Careers in the Nonprofit Sector

In talking with some up-and-coming young nonprofit professionals, I was asked to give an overview of the sector. I quickly pulled together a presentation to help give them insights into a few things. These are the key things I wanted the participants to leave with:

(1) Nonprofits are diverse, and have a major impact on our day-to-day quality of life. It can be easy to overlook just how often our lives intersect with the work of nonprofit organizations, whether visiting a museum, listening to the symphony, seeing a doctor, or putting something in the trashcan at Campus Martius (the Clean Downtown crew is actually an operation of Goodwill Industries). Though so many folks carry preconceived notions of a typical nonprofit client, we should all seek to remember what a vital role these organizations play in maintaining a good quality of life for every member of the community.

(2) Nonprofits are an economic powerhouse – The name of the sector can be somewhat deceiving. Though nonprofit organizations are not intended to create returns for shareholders, they do generate revenues – and not just from grants and individual donors. Whether through government contracts, entrepreneurial arms, or financial and real estate investments, nonprofits are major economic engines. The difference between the nonprofit and private sector? Nonprofits must reinvest these monies so as to advance their missions. And let’s not forget that nonprofits are in fact businesses, employing people, purchasing goods and services, and ultimately feeding the local economy.

(3) Nonprofit employment is associated with good feelings and small paychecks. However, the work offers so much more than that. In small and medium-sized nonprofits, employees often wear a number of hats, creating opportunities for many diverse experiences. Being resource-strapped means there is an extra expectation of creativity for staff. Cherish this!

(4) As a young nonprofit professional, you have the ability to truly rock out your nonprofit career. Start by proving you can do your job well, and then start to take on special projects that give you the opportunity to learn new skills. Develop your network by joining associations, attend trainings and conferences, and be your own advocate by talking to as many people as possible about what they do and what you’re interested in. The people in the sector are, by in large, very friendly – take advantage of this.

Though our chapter encompasses folks that are brand new to the sector as well as professionals who have served in nonprofits for a decade or more, these are certainly key lessons for all of us to remember. I’m sure I overlooked a couple of things as well. What would you add?

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