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Nonprofits 101
December 8, 2006
Maybe you've volunteered at a "nonprofit" and even applied to a few, but you're still not sure exactly what they are and whether you can really make a living working for one. Here's a crash course on the world of nonprofits.

What are nonprofits?

Nonprofits are organizations at the international, national, state and local levels that have been granted a 501(c)3 or tax exempt status by the government. These organizations can take many forms ranging from a well-endowed foundation, to a multi-site hospital, to a small community-based organization. They are funded through government grants, public donations, fundraising activities, and corporate gifts. Currently there are over 1 million nonprofit organizations in the US which vary widely in their mission, structure, and size.

Nonprofits are essentially businesses with a public service mission in fields as varied as Education, Public Health, Human Rights, and Public Policy. The causes and populations they work with also vary widely. Examples include the Africa Fund which promotes human rights, education and people-to-people exchanges with African countries, and the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Why should I work for a nonprofit organization?

There are often compelling reasons to seek employment in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits frequently provide greater opportunities to develop new skills, assume more responsibility, and move up the career ladder more quickly than the corporate world. In addition, working for a nonprofit allows you to work on issues you really care about and to gain the satisfaction of putting your skills and talents to work trying to make a difference.

Nonprofits also allow you to work in an environment where colleagues are more likely to share your values and commitment to the goal of the organization than is typically found in the corporate sector.

Can I make a living working for a nonprofit?

In comparison to the for-profit private sector, nonprofit positions usually pay less. Most entry-level, bachelor's level salaries range in the low twenties to low thirties range. However, there are wonderful short term opportunities to work for nonprofits. For example, Americorps offers 10 month assignments that provide excellent work experience. They pay only a modest living allowance, but they provide health care benefits and a $4725 educational stipend at the end of the program which can be used for educational loans or future educational expenses.

People often work for nonprofits for reasons beyond salaries, though it is possible to earn a comfortable living. (See salary surveys).

Is a graduate degree required to work in nonprofits?

A graduate degree may be required for some counseling and management assignments in social service agencies that provide direct support to clients. However, there are plenty of entry level opportunities for recent bachelor's level graduates especially if you have accumulated prior volunteer or work experience as a student.

Why don't nonprofits recruit on campus?

Nonprofits are often small, with smaller budgets and fewer employees than the majority of organizations that regularly recruit on campus. They may hire only 1-2 new employees a year and cannot predict with the same regularity as larger organizations what their staffing needs will be year to year. Therefore, it's incumbent upon students to take a more proactive approach to their job search. A good way to start would be by attending our spring semester Nonprofit/Public Service Career Fair which annually draws over 70 nonprofit and public service employers.

Are there opportunities for business or technical majors?

There are some jobs in nonprofits that are open to all majors. However, your major may not be as important as the skillset you develop in college and as a result of volunteer or work experience. Employers are looking for graduates with good communication and computer skills, and well developed writing, analytical, and financial skills. They are also looking for a demonstrated commitment to a public service cause.

Do professional schools view nonprofit/public service experience favorably?

Graduate and professional schools are looking for mature, interesting, and well-rounded individuals who will contribute a real-world and diverse perspective to their learning environment. Your work in nonprofits may provide opportunities for you to take on positions of responsibility, and allow you to bring to graduate school an informed and intimate perspective on issues that recent graduates with a lack of work or volunteer experience may not possess. Nonprofit experience can also present opportunities to take on projects and positions of responsibility that will strengthen your application and which can provide rich material to draw from for your personal statement to graduate or professional school.

Internships and jobs

A good way to sample the nonprofit world is through internships and volunteer work. These types of work experience allow you to learn the culture of an organization and to decide whether that particular segment of the nonprofit world and/or that particular organization would be a good fit.

If you're looking for a job or paid internship, your first stop should be CalJobs which currently lists almost 200 nonprofit opportunities. If you're hoping to leverage a volunteer stint into paid work later on, visit Cal Corps where they can help you find a good fit with a nonprofit in your area of interest. In addition, take a look at selected nonprofit job listing sites recommended by Career Center counselors as well as these other great local and national organization sites:

You may also be able to pursue your interest in philanthropic work from within the for-profit sector. Many corporations support various causes in the community and employ individuals to liaison with nonprofits as well as organize and coordinate the company's donations and volunteer efforts. You can utilize the @cal Career Network to conduct informational interviews with Cal alumni working in these types of positions as well as to find out more about the nonprofit world.

Community specific listings

Many nonprofits serve distinct populations. The sites below can help direct you to opportunities that serve specific communities that may be of interest to you:

  • African American Web Connections - This nonprofit corporation lists many other businesses, resources, and links for the African American community.
  • - Posts many nonprofit jobs specifically for the Deaf community.
  • Chicana/Latina Foundation - The mission of this foundation is to empower Chicanas/Latinas through personal, educational, and professional advancement. There are also volunteer opportunities available.
  • - Has articles giving career advice on resumes and cover letters, as well as tips for making the job search successful. Moreover, this site has articles specific to the Latina/o population.
  • NativeWeb - Resources for Indigenous cultures around the world. This is a wonderful resource which has job postings and also links to many other sites.
  • The Bureau of Indian Affairs - Has resources for working within the Native American community.
  • Foundation for a College Education - A college prep nonprofit in East Palo Alto working primarily with Latino/a, African-American, and Pacific Islander students.

Where can I find out more information about nonprofits?

The Career Center has a wealth of information about the nonprofit sector. Now that you have a better idea of what nonprofits are, get started on your own nonprofit odyssey by checking out the Career Center's Nonprofit and Public Service career field section for additional information and resources.

In addition to the websites described above, check out the Career Center Calendar for relevant career fairs, workshops, employer information sessions, and more. Also, make sure you are signed up for the Nonprofit CareerMail mailing list.

Lastly, don't forget that if you have any questions about the nonprofit industry or career issues in general, the Career Center offers 15 minute mini and in-depth 45 minute counseling appointments for Cal students and Alumni Advantage members.

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This page last updated 12/7/2006 (ag/pc)