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If you asked me my freshman year of college where I thought I would be in fifteen years — or even where I would be after graduation — I would not have said "working in the nonprofit sector." I had earned a B.A. in philosophy, politics and law from Binghamton University in upstate New York, and I had every intention of attending law school. But life often takes you in surprising directions, and when a job opened up at The Blue Card, a national nonprofit that provides resources and financial assistance to struggling Holocaust survivors, I knew it was something I needed to do.
I started at the organization in 2009 as a program coordinator, became a program director the following year, and in 2013 took on the leadership role of executive director. My grandparents had fled Nazi persecution, so I had a personal connection to the organization's work. By making it possible for me to work toward a mission I believe in, the job has given me back as much — and more — as I've put into it.
So to those college grads who are heading out into the world, allow me this piece of advice: think about taking a nonprofit job as your first job.
I know, it's not the craziest idea you've ever heard. Research from Johns Hopkins University shows that, collectively, nonprofits are the nation's third largest employer, behind only the retail and manufacturing sectors. And while I could go on and on about why the nonprofit sector is a wonderful place to begin your career, I'll give you my elevator pitch.
There's plenty of room to grow. The best thing about working at a nonprofit organization is the relative lack of bureaucracy. In fact, most nonprofits are places where you can turn any role into a "stretch role" — that is, a place where you can seek out and perform tasks that fall outside your official job responsibilities. It's not that most nonprofit managers will let you take ownership of a project; in many cases, you'll be expected to. Take it from me, a crash course in grantwriting, budget planning, or government relations can put you on the fast track to a job with even more responsibility.
Nonprofits also provide lots of opportunities for moving around. Not loving the job you were hired to fill? Although you may not be paid as well as your peers in the for-profit sector, you're likely to find it a lot easier to switch to a different department or try something completely different.
There's no lack of opportunities to build marketable skills. When it comes to building marketable skills, new nonprofit employees often are surprised at how quickly they are thrown into the deep end of the pool — I'm talking about everything from writing and editing, to social media marketing, to budgeting, analytics, and project management.
Because most nonprofits have no choice but to be entrepreneurial, they also tend to be great places for honing your soft skills — interpersonal, critical thinking, social, or emotional. And with the rapid emergence of the competitive digital economy, soft skills such as empathy, adaptability, resourcefulness, creativity, ability to manage, and tolerance for risk are becoming more and more desirable to all types of employers.
There's little chance of getting sidetracked. Working at a nonprofit is a good way to gain real-world experience while you're attending, or contemplating, grad school. One reason is that nonprofit employers tend to be more flexible than for-profits about part-time or non-traditional work schedules. During my time at The Blue Card, for instance, I've been able to earn an MBA.
Whether it comes as a surprise or not, one day, like me, you might even wake up and realize the job you thought you would only have for a year or two is a job that you love and hope to have for years to come. A recent survey from nonprofit job site Work for Good found that once people start working in a nonprofit, they tend to stick around. Of the 58 percent who started their careers outside the nonprofit sector and switched over, 88 percent said they planned to stay in the sector. The survey also found that mission-driven workers tend to be committed to their work, with 93 percent of respondents — nearly three times the national average — saying they are highly or somewhat engaged in their jobs.
"Opportunity" is a word I use a lot when talking about what nonprofit and philanthropic organizations have to offer to someone just starting his or her career. As with any job, however, opportunity is only what you make of it. Here are a few additional pieces of advice for those interested in taking full advantage:
- Say "yes." Most people starting out at a nonprofit will find themselves being asked to take on tasks they might never get close to as a junior employee at a for-profit corporation. It could be anything from representing your organization at a conference, to networking with stakeholders and decision makers, to public speaking. When those doors open, say "yes" and try to walk through them with confidence and pep in your step.
- Be transparent about your goals. When you're speaking to prospective nonprofit employers, let them know the kind of role you're looking for — or (if it's the case) that you're thinking about pursuing a postgraduate degree. That way, both you and your future employer will be on the same page about needs — yours and theirs.
- Embrace the start-up mindset. Nonprofits come in all shapes and sizes, but it's a pretty good bet you'll be asked to jump right in and get your hands dirty. That's good, and you should use it to your advantage. Ask to be allowed to try on different hats, and show that you're are a team player who will do what it takes to get the job done.
- Show your passion for the cause. If you're thinking about going to work for a nonprofit, know that the work is about more than the job description. Any prospective nonprofit employer will want to see that you're a good fit with the organization's mission and culture. Nonprofits tend to be cause driven for a reason, and your employer will want to know that the cause is as important to you as it is to your future colleagues.
Maybe you don't know what you want to do for the rest of your life, or what industry you'd like to apply your field of study to. That's okay. A nonprofit career has shown me that there's more than one way to make use of my degree and my talents. It's shown me that working to further a mission or cause I feel totally connected to is extremely rewarding. And it's shown me that while doing good often means making sacrifices, it doesn't have to mean sacrificing my career.
Masha Pearl is executive director of The Blue Card, the only organization in the United States with the sole mission of providing direct, ongoing aid to Holocaust survivors in need. To learn more about the organization and its programs, visit www.bluecardfund.org.