Starting Your Nonprofit Career by Carissa DiGiovanni

We’ve all heard the news recently that the nonprofit sector will be enjoying a bit of a boom cycle in terms of hiring. In these tough times, that may have some of you reconsidering your commitment to dot-coms and wondering about dot-orgs instead. Or maybe your job is secure but you’ve always wanted to give back to society full-time. Or possibly you’re a recent grad who has wanted to work at a nonprofit ever since your parents started receiving those free mailing address labels. Whatever your reasons, potential nonprofit professionals, welcome to the field!

Here are a few thoughts on breaking into the sector:

Network, network, network! This is absolutely the best way to get a job.
Nonprofits traditionally have tighter budgets than for-profits and are slower to hire. Therefore, they want to make sure that a potential employee is a good fit. So how do you demonstrate that you’d be great to work with? Get to know people in the field.

  • Join YNPN Chicago and contact members in our database who have indicated that they are willing to mentor people. You should also connect with your undergraduate and/or graduate alumni association. Do a search by job field and start sending networking emails.
  • Use social media—you do it anyway. And don’t just stick to obvious sites like LinkedIn. Look through your hundreds of Facebook friends—one of them must work for a nonprofit. You should also join Twitter. A lot of nonprofits tweet their jobs online, as it’s free for them. Follow and interact with the ones that interest you, as well as nonprofit rockstars. PS: @YNPNChicago has a Jobs Monday, where we list jobs and job-related advice all day.
  • Learn how to write networking emails. How? Compose a quick note that briefly introduces yourself, what you currently do, your connection to the person (if any), and ask if the person could speak to you about their career.

Work with placement agencies.
Many people new to the nonprofit world are surprised to learn that nonprofits also use these firms. But nonprofits need to fill short-term and long-term temporary positions, as well as direct-hire positions, just like any other organization.

  • Target placement agencies known for their relationships with nonprofits. Careers in Nonprofits specializes in nonprofit placement. While Salem Staffing and A Personnel Commitment do not focus on placing nonprofiteers, they do work with many nonprofits.
  • Tell them that you have a specific interest in being placed at a nonprofit. This is a win-win for both the agency and for you. You look focused and smart, and they are assured of an employee that is committed to doing a good job for them.
  • Make sure you shine once you’re placed somewhere, even if it’s short-term. If you finish your work early, volunteer for more. If your manager complains about an unfinished letter or an IT issue and you have the relevant skills, offer to help. Organizations often keep favorite temps on longer than originally contracted for or even offer them full-time positions.

If you’re not volunteering now, many nonprofits will wonder why you want to work in the field. Volunteering will help you show that you’re committed. It’s also another way to make connections and learn more about the sector.

  • Find an opportunity through It has a great searchable database, where you can look for a volunteering experience via cause, need, and location. If you want to get experience planning events, managing volunteers, working with children, or grantwriting, Idealist can help you find that easily.
  • Work with smaller nonprofits, so you can wear more hats and, consequently, develop more skills. They will also remember you better when it’s reference time.
  • Short on time? Not sure what kind of nonprofit you want to work for? Try flexible volunteering organizations like One Brick Chicago or Chicago Cares. You can stuff envelopes for an educational organization or staff an arts festival.

A few other ideas…

If you already work for a for-profit, seek out its philanthropic arm. Large companies often have a foundation; see if your boss will let you do some work for them. Smaller companies usually have an annual volunteer event; offer to help organize it or recruit volunteers. Almost every for-profit has an annual fundraising drive for a charity such as United Way. Volunteer to solicit donations or be the liaison to the charity.

Just apply.
Once you’ve done a lot of networking, it wouldn’t hurt to apply for positions via,, or After all, now that you’ve developed a network of connections at different nonprofits, chances are you’ll walk into one of your interviews knowing someone. One of our committee members met five people through networking at one large nonprofit she had applied to online. She ended up getting the job.

And finally:

Remember to be patient.
It might take a while to break into the nonprofit sector. Keep applying, networking, and developing your skills. Check in with your connections every few months if you’re not making progress on the interviewing and job front. Maybe you need more skills? More experience? More connections? Tweak and revise as needed.

Carissa DiGiovanni is the Communications Specialist for Principal Gifts at Illinois Institute of Technology. She has four years of experience in the nonprofit sector, primarily in fundraising, and over ten years of professional writing and teaching experience. Carissa graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in Art History from Grinnell College and earned an M.A. in Women’s Studies from San Diego State University. She also has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in English from Indiana University-Bloomington. She is a moderator for @YNPNChicago on Twitter.

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3 Responses to Starting Your Nonprofit Career by Carissa DiGiovanni

  1. Pon Angaara says:

    Great insight, thank you Carissa!

  2. Pingback: College Recruiting, Revisited « A Second Look

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