Reader Response: Finding and Landing Your First Nonprofit Job

Do you have a question about developing a career in the nonprofit sector, navigating life in NYC, or working with social media?  Send me an email!  ajlovesya [at] gmail [dot] com.

A few days ago someone asked me:

What advice would you have for someone in college who is graduating this spring and searching for their first non-profit job?

Geez–is it that time of year already?!

Settling in from a relaxing winter break, classes are back in full swing and college seniors are taking that “What are you going to do after you graduate?” question a little more seriously. With the world of finance in disarray and a cultural shift towards public service, many are looking at nonprofits for career opportunities.

But where do you begin? How do you know what kind of job you want? Firstly, regardless of sector there are two questions you must answer:

Can you relocate? Being able to go anywhere definitely opens up the possibilities as far as jobs and allows you better examine cost of living. Make a list of cities you’d consider moving to.

What is the minimum compensation you can handle? Think of the average rent in the city you want to live in, factor in utilities, transportation, and student loans, and other debts. Those are the bills you MUST pay. Your job has to cover those at the minimum.  When I first moved to NYC I made $36,000 and created a budget using the 50-20-30 model from “All Your Worth.”

Also keep in mind that salary is just one type of compensation. For example, right after I graduated, I was in a public service fellowship run by my college. The actual stipend was low (about $500 a month) but my rent, transportation, and health insurance were covered, we received extra money each month for household needs, I worked four days a week, had money for professional development, and had the support of other fellows in the house. Additionally, I had my student loan (which was admittedly low compared to my peers) deferred for a year. For extra money, I got a job as a barista working two days a week, which was plenty.

And contrary to what you have heard, you should not take a job that doesn’t allow you to take care of yourself. Period. I don’t care if you land a job working for the Pope—if you cannot feed and clothe yourself you will be miserable, resentful, and want to leave the sector for good. Be knowledgeable about how much you need and should be getting paid and dont be afraid to negotiate.

Once you have answered these questions, spend some time on the following.

Exploring Your Interests:

  • Talk to people who have jobs that interest you: Informational interviews are a great way to learn about career paths and opportunities you may not have otherwise considered. What skills or education are necessary for certain positions? How did they go about landing their first jobs? What resources can they can recommend?
  • Think of causes you are passionate about: What have you studied? Where have you volunteered? What topics get you excited or possibly pissed off? Figuring out causes you love and where you stand on certain issues will you help you find an organization whose mission match your passion and values.
  • Reflect on what you enjoy doing: Do you like to work closely with people, offering direct services? Or to you prefer to be behind the scenes? Do you enjoy writing and research? Or do you like speaking and giving presentations? You may not know what you want to do in 5-10 years but you have a pretty good idea of what you enjoy.

Beginning the Search:

  • Talk with alumni and professors: Some departments may have relationships with nonprofits for internships and service-learning and can share with you possible job opportunities. Alumni may also have resources. Consider reaching out to them for an informational interview.
  • Hop online: Aside from job search websites like idealist.org and cgcareers.org, many organizations post jobs directly on their websites and via social media sites like facebook and twitter. Additionally, look into groups that work with young nonprofit professionals like YNPN or Emerging Leaders of the Arts as employers often share opportunities with those groups.

Landing the Job:

  • Redo your resume: The traditional resume, in my opinion, doesn’t work well for college grads as it focuses heavily on experience, when you may not have much experience or your experiences don’t fit in neatly together.  Instead you need a Career Launching Resume (CLR) that focuses on your assets, demonstrates your interest in the position, stands out, and is written like a sales proposal. Here is more information on crafting a CLR.
  • Demonstrate passion: Nonprofits always talk about wanting someone who is passionate about the mission of the organization. But what does that mean? In my post “What Does Passion Look Like” I discuss four key attributes that show you’re a good fit:  make sure you are knowledgeable of the org and key people, have your own ideas on the issue, and fit in with the org and its needs.
  • Emphasize match: No matter what position you are going for, you should always make it clear that you are the right person for the job. What past experiences have given you the skills necessary to fulfill the position? How do your values lines up with the organization’s mission?

I also recommend the following resources to help you with your job search:

The Idealist.org Handbook to Building a Better World

The Nonprofit Career Guide: How to Land a Job that Makes a Difference

NYU Wagner Office of Career Services and Experiential Learning: Career Planning, Assessment, and Informational Interviews (PDF)

Rosetta  Thurman: From Entry Level to Leadership

What challenges have you faced in searching and finding a nonprofit job?  What  techniques have been successful?  Please share your stories and ideas.

Photo credit: Deton Library