10 Things to Consider BEFORE Working for a Non-Profit
By Noelle Hartt on 02/08/2024
“I’m working for a nonprofit now,” you imagine yourself announcing to your friends and family. You’ve been contemplating a career move for a while. You don’t want just any job, though. You want a role that gives you purpose. A role with a mission. And working in the nonprofit sector can give you exactly that.
Plus, you’ve seen what the corporate world has to offer, and you’re not quite sold. The thought of “climbing the ladder” doesn’t excite you. Especially not when you could be actively serving your community instead.
But you also know non-profit work can be challenging. The stakes will feel higher, the resources might be fewer, and you already know how important it is to protect your mental health and balance.
So, you’ve resolved to learn everything you can—good and bad—about nonprofit work. Here’s the inside scoop.
10 things you need to know about working for a nonprofit
1. You’ll witness, firsthand, the positive impact your work has on others
You’re probably no stranger to giving back. Maybe you donate your gently-used clothes. Or you send a gift to your favorite charity during the holidays. Maybe the people in your circles rely on you during hard times. These acts of kindness go a long way.
But nothing quite compares to a full-time role dedicated to something you believe in. Nonprofit employees have the unique opportunity to see, in real time, how their efforts make a lasting difference.
“The biggest reward, working for a nonprofit, is that you are helping people who are facing difficult times,” shares Patti Trustan, director of development at A Need We Feed. Trustan’s organization provides meals to people who lack transportation, and the instant result of a needed meal is powerful.
“I know in life, we should not expect immediate gratification; however, when you bring someone a meal, they have now eaten.” That’s a pretty immediate result.
In corporate, industrial or academic environments, your contribution to a larger goal can easily get lost. You might never get to see the end product or the impact that has on someone. But when you work for a nonprofit organization, you learn how your own strengths can help uplift and empower others.
Witnessing the transformation, and knowing you played a role, is an experience unlike anything else.
Damian Birkel, founder and executive director of Professionals in Transition®, can attest to that. His organization helps unemployed and underemployed individuals find work.
“Biggest rewards? The look in the eye of a person when they come to a meeting and proclaim to the support group, ‘I got the job!’” Birkel says.
2. Working with limited resources is the name of the game
“Going from a corporate for-profit to a start-up nonprofit was a real eye-opener,” Birkel says. Many nonprofit organizations subsist on donations alone. Government grants may also become available, from time to time, if the organization can write up a proposal or application.
Yet, it’s safe to say that professionals in the nonprofit sector mostly work with limited funds.
“Many things that you take for granted in the corporate world are things that you have to ‘scratch for’ in the nonprofit world,” Birkel says. “I always find myself scrambling [for] resources, volunteer recruitment and management, fundraising and technology.”
3. You might lose interest in any other sector
Working at a nonprofit gives you perspective no other career path can offer. Many nonprofits focus their efforts on serving people and communities whose basic needs for survival could be on the line.
Seeing this type of hardship up close can shift the entire trajectory of your career, if not your entire life. Such was the case for Heather Beaven, CEO of The Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida’s Graduates, whose nonprofit career now spans an impressive 25 years.
“I kind of fell into [working in the nonprofit sector] after the Navy, when I took a job helping homeless veterans stabilize their lives,” She says.
“After that, most for-profit jobs didn't make sense to me.”
Whether you work for an organization dedicated to individuals, families, animals or the environment, nonprofit work puts you face-to-face with issues that matter the most: the safety and well-being of vulnerable populations.
4. A nonprofit career can feel all-consuming
One of the challenges of a nonprofit career is avoiding—and overcoming—burnout.
“The ‘third sector’ is full of people who pour both their time and heart into their work,” Beavan says, adding that some nonprofit workers even put their own money into their organizations.
Most nonprofit organizations are fast-paced, mission-driven businesses. They race against the clock—getting help to people who need it now. Trying to stabilize, heal or help things that need it now. And if your organization lacks resources, you might take on multiple roles simultaneously to get things done.
“The biggest challenge of working for a non-profit is your work-life balance,” Trustan says, adding that it’s common to see hours beyond a typical 9-5 weekly schedule.
Consequently, nonprofit professionals may feel a stronger sense of ownership over their projects, compared to individuals employed outside the nonprofit world.
“There will be times when you are required to work additional hours, such as at a fundraising event, or when there are evening meetings you need to attend,” Trustan says. “You may also need to deal with your client's needs in the evening or on the weekend.”
Nonprofit employees are still protected by the employment laws that apply elsewhere, so don’t worry that this is an “anything goes” situation. But still, you might find yourself putting more into this kind of job than other roles you’ve had.
5. Fundraising is ALWAYS part of the job
Nonprofit professionals all share a key responsibility—fundraising. Even board members and volunteers should expect to participate. After all, without donors, nonprofit organizations wouldn’t be able to operate.
“Year-round fundraising has become essential,” insists Birkel.
Unlike their for-profit counterparts, most nonprofits don’t sell merchandise or services. Instead, nonprofits largely depend on donations to fund their activities. So, regardless of what your official job title is, you can expect your role to include participating in fundraising events.
“EVERYONE on your team needs to have fundraising in their job description,” Beavan says. “Everyone.”
6. You will meet incredible and talented people
Nonprofit staff members represent some of the most hard-working, dedicated professionals you may ever meet. They wear many hats as they develop creative solutions to support their missions, all while working with limited resources.
But there’s a misconception that working at a nonprofit is less impressive than working in other sectors. Perhaps this is because nonprofits so commonly enlist the assistance of volunteers? People might get the impression that anyone can do this work. But it’s just not true.
Nonprofit leaders routinely face unbelievable odds, including “the political climate, fear, reprisal, pet projects, territoriality [and] inability to ‘buy’ access…” Beaven explains.
You might assume that nonprofit professionals have a heart of gold, and that’s probably true! But you should also assume that they are brilliant, resourceful and talented professionals—because you can’t make a nonprofit organization work without being pretty darn incredible.
7. Nonprofit organizations don’t always get the respect they deserve
People vastly underestimate how much work goes into running a nonprofit. This creates an uphill battle for nonprofit professionals.
Too many people mistakenly believe “that our services should be free, our projects should be sustainable, raising money is easy [and] government grants are plentiful,” says Beaven. This can be especially galling when you are working harder than many other types of professionals out there just to keep your organization alive.
Educating the people in your life about what this role, this mission takes will go a long way to changing misconceptions.
8. You have to care about more than a salary
There are many benefits of working for nonprofit organizations. Giving back to your local community, developing new skills (for example, public speaking), building relationships with donors and helping clients in a meaningful way are just some of the perks.
Earning potential, however, rarely compares to that of the private sector. “You will make a lot less money in the nonprofit world, but you can make a huge difference by changing people’s lives,” Birkel says.
9. Nonprofits can—and do—earn profits
The term “nonprofit” can create a bit of confusion. People tend to mistakenly think nonprofit organizations can’t earn profits.
By definition, “profit” refers to the revenue that exceeds the cost of operating an organization. So, if nonprofits didn’t earn profits, that would mean they’d either need to figure out how to consistently break even or operate at a loss. The former is nearly impossible, and the latter is unsustainable.
With that said, the distinction between nonprofit and for-profit businesses lies instead with how each type of organization treats its profits. For-profit companies may choose to distribute profits among partners or shareholders. Alternatively, nonprofits cannot legally do so,1 because they are tax-exempt and their earnings must benefit the public, rather than private individuals.
10. The world needs more people willing to give back
Pursuing a career with a nonprofit organization is not for everyone, and many people never even consider it.
The allure of personal gain can easily overshadow the joy to be gained by helping others. But if you have a passion for something, know that there are plenty of nonprofit organizations who’d count themselves lucky to have you.
“Money—as in organizational revenue and personal income—is the way the world acknowledges the worth of something. Don't sell your mission or yourself short,” Beaven advises.
Can you see yourself working in the nonprofit world?
There’s no denying a nonprofit job comes with its fair share of challenges. Charitable organizations do the work so many others are too intimidated to even contemplate. It takes thick skin, a big heart and some serious skill to succeed in the nonprofit sector.
If you have the drive, working for a nonprofit can be immensely rewarding.
But if you aren’t sold on the non-profit sector, there are still plenty of careers made to help others. Studying Human Services can lead you to many career options to help those in need—in nonprofits, in government positions, in healthcare, corporate environments and more.
If you want a career that makes a difference, the world needs you. Check out, “8 Signs You Were Meant to Work in the Human Services Field.”
Professionals in Transition® is a registered trademark of Professionals in Transition Support Group, Inc.
1Inurement/private benefit: Charitable organizations [accessed January 2024] https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/inurement-private-benefit-charitable-organizations