How to start a career in nonprofit: best paths and fields to transition

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Breaking into the nonprofit world is not that different from entering a for-profit organization: Certain skills are better regarded than others, knowing what you want is half the battle, and an strategic approach delivers the best results.

These are the more welcoming paths to start a career in nonprofit.

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Human resources

The most accessible nonprofit career opportunities can be found in program work (positions in which you work directly with an organization’s constituency). Bridgers –for-profit professionals transitioning to the nonprofit sector– often get their start as tutors or community advocates at ground-level.

People with human resources skills can put their experience to use in a variety of ways, among them, becoming the point person to build skilled teams, tackling community projects, recruiting and organizing volunteers, and assisting with daily tasks.

From direct service, new nonprofit professionals often transition to coordinate and later manage entire programs. While this is a natural progression, direct service positions can also serve as a springboard to a different area  of a nonprofit.

 

leadership

Development is multi-faceted and requires a variety of skills, depending on the type of position and organization

One of the challenges to move up in a nonprofit is that, while there are many positions at ground-level, there is only a limited number of senior management roles. Here is where additional skills –like fundraising or marketing– can give you a leg up.

An often overlooked entry point is as executive assistant. This is a position connected to the senior leaders and involves working on data analysis, preparing reports, and participating in the hiring process. Many not-for-profit organizations (NFPs) consider these roles fellowship positions.

Development

Careers in nonprofit development provide plenty of opportunities for advancement. Development is the area responsible for all aspects of fundraising (including pursuing and obtaining funds from foundations, corporations, individuals, and government sources), as well as activities like grant-writing, annual appeals, events, and strategic campaigns.

Development is multi-faceted and requires a variety of skills, depending on the type of position and organization:

  • Writing abilities are essential for positions involving grant application.
  • Strong interpersonal skills are necessary for positions focused on donor relationships.
  • Planning skills are vital to deal with special events’ logistics.
Health

Nonprofit organizations play a critical role in public health by dealing with issues at community level that go unaddressed by government agencies and private businesses. This means there is a demand for research coordinators, epidemiologists, program directors, program analysts, policy analysts, and fundraisers with background in public health.

Many nonprofits are focused on the physical and mental welfare of their clients, and need employees with a variety of skills in specialized areas like abuse, addiction, and life counseling for adults and youth.

Professionals aiming to further their career in this field need a graduate degree in public health. While it’s possible to find work in this area with an undergraduate degree, the opportunities to move into advanced positions are limited. Most nonprofit organizations prefer professionals with a Master of Public Health (MPH). The MPH, which focuses on practice as well as academics, prepares graduates to assume leadership positions in community, national, and international health organizations.

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Marketing

People with marketing and fundraising skills are highly sought in the nonprofit sector to keep organizations sustainable and viewed positively by the public.

In the corporate marketing world you might have one focus. In a nonprofit, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades and understand a modicum of all marketing techniques. An internship can teach you the differences between non-profit and corporate or government marketing, and their respective roles.

Most nonprofits don’t have a marketing department. It’s likely in the beginning you’ll be working as part of a development, corporate communications, or program management team.

Management

Management career opportunities in the nonprofit sector can adopt many shapes, from overseeing national or regional efforts to directing specific elements to reach the organization’s goals. Nonprofits often draw from the corporate world for their most senior executive positions.

For those interested in becoming leaders in nonprofit organizations, education is paramount. A Masters of Public Administration (MPA) degree can give you a leg up. In MPA programs, you can learn about economics, finance, research methods, ethics, leadership, policy processes, and program evaluation. This means you’ll be able to offer a well-rounded understanding of business practices and policies.

While it’s helpful to have a long-term strategy for your nonprofit career, it’s equally important to remain flexible and be willing to stretch outside your comfort zone to take advantage of the opportunities that may arise.


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[1] Commongood Careers. Moving On Up: Nonprofit Careers Paths. Retrieved from http://commongoodcareers.org/articles/detail/movin-on-up-nonprofit-career-paths
[2] Doyle, Alison (2018, October 25). Nonprofit Job Titles and Descriptions. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/nonprofit-job-titles-2061503
[3] Work It Daily (2013, January 8). Public Health Careers In The Non-Profit Sector. Retrieved from https://www.workitdaily.com/public-health-careers-non-profit/
[4] MacDonald, Leila (2013, March 5). Marketing Volunteers: How to recruit and manage. Retrieved from https://charityvillage.com/cms/content/topic/ marketing_volunteers_how_to_recruit_and_manage/last/161#.W8USXS3Mz6c
[5] Work it Daily (2013, September 6). How To Pursue A Career In Nonprofit Management. Retrieved from https://www.workitdaily.com/nonprofit-management-pursue-career/
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