Photo credit: SweetOnVeg, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: SweetOnVeg, Creative Commons/Flickr


When it comes to finding a nonprofit job, we focus a lot on the professional side of things: what we enjoy doing, what causes we are passionate about, and what kind of work environments we would enjoy. But crafting a successful nonprofit career takes more than that — it also takes a strong understanding of the sector and the world in which it operates.

In shifting our focus from what we do to where we do it, we can see new challenges and opportunities to both grow our careers and make a difference. But there are some outdated ways of thinking we need to let go of.

Stop believing the for-profit / nonprofit dichotomy.

Much has been written about how the sectors are blurring and how we need leaders who are comfortable navigating all sectors in order to tackle our most pressing social problems. This is all true, but I want to address a more micro concern when it comes to our relationship with for-profits: Most of them are not Citibank. They are not Goldman Sachs. They are not Coca-Cola.

The majority are small businesses and the people who create them and work with them are just like you: They have a passion for something and are trying to put it into practice. They saw a problem and tried to create a solution. So see them as allies in your work, not “the other side.”  See social change work as a spectrum of engagement, not a series of rules.

Stop being afraid of money.

Far too many people come to the nonprofit sector because they “don’t care about money.” But guess what? We think about money all. of. the. time. How can we raise more of it? How can we allocate it? People watch how we spend our money. People write articles and launch campaigns to debate and challenge how nonprofits manage their money. I would argue if you don’t want to think about money, you should go where there is plenty of it.

And that’s all on the organizational side. On the individual side, I tell people this all the time: If you do not make enough to take care of yourself you will resent your job. No amount of doing good will compensate for that. So be honest about what you need and be comfortable advocating for yourself.

Stop letting nonprofits off the hook for problematic behavior.

It’s no secret that there is often a disconnect between what we’re fighting for (better jobs and opportunities for our communities, for example) and how we operate internally (low wages, unpaid internships, lack of diversity on our boards and in our organizational leadership).

Yes, there are real constraints on how we operate, but we forget that how we treat each other affects how others treat us; pay employees terribly, and it simply reinforces the thinking that nonprofit employees shouldn’t get paid at all and that it’s all volunteer work. We also forget that we can’t assume the work will speak for itself and that we need to advocate, push, and demand better for ourselves and for the people we serve.

Just as we create plans for how we want to see change externally, have we charted the changes we want to see happen internally beyond head count? What are our plans for increasing salaries and other forms of compensation? What are our plans to diversify our boards and what does this mean/look like?

So don’t turn a blind eye to the external change-internal practice disconnect; bring it up and be part of an effort to address it.

What are some thoughts we need to let go of in order to thrive in the nonprofit sector?