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Do What You Love and Satisfaction Will Follow
May 9, 2003
Nonprofit pros offer insights about the rewards and challenges of their positions as well as tips for making it financially once you're there.

Five liberal arts grads recently offered their thoughts on making the transition from student to the nonprofit or public paid (if not terribly well-paid) professional. They work in areas ranging from education to the environment to international development.

Why Nonprofits or Public Service?

Across the board, our professionals emphasized that doing something you enjoy is the key to job satisfaction. Furthermore, if you don't like what you're doing, it's seldom the case that a hefty salary is going to make up for it. Our panelists agreed that it's not money that gets you out of bed each morning eager to get to work - it's looking forward to the type of challenges and responsibilities that await that motivate you.

Across the diverse fields represented, these recent grads share a strong sense of commitment and accomplishment that stems from the feeling that their jobs allow them to help others in some way. Each does so in one or more particular ways: working with others driven by the same cause, encouraging and teaching others, raising the reading levels of under-privileged children, and making a difference in a community to name a few. But all voiced immense personal and professional satisfaction that comes from seeing their talents, time, and energy result in positive social change rather than pennies added to the bottom line.

One of the panelists noted that she is thrilled when she can offer people jobs, especially those without high school diplomas. She sees this as an opportunity to give someone a chance to turn his or her life around. And that is certainly something you cannot put a price tag on.


Working in the nonprofit and public service sectors offers a variety of rewards. Some of those that stand out the most are:

  • Contributing to agencies doing good work
  • Motivating others, especially volunteers
  • Travel

The panelists also noted two key rewards they have experienced that may be more prevalent in the nonprofit/public service arena than in other job sectors:

  • An office environment that is fun and relaxed
  • A consistent sense of satisfaction

Along with these, all five said that the people they work with are constantly smiling!


As with any work environment, though, there are also challenges to working in the nonprofit and public service sectors. Some discussed how they often need to attend to tedious administrative work. This is often due to the limited resources that many nonprofits have - there is not enough money to hire the support staff that is needed. The panelists also noted that there can be a lack of professionalism. However, this varies with each organization and its staff members.

How to Break into the Nonprofit/Public Service Sectors - What are You Passionate About?

Our experts offer the following key tips regarding how to break into these fields. At the top of the list were networking and volunteering. All stressed the importance of getting to know those in the field you wish to pursue.

  • Volunteering also has many benefits. Being a volunteer (or intern) often opens doors for potential future jobs. For example, one panelist noted that being a volunteer can put you in a position to find out first hand when a job opportunity becomes available (before it is posted publicly). And, this might give you an edge in obtaining that position.

Overall, the panelists noted that one of the first things you should do in order to break into the nonprofit/public service arena is to identify what you are passionate about. Is it a particular cause? Do you have a strong interest in a particular type of job/career? Answering these questions is a great way to get focused before starting your job search.

Tips for Making Ends Meet Financially

Although the panelists, and many like them in the nonprofit and public service sectors, have a great love for their work, there is the lingering issue of how to make ends meet financially. It is no secret that the salaries in these sectors can be quite modest. Nevertheless, each has found a way to make it work.

One of the key skills that they have embraced is learning how to manage a budget. (Use Citi Budget Builder to assess how much your salary will really pay for.) It may sound elementary, but it really does make a difference. As one panelist said, "you spend what you make regardless of how much you make." So, the question is not "how much do I make?" but rather "how can I live off of what I make?" Several discussed shared housing as one way to save money. If you can find a roommate (or two), you can really cut down on the cost of rent. The same goes for other living expenses such as utilities, entertainment, and even food. If you pull your resources together, it makes a big difference.

Overall, it really comes down to honestly assessing your needs - what do you really need vs. what do you want? This is a tough question, but it is important to keep in mind that modest adjustments and sacrifices financially are a much smaller price to pay than going to a job each day that you dislike. And, you must keep the big picture in mind. You won't have to do these things forever! They are a means to allow you to make it financially while starting in a field you love. As you gain experience and progress through positions over time, you will likely find that you no longer need to use all of these strategies.

In the end, the panelists unanimously agreed that pursuing a career you are passionate about will not leave you disappointed.

"If you love it (your job), you'll always find a way to make it work (financially)." And, loving your job is priceless.

Rebecca Jewell is the Program Director for The International Volunteer Program. She also serves as Co-Chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. She earned her BA in Psychology from Kalamazoo College.

Jonas Mok is the Director of Operations at Sports4Kids, a local nonprofit working with low-income public elementary schools. He earned his BA from Cal with a double major in Political Science and Asian Studies.

Isabel Montilla works for the Marin Conservation Corps as the Human Resources Manager. She earned her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and has a Masters degree in Organizational Psychology.

Renee Purdy is the Bay Area Recruitment Director for Teach For America. She is a graduate from Wilamettee University having earned her bachelors in Spanish.

Vernonica Standifird works for the Peace Corps as Regional Recruiter for the Sacramento Valley. She is a Cal alum with a BA in History.

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