The Nonprofit Career Guide

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” For those who choose a career in the nonprofit field, that is often the truth. Working for a nonprofit is usually a calling; it marries a person’s passions with their job, and allows them to work in a field that aligns with their beliefs, ethics and desire to do good.

While this likely all sounds positive, working in a nonprofit is not always warm and fuzzy — this career field requires dedication, hard work and the willingness to wear many hats. Are you considering a move into nonprofit and nonprofit management work? Read on for everything you need to know about this rewarding path.

What is a Nonprofit?

A nonprofit organization is defined as “an entity formed to meet a specific tax-exempt purpose aimed at benefiting the public, a specific group of individuals or the membership of the nonprofit.” As the name suggests, nonprofits do not operate to generate revenue — i.e., a profit — but rather use any funds to operate their organization and pursue their mission. Nonprofit organizations are prohibited from generating revenue; instead, excess revenues are put back into the operation of the organization, not disseminated to owners or investors.

Often, nonprofit organizations are 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, a distinction made by the IRS that means an organization has met certain qualifications to be tax exempt. Nonprofits and 501(c)(3) organizations must serve any of the following charitable purposes:

  • Religious
  • Charitable
  • Scientific
  • Testing for public safety
  • Literary
  • Educational
  • Fostering national or international amateur sports, or
  • Prevention of cruelty to animals and children, and more

Skills & Traits You Need for Nonprofit Work

Working for a nonprofit organization is hard work. In fact, it is estimated that some 30% of nonprofit employees feel some level of burnout. However, there are certain skills and traits that can help you find success in the sometimes-stressful environment that is nonprofit work.

  1. Passion: Nonprofits are mission driven and working for them requires some level of passion for that mission.
  2. Flexibility: It is inevitable that fires will sometimes pop up or you will be asked to take on tasks beyond your job description, so being flexible is key.
  3. Communication: To help in putting out those fires and making sure all necessary tasks get done, be an expert-level communicator. Having everyone on the same page is key.
  4. Persistence: Nonprofit workers often hear the word “no,” in relation to everything from grants and donations to initiatives and projects. Learn how to roll with the punches and keep working towards the mission.
  5. Fundraising: Nonprofits rely heavily on donated funds, so fundraising ability is critical for nonprofit workers.
  6. Public Speaking: If you work in a role that requires you to be a representative of the nonprofit, you will likely have to address groups such as donors or government officials.
  7. Marketing: Awareness of your organization and mission is necessary for all sorts of functions, most notably fundraising. Knowing how to market your nonprofit will help you succeed.
  8. Relationship-Building: Fostering relationships with donors, fellow employees, the board and the community will only further your work for the nonprofit and its mission.
  9. Delegation: No matter what position you hold, there will be plenty of work to go around. Being able to delegate effectively will help any nonprofit worker avoid burnout.
  10. Problem Solving: As with any job, problems will arise, so being quick on your feet and able to effectively solve problems will be a valuable skill.

Benefits of Working for a Nonprofit

There are many obvious benefits of working for a nonprofit — chief among them working toward a mission that you feel passionate about and being able to do work that benefits the greater good. Beyond these, nonprofit workers often experience the following benefits:

  • Competitive healthcare and retirement benefits: While nonprofit work may not be the highest paying, they often make up for it by offering competitive healthcare and retirement benefits.
  • Tuition reimbursement: Another common component of a nonprofit employer’s benefits package is tuition reimbursement. Nonprofit employers contribute to employees’ professional development by covering some and/or all of their coursework.
  • Student loan forgiveness: The U.S. government offers Public Service Loan Forgiveness for people who are employed by a U.S. federal, state, local or tribal government or a not-for-profit organization and make a certain number of qualifying payments.

Nonprofit Career Options

ResponsibilitiesAverage SalaryEducation Requirements
Fundraising ManagerOversees all facets of a nonprofit’s fundraising efforts and initiatives. They work closely with the nonprofit manager and/or executive director and the internal team, as well as donors, grant writers and various members of the community.$61,790, according to Salary.comBachelor’s degree minimum and/or professional experience
Grant WriterWrites formal grant proposals to request funding from private foundations, charities, corporations and government donors. This position also requires some level of research to find appropriate potential grant partners.$57,470, according to Indeed.comBachelor’s degree or higher
Community Outreach SpecialistAssists with many aspects of nonprofit operations, including the development and execution of community programs, coordination with potential donors and institutions for funding, creation of marketing and promotional campaigns, administrative and clerical duties and more.$54,729, according to Glassdoor.comAssociate’s degree or professional certificate
Nonprofit ManagerOversees all nonprofit operations, from day-to-day fulfillment of the mission to behind-the-scenes executive level work.$93,254, according to Salary.comBachelor’s degree minimum, master’s preferred

Tips for Landing a Successful Nonprofit Career

Once you’ve determined that a nonprofit career is the right path for you, it’s time to get started. Everyone’s professional journey is unique, but the following tips can help you land the role of your dreams and start your new career off on the right foot.

  1. Research Potential Nonprofit Employers
    There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, which means there are definitely some in or around your community that you’re unaware of. Your nonprofit career starts with research into organizations whose missions you align with or that have openings that fit your skillset.
  1. Search Nonprofit Job Boards
    There are a number of nonprofit job board sites that curate active job listings for those looking to work for charitable organizations. Start your search at any of these websites:
  1. Gain Exposure 
    If you’re making a complete career change or even just an industry change, gain exposure to the nonprofit world by volunteering for one. Not only will this help give you a bit of background on how they operate, but it’s also a great opportunity to network with other nonprofit professionals.
  1. Seek Out Educational Opportunities
    There are many wonderful educational resources available for those looking to transition to or improve in their nonprofit career. There are free online resources, as well as paid professional development opportunities. At the University of San Diego’s Division of Professional and Continuing Education, we offer a Nonprofit Management Certificate and individual nonprofit courses. Each will help you build the professional and practical skills and gain the knowledge needed to succeed in your nonprofit career.


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