And I’m very glad I did. At the time, I was wavering between nonprofit work and journalism as a future career, and figured that while the stock market was still fluctuating, volunteering for a year was easier to pull off than finding a job at a newspaper. What I didn’t know at the time was that doing a year of service, while not an attractive option after spending over $120,000 on a college education, is an excellent way to start one’s nonprofit career.
These year-of-service programs place you, full time, in an entry level position at pretty much any type of nonprofit you can think of, while giving you room, board and a small personal stipend. When I got the packet from my placement organization with all the jobs I could interview for, I was blown away. I could have been a lobbyist at an international advocacy NGO, a legal assistant at a domestic violence organization, or a social media specialist at a relief organization. I have friends volunteering as case workers, home care aids, researchers, volunteer coordinators, grant writers, and tutors. You name it, there’s a year of service position out there you.
There are many options for the college senior or recent grad interested in volunteering for a year in a nonprofit. The religious organizations—AVODAH (Jewish), Lutheran Volunteer Corps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and the Mennonite Volunteer Corps—all have a component of intentional living, sustainable living, and spirituality to some degree, although some are less religious than others. (I did the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and I’m nowhere near Lutheran, nor religious.) In these programs, you’ll be able to choose from a variety of nonprofits to work for.
You can also do City Year, which focuses on school- and community-based initiatives, or Green Corps, which sends people to work on different environmental projects across the country. Of course, there’s also the big one—AmeriCorps—which is government run and will place you in most any kind of nonprofit in any kind of job in any city. There is no community living or spiritual component to AmeriCorps, so if you just want a nonprofit job and nothing else, this is for you. Also, you can apply to AmeriCorps jobs any time, while the other programs operate on academic-year cycles.
I know mostly about domestic US programs, because that’s what I did, but when one looks internationally, there are more programs than you can name, the most well known being the Peace Corps. There are also many teaching year of service programs, like Teach for America (which isn’t technically a year of service, because it’s two years and you get paid at the same level as a normal teacher).
There are quite a few reasons to not commit to a year of service (you can make as little as $80 a month on top of room and board, the house you’ll probably live in isn’t the best, you will probably get the lowest health insurance option available at your work site) but it will provide you with invaluable work experience and jump start your nonprofit career. I see it as trading income for building a resume. I went into my year skeptical of what I would gain, but I came away with tangible skills and experience, and a much better sense of the direction I wanted to go in.
The mentorship from seasoned nonprofit employees is another benefit. Since it was known to my co-workers I would only be at my worksite a year, I could reach out for career advice. I was doing the organization a favor by working for low pay, so my supervisors wanted to help me succeed in return.
In all honesty, the year was difficult at times, and I know I could have had a better working experience. I wasn’t making much money, and I was in an awkward employee-but-not-really-an-employee position at my worksite. Some of my friends had legitimately horrible experiences at their worksites. But, these things happen regardless of if you are a full-time volunteer or not, and even if you aren’t in the nonprofit sector.
I know that I would not be in my current nonprofit job—a job I love—without my year of service. I return to the experiences in my year of service quite frequently and I’m glad I made the frantic decision to apply at the end of my senior year. I’d encourage you to consider doing the same—but try not to be as stressed as I was. It’ll be ok.
What have your experiences been with years of service? Do you think it’s a good way to start a nonprofit career? Are there any programs out there I’m missing that would be good for recent grads to know about?
Jeff Raderstrong is the Communications and Assessment Associate at Venture Philanthropy Partners and the co-founder of the Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell. He tweets @jraders and blogs at Change Charity.