What's Your Advice for Kayci on Finding a Job in the Nonprofit World
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Advice on Starting a Career with a Nonprofit

Job_interview_2 Last week, Kayci asked for my advice on getting a job in a nonprofit. I turned the question over to my readers and got some excellent thoughts back:

  • Start with passion for the cause
  • Inventory your talents and match them to potential causes
  • Do some informational interviewing
  • Volunteer
  • Network
  • Be an entrepreneur

Start with Passion for the Cause
Bob McInnis said that working with a nonprofit has to start with your own personal interest in the cause: 

If you are seeking employment in the sector because you want a life less conventional, then make sure that the issue, solutions and organization are something that you care about deeply.

I agree. At our career retreat a few weeks ago we had a few Executive Directors who participated. They said that when they interview people the number one thing they're looking for is a personal interest in the mission of the organization and the work that it does. If they get a sense that someone is there for a J-O-B, they aren't interested in hiring.

One resource to help you in defining your passions is the Be Bold Career Planning workbook, which was designed specifically for people who are thinking about careers in nonprofits.

Inventory Your Talents and Match them to Potential Causes
In addition to your interest in the cause, your skills and talents can give you clues to potential nonprofit career options you might want to consider, says Glenn Ross:

Inventory your experience and training and match that with nonprofits who can use your talents. For example, did you major or minor in science, history, or art? Museums might be interested in you. Got a degree in Political Science and a background of political work? Many larger nonprofits need lobbyists. Got a business, marketing, IT, or PR degree? Any nonprofit could use you.

This will also give you valuable information you can use to "sell yourself" to any organizations you are considering. Again, this is where the Be Bold workbook could help.

Conduct Informational Interviews
Although this wasn't one suggested by my readers, the EDs in our retreat said that informational interviewing was a great way to get your foot in the door. Informational interviews are not job interviews--you're not trying to get the organization to hire you at that point. Instead, they allow you to find out more about an organization and a particular type of work. If you find that this is an organization that you could be passionate about, then you could move things to another level later, now that you've met some of the key people.

There's a whole list of informational interview resources here, including a list of questions used by one of our retreat EDs.

Everyone said that volunteering is a great way to get your foot in the door. Writes Harold Jarche:

I volunteer as Director of Education of a non-profit, and we have learned over the years that it's best to only hire people who have already volunteered. Previously we had several people looking for "jobs" because they needed the work and they were hired but were the wrong fit. Now, our policy is that you first volunteer and then we can work together to see if there is funding for some particular role/project.Volunteering

Glenn echoed this advice:

. . . when I was hiring, volunteer experience was more important to me than the degree. Getting a degree showed me you could accomplish a goal. Narrow down your choices to the one nonprofit you think you'd like to work with. Volunteer with them. Establish a relationship with one or more of the staff. Show them you have the ability to get things done. Don't whine, ever. Volunteering for a nonprofit also allows you a closer look. You may decide its not the right fit for you.

If you want to start volunteering, I'd suggest checking out something like VolunteerMatch, Idealist.org or your local edition of Craigslist. This FAQ from Idealist.org also has some great information on how to get started with volunteering.

Another key tool for finding work in a nonprofit is networking. Of course there's the real-life version where you talk to people you know to see if they know people who are hiring or can connect you to other people. But with the rise of spaces like Facebook and LinkedIn and the explosion of blogs, digital networking is another resource to consider. Even if you don't connect directly to someone in a nonprofit this way, you can more quickly and easily spread the word for "friend of a friend" kinds of connections through online networking.

Be an Entrepreneur
In Harold's experience, the best way to get a job in a nonprofit is to start acting like an entrepreneur:

Pitch yourself as an entrepreneur who will volunteer with the organisation and then will look for sources of funding - external funders, government program, shared revenue stream, etc. You give your time & effort, and the NP gives its name & credibility. Both of you are committed to making it work.

Bob agrees:

In my markeplace (less than 3% unemployment) most NPOs are not advertising positions because of the lack of response from applicants. If there is a cause and an organization that floats your boat, then prepare your resume for them, march into their office, and let them know that you are ready to make a difference.

Again, the EDs in our retreat echoed this advice. They suggested that if you present yourself as the solution to a problem or issue in their organization you'll already have a leg up on the competition. And if you follow Harold's advice to work with the organization to find funding for your salary, you'll REALLY be on a roll!

Particularly if you're going down the entrepreneurial road, I'd suggest starting to build a porfolio. A social media resume might be something else to consider. The goal is to start pulling together key samples of your work and demonstrations of your interest in the organization's mission that you can use to market yourself to the nonprofit.

Places to Start Looking
So where to get started? At Beyond the Glass Ceiling we've been collecting our favorite resources for finding nonprofit work here. Local newspapers and word of mouth are also key sources.

Thank You!
As usual, my readers were a great source of information and inspiration in pulling together some ideas for Kayci and others who are thinking about nonprofit careers. Thanks again to Bob, Harold and Glenn and to Kayci for asking a question that I'm sure is on other people's minds, too.

Photos via Kimberly Hurst and JFA Japan


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Hi Michele, Since I'm an ED too, I meant to help with Kayci's question, but alas! I'm too slow. As luck would have it, the answers provided are excellent. Perhaps procrastination is not as bad as they say? This advice seems right on the mark to me.

In hiring over the past few years, our favorite candidates have come from Craig's List and Idealist. We also rely on word of mouth, especially through the people who work with us already.

As for full-time staff positions, we tend to promote people once we know their strengths and commitment.

Hi Robin--Yes, I've found that procrastination can work well on many occasions. :-) Thanks for weighing in, especially on the usefulness of Craigslist and Idealist.

I cannot overemphasize - find a "fit" and "volunteer first." This gives everybody a chance to figure out whether the fit is right.

And the best volunteer (as well as employee) as far as I'm concerned, is the one who generates his or her own funding. If you can volunteer free of charge for six months while writing proposals for the project you're interested in pursuing, then you stand the best chance of finding a lasting job in the NP arena. Nonprofits can be every bit as entrepreneurial as any start-up venture, even if they've been established for a while.

Another thought - so many nonprofits do online work that you can probably volunteer and check your fit without ever having to move or commute. Find a cause where you can be part of their Internet cloud, and then deliver a stand-out performance. And finally, enlist the help of the project director and see whether you can come up with a creative way to pitch supporters, and make your own paid job. As a project director I will tell you that it really makes my day when someone says "I love doing this so much I'll write the pitch" rather than "can't you find me a job?"

We put out feelers (at the various online sites) for unpaid positions from time to time. Sometimes we'll get a dozen resumes. I never just accept the best-looking resume. I first throw all of the people into a "working group" where they collaborate to take on the responsibilities of the advertised position. Within a month I usually know who is going to work out because they rise to the top and take charge. It frequently is *not* the person with the best-looking resume. Energy and creativity can take you a long way.

Sky, this is all great advice--thank you! I'd love to hear more about how you put people together into a collaborative working group. That's a new one that I think other organizations might want to learn about.

Asnother excellent post. Working with a nonprofit can lead to an offer. I was working with one and before I left the meeting i was being offered a seat on their board.

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