By Guest Blogger Rosetta Thurman

Nonprofit jobs can be a great opportunity to live your values through your work, if you find something that is a good fit for your values and interests. In this current economy, it can be tempting to settle for any ol’ nonprofit job that might come your way, but it’s still best to hold out for the position – and organization – that’s right for you.

Take Alfonso Wenker, for instance. He knew early on that he had a passion for social justice and nonprofit work. He started volunteering for various HIV/AIDS and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) nonprofits starting at age 16. During his junior year of college he was hired as a part-time program manager at PFund, a community foundation that provides grants and scholarships to LGBT communities. Alfonso primarily coordinated the grant and scholarship review processes. He continued to ask for more responsibility and learned about all aspects of the foundation’s operations including fundraising, finance, and program design. He also attended numerous trainings, joined groups like Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy and asked community leaders to do informational interviews.

He’s now been on the job over three years. Just two years out of college, he’s been promoted to director of programs. Alfonso has built a peer network in the sector that he credits with bringing him opportunities like serving on the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy-Minnesota steering committee; being appointed a co-chair of the 2011 National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Chang; and launching a blog,From Our Perspective, on LGBT movements and nonprofit jobs as a vocation. Alfonso says that advancing in his career would not have been possible without open lines of communication with his boss, young professionals’ networks, professional development opportunities, and a personal focus and mission regarding the type of work he wants to do.

How can you apply these principles to your own job search? The trick to finding a great nonprofit job is to:

1. Know yourself

What sort of work are you good at and what skills do you still want to learn to help you reach your long-term career goals? The ideal position would be a mix of those two things.

2. Do your research

Are there similar organizations? What sets this one apart? How do people talk about the organization? Too positive might mean that you are a cog in a well-functioning machine; too negative might mean that either the organization is a sinking ship or it just might be an opportunity for you to shine in a place that is seeking new ideas and leadership.

3. Notice the culture

Organizational culture is nothing more than the organization’s personality. Just like you wouldn’t marry someone without really understanding their personality, you shouldn’t commit to a job without digging up some clues on the organizational culture. Here are some clues to look for:

·         Mission: Is the mission clearly articulated? Does it feel like the staff who are interviewing you are connected to the mission themselves?

·         Management: Is the organizational flat or are there many layers of hierarchy? How do people talk about the organization’s leadership? Inspirational leader, data-driven manager, power-crazed lunatic?

·         Work Space: Are there many closed offices, surrounded by administrative gatekeepers? If so, it might be tough to pitch your ideas to top leadership without a hall pass and three forms of identification. Is the office an open room filled with beat up tables and piles of files? If that’s the case, you may not be getting the corner office that you have been dreaming about.

·         Staff Diversity: When you walk through the office orfb see their staff in the community does there seem to be a diversity of backgrounds and personality types represented? Do the staff seem to be representative of the community being served? Are people of color or young people concentrated in one type of the position in the organization (i.e. administrative or outreach positions)?

·         Work Environment: Do staff seem rushed or very leisurely? Does there seem to be some sense of work/life balance? Are titles important in the culture? Do people in the organization socialize outside of work?

Once you know what sort of organization you would like to work for, it becomes a different ball game in terms of positioning yourself for a place in that organization. You goal is to do what it takes to make yourself the inside candidate. If you are currently in school or not working, an internship or significant volunteer commitment might be your ticket in to the organization of your dreams. Volunteering for an organization gives you a unique window into the organization’s culture and allows key decision makers to see you in action. If you fill a unique organizational need with your volunteer position, you may also be able to help the organization develop a permanent position filling that same role.

If you aren’t able to volunteer for an organization that you are interested in, be sure to use your network to help turn you into the inside candidate! Talk to any contacts that you have that work at the organization to put in a good word for you and to help you get the name and contact information for the hiring manager. (Psst: It is often much better to contact the hiring manager directly rather than going through HR.)

Your first nonprofit job isn’t a make-or-break decision for the rest of your career in the sector, but it can better position you for your future plans. A better fit with space to grow in expertise or in title is a great first step!

Rosetta Thurman is the co-author of How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar, 50 Ways to Accelerate Your Career, an accessible, do-it-yourself map of how to build a successful career in the nonprofit sector. Sign up here for her FREE teleclass this Thursday, May 5 called “Movin’ On Up: 7 Steps to Rock Your Nonprofit Job Search”