Careers in the Nonprofit Sector

Many macro-practice social workers and higher education professionals pursue employment in the nonprofit sector. Most arts/culture, education, health care, civic, religious, and human services organizations fall into this category. However, students and recent graduates are often unfamiliar with the different types of job functions in the nonprofit sector. Most of the information below is taken from The Nonprofit Career Guide: How to Land a Job That Makes a Difference by Shelly Cryer (2008).

What is a Nonprofit Organization?
  • under U.S. tax law, not required to pay taxes
  • under Section 501(c), the gifts received by qualified nonprofit organizations are also tax deductible
  • under the tax status of 501(c)(3), are public charities that are "organized and operated exclusively for one or more of the following purposes: religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literacy, education, or prevention of cruelty to children or animals"
  • self-governing (must generate their own revenue by other means, such as contracts with government agencies, fundraising, fees for goods and services, and grants from foundations).
  • more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the United States (Source: National Center for Charitable Statistics)
  • are mission-driven; not profit-driven
  • exist to serve a public benefit;
  • highly value volunteerism and altruism;
  • are governed by a board of directors;
  • are flexible and autonomous.

Classification of the Nonprofit Sector
  • arts, culture, and humanities
  • education
  • environment and animals
  • health
  • human and social services
  • international and foreign affairs 
  • public or societal benefit
  • religious organizations
  • business, professional and trade/labor organizations
  • scientific and research organizations

Classification of Activities within the Nonprofit Sector
  • direct service
  • advocacy
  • awards and competitions
  • capacity building
  • communications and public education
  • fundraising and financial support
  • licensure and certification programs
  • management, administrative, and technical support
  • membership programs
  • professional development and training
  • research and public policy analysis
  • volunteer programs

Most job functions are grouped in five broad categories of responsibility:
  • senior management
    (including executive director and associate director positions)
  • programs and service delivery*
    (including advocacy, counseling and direct social services, education and training, and research and policy positions)
  • administration, human resources, and finance
    (including accounting and finance, operations, clerical and data entry, human resources, information technology, sales and telemarketing, and customer service positions)
  • development and fundraising
    (including annual fund, grant writing and administration*, major gifts, planned giving, and special events positions)
  • communications (including editing, and publications; graphic design; marketing and advertising; media relations; and web development and design positions)
* These functions are typically the most popular entry-level positions for macro-practice social workers and higher education professionals.

Advocacy work typically refers to an organization's activism around a specific issue. It is often framed as campaign work (similar to lobbying) and involves developing and implementing the external strategies and organization employs to advance its mission  engage target audiences, educate, and enact change. These jobs attract strong leaders, organizers, coalition builders, networkers, educators, public speakers, and writers who know their issues inside and out.

Counseling and direct social services jobs involve direct interaction with children, adults, or families to make their lives better and their communities stronger. It includes social services jobs from social work, case management, and substance abuse treatment to domestic violence counseling and mentoring. These jobs attract individuals with great "people skills," who enjoy hands-on work and are patient, attentive, and giving. They often have a lot of energy and know how to take care of themselves in their personal lives so that they don't burn out. The educational requirements vary greatly; some positions will require an MSW (Master of Social Work), others only a high school diploma. The skills required will also depend on the specific position and type of clients served.

Educators and trainers develop and implement curricula, design assessment tools to evaluate the success of the educational programs, and manage support staff. These jobs attract individuals who have a particular commitment to a target population, and usually some experience (even if just volunteer) working with that population. The work relies on strong communication and organization skills, sensitivity to cultural diversity, enthusiasm, and motivation. These jobs may require advanced degrees in education or related fields and a willingness to work irregular hours, when the training take place.

Research and policy staff direct projects, evaluate programs, design surveys and other data collection instruments, and serve as spokespeople to the media and other target audiences on their areas of expertise. These jobs attract individuals with a scholarly background and experience with qualitative and quantitative work. They often require familiarity with statistical software, excellent project management and writing skills, and possibly an advanced degree.

The best development professional thinks long term and perform work that is deliberate and involves relationship building. They identify individuals, foundations, and corporations with shared passion and values, and deeply engage them in advancing the mission of an organization. Supporters are cultivated over time, and become emotionally (and eventually financially) invested in the work of the organization. They are apt to write and administer grants and assist with special events.

Exercise: Which job function sounds most like you?

Big versus Small Nonprofit Organizations

Larger organizations tend to have…
Smaller organizations tend to have…
  • Larger budgets and higher salaries
  • More clearly defined (and rigid) job descriptions
  • Greater range of positions available
  • More formal work environments and more traditional work cultures
  • Better and more comprehensive benefits
  • More opportunities for advancement and a more clearly defined career ladders, but a greater likelihood that staff are “tracked” in a certain job function
  • Less access to senior leaders (both executives and board members) for entry-level and junior staff members
  • Slower response to developments in the fields
  • Based in metropolitan areas, so even if salaries are slightly higher, the living costs may be higher as well

  • More opportunities for employees to develop a range of skills and experiences
  • Greater emphasis on multitasking
  • More contact among board members and senior and junior staff
  • Greater “family” culture and team spirit among all staff members
  • Less financial security
  • Fewer benefits and lower salaries
  • Greater freedom in responding to the latest developments in the field
  • Can be based in any size community

Compensation in the Nonprofit Sector by Experience and Job Level

Years of work
experience after
Entry-level jobs
(assistant, associate, fellow, analyst, coordinator)
Mid-level jobs
(specialist, manager, officer, assistant director)
Senior-level jobs
(director, vice president, chief officer, administrator)
0 – 5 years
5 – 10 years
10+ years
Data (2007) provided by Commongood Careers under the assumption of a bachelor's degree. Salaries based on a mid-sized nonprofit organization in a metropolitan region. Master's degree holders can earn $10,000–20,000 more and doctoral degree holders can earn $20,000–40,000 more. For example, a program associate with a master's degree and 0-5 years of experience can expect their salary to be $35,000-50,000. In 2015, that number is equivalent to $42,000-57,000.

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