4 tips for breaking into the non-profit sector

Breaking into the non-profit sector requires planning, research, persistence and most of all, self-awareness with regard to what motivates you to succeed. People who join the non-profit sector may be driven by a particular cause or mission; or, maybe they are attracted to creating social change in a variety of ways. Individuals in this field are not necessarily driven by a big paycheck or other financial incentives. Of course they must provide for themselves and for their family, but their heart and head are motivated by doing good for others and creating change in society.

Here are some key things to consider when breaking into the non-profit sector:

  1. Passion and persistence in action will take you far! We all know the adage “your actions speak louder than words”. Get started now with putting your passion into action: Join a club, volunteer at a community organization through the Center for Civic Engagement, or at your religious institution to gain experience (and skills!) and network with other collaborating community organizations. Putting your work on display as a volunteer can be a great way to show your commitment to the cause, build rapport and get noticed. Don’t forget to take classes on campus that relate to human services, community engagement or other related topics. All of these experiences will build a strong and compelling track record of engagement!
  2. Understand the structure, lingo and nuances of working in a non-profit setting. As you do your research, you will quickly find that non-profit organizations are governed largely by a specific mission, donor/funding requirements and the Board of Directors who steer the ship. Within these confines, staff and leadership must be frugal and often times, think of creative, free or low costs ways to meet the mission of the organization.
  3. ‘Out of the box thinking’ is often required –  and you may have to wear many hats that you haven’t necessarily been trained for. The good news is that this provides more opportunity to gain hands-on experience in creating programs and procedures and grow overall. So in your application materials, be sure to showcase any contributions and/or innovations you designed and implemented in your past. I’ll never forget my boss leading our staff in an exercise to “draw the owl” with little to no direction or expertise in drawing, to drive the point home. We can be scrappy, resourceful, and innovative and still get the job done well. 





4. Keep your options open! It’s great to have a goal like a preferred company to work for or an ideal position/title in the non-profit sector, but don’t be so focused that you create blinders to other amazing opportunities. Remember, the non-profit sector is HUGE (in 2016, it represented 12.3 million jobs) and it is very possible that other options could be a great (or even better) fit! It also doesn’t mean you give up on your dream for working at X organization, it may just mean ‘not now’. Something else to consider – let’s say your focus is to find a community-facing position with direct interaction with beneficiaries, but you are offered a role at a great organization that is not at all what you had hoped for – Social Media and Marketing Intern, perhaps? Take a deep breath and consider what you could gain by accepting the role! Think of all the career competencies and institutional knowledge you will learn through the process. This could be your training ground for bigger things and a chance to prove yourself, and build rapport and trust with your colleagues – the heart of your success!


Bottom line – don’t give up. Be persistent. Engage in areas where your passion and skills shine. You WILL be ‘discovered’



By Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi
Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi Career Consultant Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi