled in the listed position—passion will only get you so far; at the end of the day, they still need someone who can successfully carry out the position, which often means somebody with a degree.
In certain roles, this can make working for a nonprofit an appealing way to move from an individual specialist contributor to a role where you have more responsibility in setting the overall strategy and approach.
The ability to balance
“You have to think like a business but act like a charity,” James says. “That is a powerful skill to have and hone.” She explains that having the ability to think critically and creatively while juggling competing priorities will help someone truly excel in any nonprofit position.
Is this your calling?
These insights should have you one step closer to deciding if working at a nonprofit is the right choice for you. But this breakdown of jobs that serve only scratches the surface of the nonprofit sector.
Need more proof that this is the path for you? Check out our article “Why Work for a Nonprofit? Creating a Career with Impact” to see if this meaningful field could be in your future.