Working for a nonprofit can be extremely fulfilling, but it also comes with built-in challenges.
For many of us, work is a tradeoff between paying the bills and doing something deeply meaningful. At certain times in our lives, we may lean more toward the basic necessity of paying the bills (particularly when kids come along), but there are also times when we’re more free to pursue our own dreams of making a difference in the world, even if the paycheck is smaller.
Perhaps you’re at that point when you’d like to explore the nonprofit sector. Perhaps a cause has caught your eye, and you’re on fire to make a difference. You might be starting out in your career – and that’s a great time to work for a nonprofit! – or you might be ready to leave a lucrative corporate career for more meaningful work, bringing the richness of your experience with you. Either way, there are things to bear in mind before making the leap.
A range of women with years of experience working in a wide range of nonprofits shared some of their own insights and recommendations:
1. Find a nonprofit whose cause resonates deeply with you
Stephanie Cifuentes, who worked for five nonprofits as a direct employee and for another six as a consultant, says this: “My biggest piece of advice is you really need to connect and believe in the cause. If you don’t truly BELIEVE in the cause or care about it deeply, you will feel overworked and underappreciated quickly. But if you get that perfect blend of the right cause, the right role, and stability, you can be happier than you ever imagined!”
2. Be prepared to work alongside amazing people
Emily Callahan, who worked for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and also for the American Heart Association, said she was always impressed by the caliber of people working alongside her.
“One thing that was apparent about working at a nonprofit was that many people were there primarily because they were truly passionate about the organization’s mission. I realize that this could also be the case in the corporate world, but I would venture a guess that altruistic motives may be more common among the non-profit sector. Another perk was working with wonderful, brilliant volunteers,” she said.
Wendy Wright concurred: “In my experience they have been some of the best, kindest, most helpful and generous people to spend your working days with.”
3. You will probably work harder … for lower pay
Yes, the work is meaningful and you get to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with outstanding human beings, but there is also a tradeoff: you won’t be making a ton of money.
Shari Lasher, who has worked at nonprofits serving adults with disabilities for 18 years, said: “You have to be willing to do more than is expected, and know that you probably won’t be compensated for it.”
On a more negative note, Heidi JM said: “The pay is laughable and insulting for the work you do when you have a degree.”
Nicole Melinda agreed: “Corporate has all the perks, but it’s soul-sucking. Now I love my work but the pay is minuscule.”
4. It will be more of a passion or a mission than a job
Everyone agreed that the work is meaningful and deeply satisfying, when you find the right fit.
Angie Myers, who has worked as a nonprofit fundraiser for the past seven years, said that “the work itself is rewarding, compelling, and gives you perspective. Sometimes we lose sight of just how fortunate we are, especially in America, and we get caught up in all the media drama nonsense and complaining about first-world problems. The work can be a reminder to be thankful, and can give you a sense of purpose.”
Alison Frazee agreed that “if you believe in your organization’s mission and you feel pride in your work, then it’s more than just a job; it’s your passion.”
Dara Simons, who has worked mainly for Christian nonprofits, said she finds deep meaning in “knowing you’re doing something that has the potential to make a difference in people’s lives and eternities.”
5. Side bonus: You’ll get a wide range of work experiences
One of the downsides of nonprofits is that they are often cash-strapped … but one of the resulting positives is that you may find yourself being called on to fill multiple roles, which will give you more chances to grow than you would have had in a more pigeonholed corporate position.
Wendy Wright added, “Early in your career, it can be beneficial to wear so many different hats because you build your experience and skills in a way you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do in most corporate situations, and that can lead to a pretty nice career bump when you move to the next gig.”
6. It’s all about finding the right fit
No two nonprofits are exactly alike, and your experience is going to depend a lot on how identified you are with the mission, how connected you feel with your coworkers and clients, and whether it gives you a healthy balance of challenges and rewards. What’s right for one person might be all wrong for another, and that’s okay.
Also bear in mind that benefits packages vary widely from one nonprofit to another. Several women commented that their nonprofit gave them “tons of paid time off” and generous benefits on a par with the corporate world, while others said the benefits were not that great and they always felt somewhat precarious in their job.
Some said the work-life balance at their nonprofit was fantastic, especially since many nonprofits are heavily staffed by other women who also have families, and who understand that when your kid has the flu, you’ll need to work from home or take the day off. But others said they were stretched so thin that they worked well beyond 40 hours a week, and had trouble establishing healthy boundaries between their work and personal lives.
The key, then, is to ask the right questions before you get on board, interview other people who have worked for the nonprofit you’re considering, and get a realistic sense of the day-to-day reality before you commit.
It might take some time to find the right one, but the plus side is that once you do, you’ll be extremely fulfilled in your job – and that’s a benefit that can’t be beat.
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