Photo by Carina König

What comes to mind when someone says they work in the nonprofit sector? For most people, this statement usually invokes images of a soft-spoken, serene office setting. Similar to telling someone you work in a library, they might assume that your work life is fairly buttoned-up; possibly even bland. However, make no mistake about it, the nonprofit business is very much still a business. Often times, nonprofits operate similarly to a typical startup; crowdfunding, grassroots marketing, and a ton of networking to leverage connections within the community. In today’s world, nonprofits like RED and Charity Water are drawing social media savvy millennials into the charitable workforce. Clearly, this is no longer your mother’s nonprofit sector, and landing a position within one of these organizations is more competitive than ever before.

So what kind of person, or characteristics, are best suited for the nonprofit world beyond the obvious “compassionate individual”? Those looking to land a job at a nonprofit will have to do more than simply look good on paper. There is something to be said for company culture, as well as connecting to a cause in order to drive its mission.

Is Past Work Experience A Factor?

Rick Cohen is the COO of the National Council of Nonprofits, the nation’s largest network of nonprofit organizations. In his experience, when placing the right person in the right position, there really is no one-size-fits-all process. Various organizations will require various skill sets based on the mission at hand. Therefore, a laundry list of impressive office applications won’t get you very far. For instance, Rick says, “the skill set that an animal shelter would be looking for is different from the skillset that a community theatre would be looking for. Ultimately, the bottom line attribute is going to be a commitment to the mission of the organization. Sometimes that means looking for particular work experience or training that’s relevant to the organization. Sometimes that’s looking at the length of an applicant’s tenure at past organizations.”

When it comes to hiring someone for a position at Walk With Sally, a Los Angeles based nonprofit providing support and mentorship for children who have been impacted by cancer, Program Manager, Julie Cegelski agrees that a candidate’s “why” plays a major role.
“When hiring a new employee, the first thing I look for is the WHY – why is the potential employee applying for this job? We wear a lot of different hats working in the nonprofit sector so there will likely be added hours that you may not be compensated for the same as you would in another position. The motivation behind someone wanting to work for our mission and vision needs to be pretty strongly aligned. Otherwise, they may lose steam after the first six months.”

Further validating the idea that someone looking to work for a nonprofit needs to do their research before just deciding any nonprofit will do, Cegelski says, “most of our team has been directly impacted by cancer so that is the WHY when they are working nights/ weekends or driving long distances for events and outreach.”

What About Company Culture?

What kind of company culture can you expect working for a nonprofit? In today’s nonprofit world, the vibe isn’t as bland as it may have seemed in the past. As more and more millennials seek positions offering impactful and fulfilling work environments, it’s important for nonprofits to keep up. The company culture may be dependent on the mission at hand, or is it? When working with families who are facing cancer together, there is understandably a certain amount of tact and professionalism needed to carry out this mission.

Cegelski says that even while working at a nonprofit focused explicitly on something as serious as cancer, it isn’t all work and no play. “At Walk With Sally we like to have fun! We have weekly team meetings, happy hours, company retreats and an overall good time. We host a ton of fun and inspiring outreach events throughout the community each year, and then on some days, we may have a presentation at a hospital. It takes a unique personality to be able to connect with a family facing cancer and in the same day turn around and host a wine night for a special committee.”

Landing The Job

Shane Farthing is the Founder of Coherent Nonprofit, a strategy consultancy specifically for nonprofits. Prior to starting his consulting business, Farthing was in charge of hiring for a 40-year-old, Washington based nonprofit. In his experience, he says more often than not, candidates fail to properly showcase their connection to the mission. He suggests the best way to do this is to fully utilize one key factor: the cover letter.

“For some people, this may come from prior membership or volunteering or engagement. However, for most people, this comes in the form of a properly written cover letter. Most people misuse this space to discuss their experience and skills, but fall short when it comes to explaining how our mission motivates them to use those experiences and skills to improve the world around them.”

Farthing says candidates should skip the generalized cover letters, and instead use this as an opportunity to play to their more personal strengths. “Success in the nonprofit world requires us to connect our daily actions with a broader mission, both to maintain one’s own motivation and to inspire others to care, give, and participate. If you show that you can do that, I want you on my team.”

At the end of the day, it seems the experts agree – if you want to land your ideal job working in the nonprofit sector, you’d better have a deeper mission in mind. Rather than seeking out nonprofits as a whole, find the one that truly connects to your personal core values. By doing so, candidates not only increase their chances of a placement, but they also ensure that their work will be much more fulfilling.

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