Attention Students: Get ready for a rewarding career in the nonprofit sector

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Choosing a career is one of life’s biggest decisions. Even though we know that people tend to change jobs and even careers multiple times throughout their lifetimes, there’s still a lot of angst and excitement around the question of what we will work we will choose to do. Increasingly, new job seekers say it is important to find work that is meaningful. Lisa Mort-Pullman, executive director at Volunteer Victoria, has witnessed this trend. “The nonprofit sector ranks highly in terms of meaning-making and is increasingly appealing for people who want to find employment that aligns with their values.”

“Historically,” says Mary Barroll, president of TalentEgg, job site and online career resource for students and recent graduates, “working in the nonprofit sector may have grown out of volunteer experience or been a career people fell into, but today more and more young people are committed to seeking out employment opportunities that give back to society. This has been clearly seen with Millennials, and our research and surveys of the next generation shows that desire for purpose and impact is just as strong among Generation Z.”

If you’ve decided you’re interested in developing a career in the nonprofit or charitable sector, there is no right path to get from point A to point B, but there are seven things you should get before you start.

Get to know the sector

The nonprofit sector is bigger and more diverse than most people realize. It employs 13% of the Canadian workforce, although according to the Canada Revenue Agency, 54% of nonprofits operate without paid staff and 86% have fewer than five staff. Canada has approximately 170,000 nonprofits, 86,000 of which are charities (for the distinction between charities and nonprofits click here). “There are also thirteen subsectors in the nonprofit sector and each one is slightly different,” says Mort-Pullman. “We can forget that it includes airport authorities, libraries, seniors centres, and business economic development groups.”

It’s important to understand the differences between the nonprofit and other sectors. Madeline Toubiana, professor at the Schulich School of Business, says, “Nonprofit organizations are complex entities that are often really ‘hybrid’ organizations, which balance nonprofit and for-profit logics to work towards a balance of social effectiveness and financial sustainability.” Colleen Sharen, associate professor, management and organizational studies, who heads up an undergraduate program in nonprofit management at Brescia University College at Western University, adds, “The nonprofit world is very different from the corporate world — in nonprofits, clients may or may not have voice, there isn’t a market factor, and the people being served aren’t those who pay for the product.”

In order to get to know the sector, Sharen advises students to do research. “I recommend starting with Imagine Canada, whose website has tons of information on the sector. It’s also useful to look at the human capital survey done by the Ontario Nonprofit Network to understand the skills nonprofits need.”

It isn’t all facts and figures either. In order to understand what working in the sector looks like, Professor Robert Shea, one of the coordinators of the Career Integrated Learning Project at Memorial University, recommends requesting informational interviews. “Very few employers will say no when a student is interested in their field and wants to talk for 30 minutes. Like other industries, nonprofits are always looking to find the most talented people.” One nonprofit professional suggests, “Talk to people who've been there and done that. Listen to their stories, both good and bad. Ask hard questions. Someone asked me recently what regrets I had about choosing a career in nonprofits, and what advice I'd give to someone just starting out.”

Other resources include local nonprofit networks, such as the Pillar Network of London, Ontario which hosts monthly talks about working in the sector. CharityVillage’s Unsung Heroes series and BMeaningful’s profiles are good stories about how people have developed careers with social impact help better understand the sector.

Get educated

The nonprofit sector has “a very high rate of highly educated people”, says Mort-Pullman, adding, “Unlike fields such as education or medicine where there is one stream and one certification process, there is no one educational path in the nonprofit world.”

One nonprofit professional we spoke with had this advice: “Remember that nonprofits are comprised of more than just ‘front-line’ service delivery positions.” Nonprofits need people from every discipline, from accountants and bookkeepers, to IT staff and marketers, engineers and logistics experts. Barroll says, “The nonprofit and charitable world has vast opportunities for a variety of different professions. Be creative about understanding that, like any employer, nonprofits may have employment opportunities that don’t immediately come to mind.”

A quick survey of nonprofit staff suggests that learning a second language, understanding statistics and data, developing strong writing skills, and taking courses in areas such as social justice, women’s studies, anti-racism and community-driven change are all assets to the nonprofit careers, as are more business-oriented courses in corporate social responsibility and business ethics.

Some roles within the nonprofit sector do require more specialized training, such as social work, while others benefit from more generally from this type of specific training.

Increasingly, in response to employers looking for employees with more context-specific experience and knowledge, postsecondary institutions are offering specialized training, whether in leadership, fundraising, administration, volunteer or event management. See CharityVillage’s regularly updated list of such programs for more information.

Get ready: Grow and recognize transferrable skills

Memorial’s Career Integrated Learning Project emphasizes reflecting on experiences and the skills and competencies gained from those experiences. Shea suggests, for instance, that students reflect on the role they played in a group project or the skills they gained in doing a presentation. He also suggests students examine the courses they really enjoyed, the sports they play, the clubs and activities they participate in for the purpose of understanding their specific interests and skills.

The same reflective approach can be taken with any kind of job experience. Several nonprofit professionals we interviewed recalled that their best preparation and most transferrable skills were developed in sales, retail jobs, or at summer camps. Mort-Pullman suggests thinking about how the skills you have gained, whether in school or work, can be translated on a resume into the types of skills needed in the nonprofit sector. She adds that resumes should focus on what a person actually did and learned in that role, whether it was a volunteer or paid position, and that this can distinguish a person’s higher levels of skills.

The nonprofit sector is eager for digital natives with computer skills and experience in social media and digital marketing in order to engage with the community they serve. Toubiana says, “Developing skills (by taking courses, workshops, etc.) that go beyond ‘yeah, I use Facebook/Twitter’ can make you a competitive and desirable candidate for nonprofit teams.” Barroll says, “We see a lot of roles that come up that require computer and social media skills, as well as organizations looking for staff who are effective in administration and managing funds.”

Get grounded: Develop resilience and “soft” skills

Resilience — the ability to be able to bounce back from difficult times and stressful environments — is a necessary skill for people in caring professions. It’s also one that has increasingly been challenging for young people.

Sharen sees a lot of students who want to work in the nonprofit sector burn out after a few years. “It’s emotionally demanding and you get paid way less,” she says. She thinks it is vital for anyone wanting to start a career in the nonprofit sector to do all they can to develop that ability to bounce back, advising, “Take on a challenge you might fail at. If you fail, develop the ability to reflect and learn from the situation. Recognize that failure isn’t the end of the world — it’s not as a reflection of you as person but about life’s experiences. Build a toolkit to reflect and evaluate. Build reflective practice into everything you do. Experiment, try, test, find what you enjoy. If you stop enjoying it, change it. Be open to discovering and recognizing you are cut out for something different than you thought you were.”

There are other important “soft” (or interpersonal) skills that are highly useful in the nonprofit sector, says Toubiana. “Individuals who can excel in nonprofits are those who are willing to be flexible in their thinking and “wear” many hats so to speak. It is a type of cognitive flexibility.” She also emphasizes the importance of being able “to communicate and connect with people from all different backgrounds” since nonprofits serve increasingly diverse communities. Finally, she notes the importance of being collaborative and keeping communication open.

Get excited: Find and follow your passion

“You can be 30 in a career you started for someone else and be unhappy — or you can be 30 and happy,” advises Shea. “You’ve got to be happy in your work so it’s critical to find out what you like and don’t like.” Shea suggests trying a variety of jobs while in school and taking advantage of all opportunities.

Barroll agrees. “Get involved in areas that interest you. If you’re passionate about the environment, get involved with an environmental charity. It will give you greater insight in terms of issues, as well as the challenges and benefits of the organization.” She advises students to extend that interest by engaging more deeply through attending conferences, public gatherings and other activities in the area of their passion.

Often a passion can be intensely personal, says Shea, such as a person whose grandfather has Parkinson’s volunteering with a related charity.

Mort-Pullman notes that every person essentially writes and tells a narrative in their career preparation and history. She says people should ask themselves: what is my story and what impression am I giving?

An under-recognized part of passion has to do with size and type of organization and work. Someone may be passionate about the environment but feel highly unfulfilled in a small organization with a staff of two, or may feel lost within a large multinational charity. Some may prefer to be on the front lines or in the field, while others may prefer developing strategies or policy in an office.

Get real about money and other expectations

The reality is that nonprofits don’t pay staff at the same level as government or corporate employers, says Mort-Pullman.

“It is important to do research to be realistic in terms of salary expectations and what this means in terms of how you will live your life,” says Barroll. “You can be driven by passion but you have to be practical too.” Veteran nonprofit staff agree, with advice ranging from “Don’t take out outrageous student loans” to “Learn about budgeting both for your work and personal life”. Another cautions, “Don’t let passion for a cause overrule basic economic decision-making: there are wonderful nonprofit jobs but there are also a lot that are very underpaid and exploitative.”

Underfunding also affects programs and resources. One professional says, “Your computer will not be as up to date as those of your friends who work in the for-profit sector and sometimes it will take an unacceptable amount of time to fix the photocopier.” This can also mean nonprofits tend to be lean in terms of staff — which results both in everyone pitching in on stuffing envelopes, but also that the organizations can have flat hierarchies that can limit opportunities for advancement.

At the same time, Mort-Pullman says, “There are added and unspoken benefits to the nonprofit sector. We are one of the largest sectors so we won’t collapse. Nonprofits offer more space for personal flexibility, collaboration and networking. There are opportunities for emerging professionals to be involved with decision-making earlier in their careers.”

Get involved in the community

“Increasingly we know employers are actively looking for candidates who have shown themselves to have a greater interest beyond simply their studies and can demonstrate leadership by being involved in society and community,” says Barroll.

Volunteering is one key way to demonstrate this greater interest. “This is a way of resolving the real chicken-and-egg problem where employers are looking for experience but students can’t get a job because they don’t have experience,” Barroll adds. Volunteering also accomplishes a variety of other purposes, says Mort-Pullman, including the opportunity to compare organizations in terms of size, scope and culture, and developing a vital network of contacts who can serve as references and mentors. TalentEgg now offers a job board of volunteer positions specifically curated for young people. CharityVillage also offers an online directory of volunteer positions from across Canada.

Volunteering over the course of an entire year allows you to see a whole annual cycle, rather than sampling an organization for a short, intense time, says Mort-Pullman. This demonstrates consistency and reliability. A widespread observation among hiring managers is that “long-term commitment and leadership in one or two organizations is incomparably better than a laundry list.”

There are other ways of getting involved in the community, whether that be joining a board of directors, as increasingly young professionals are doing, or becoming actively involved with organizations like Me to We, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards or even extra-curricular clubs that focus on nonprofits. Some school boards – such as the London District Catholic School Board — offer specialized courses and placements in social justice-oriented organizations. University students can also take on co-ops or internships working with nonprofit organizations.

It should be observed that working with nonprofits is not the only way to make a difference. Barroll says, “I’m all for students and grads contemplating and embracing a role in the nonprofit sector. We all benefit when some of the most energetic and brightest people are attracted to these areas. But you can still be engaged and involved and not necessarily work in the sector. Getting engaged with the nonprofit sector might lead someone to work within a CSR division of a corporation or with a funding agency. What’s important is to know that even one person can make an impact.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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