Advice on Working in the Nonprofit Sector

Many of our majors express interest in working for nonprofit organizations, but often struggle to know how to break into such careers.

A good place to start would be attending our October 5th Homecoming event. We’ll have a Nonprofits table, whose featured alumni will include former History/Theatre major Carey Morrison (’05), co-founder of Theatre Terra Firma. Then one other History alum working in the nonprofit sector, Tim Krueger (’10), will be at the Writing & Publishing table — he’s the publications coordinator for Christians for Biblical Equality.

Then as we interviewed some alumni from other humanities disciplines for the brief film that will open the event on the 5th, we received some excellent advice from two Bethel grads who have experience in the nonprofit sector: Michael Lawyer (Individualized Major, ’98) and Amy (Morris) Williams (English Literature, ’07). We didn’t have time to include their comments in the film, but received permission to quote them at length for this post.

HUD sealMichael, who worked for churches and nonprofits before going back to law school and taking a position with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, told us that

The great thing about nonprofits is that because they can’t always pay market rate for top-flight professionals, they are willing to give people a chance who may not have the résumé but have the desire and the ability… one of the things that’s really important about that is that mission connection: You’re working on something that you love…. [Nonprofits] really have a great sense for and look for people who long for the mission that they’re trying to do. So the advice would be: find time to do that as much as you can. Volunteer while you’re still in school; get the connections out there doing that. There may be an unpaid internship before there’s a paid gig, but if you hang around long enough, if you demonstrate that this is the thing that you love to do… There’s a way that these things seem to work out: rent gets paid. It’s not always more than that, but it gets taken care of.

A majors gifts officer with Ecumen, which provides housing and services to thousands of senior citizens, Amy started with the advice she wished someone had told her:

Your first job is going to be so crappy, and you’re going to feel way overqualified for it, and you might not even need a college degree to do it. But you will actually be the perfect amount qualified, and you’ll learn a lot of things. And the important thing is that you work really hard in that job and do the best you can and exceed expectations so that you can move into a different role….

Ecumen logoShe also emphasized that, important as it is to connect with an organization’s mission, the key starting out is to make the most of the chance to build skills and connections:

…some people want to get into nonprofits because they’re passionate about a specific cause, and I really applaud that, but I would say: be willing to expand that interest. There’s a lot of translatable skills within the nonprofit sector that you can bring if you are working in academic and you can transfer into health care, into arts, so on and so forth. After you’ve been in it for a while, it’s maybe not as easy to make the leap, but when you’re first starting out, don’t feel limited because there’s not something open that area that you’re passionate about. You can develop skills that will help you later down the line. And definitely network with people who are in that sector. So being willing to take that job that maybe isn’t exactly what you want to do in a sector that may not be exactly what you were looking for, and just really dig in and learn…

Finally, Amy addressed the topic of compensation, and whether you need to work in this sector full-time to support the mission of nonprofits:

I do also firmly believe that you don’t have to starve to be working in a nonprofit. And I think a lot of people feel intimidated by the fact that “they’ll never make any money.” It’s really easy to say you shouldn’t be worrying about money, but you are worrying about money because you just spent a lot of money on a degree, and you have to eat and pay rent if you’re not going to live with your parents forever. But there are a lot of nonprofits that are willing to compensate fairly, and if you can’t find one that you want to work for then you can do nonprofit work on the side and jump into when you’re ready.

Another great resource is the Nonprofit Job Board at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits website. It currently lists about 130 internships and over a thousand full- and part-time jobs.

And as we mentioned in a recent round-up of job fairs, the Minnesota Government & Nonprofit Career Fair will be held at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union on Monday, Oct. 28, 9am – 3pm. Register with Bethel’s Office of Career Development and Calling.

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