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3 lessons I learned about job hunting after finding my first nonprofit job

The transition from school to the workforce can be a daunting one. In this piece, Tasasha Henderson, a grant writer in Chicago, shares the lessons she learned about searching for a job in the nonprofit sector after completing graduate school. If you want more help job hunting, check out our job-seeker resources.

Photo credit: slightly everything, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: slightly everything, Creative Commons/Flickr

It took me longer than I thought it would to discover my passion and career interests. Of course, I know that I will grow and change, but as I approached graduation and prepared to enter the workforce, I needed a focus. Fortunately, after four years of undergrad, two years of grad school, plus several internships and volunteer experiences, I realized that I wanted to make things better for low-income communities by contributing my research and writing skills to organizations that provided social services. So during my last year of grad school in 2011, I set out to find a job in the nonprofit sector that would allow me to put my passion into practice.

In searching for my first full-time nonprofit job after years of school, volunteering, and interning, I learned a lot about myself and the job-search process. Here are some tips to keep in mind if you are looking for your first nonprofit gig.

Volunteering is valuable.

And not just for the hiring managers (although they certainly value volunteer experience in potential employees) but also for my own growth. It was through volunteering with College Mentors for Kids while in college that I became interested in working in the nonprofit sector. College Mentors for Kids is an after-school program that brings at-risk elementary school kids to a local college campus, where college students help them with reading and share insights about the college experience. As a volunteer in this program, I loved seeing the kids’ curiosity and excitement when reading or learning about college. After that experience, I started thinking about pursuing a career, where I could make a difference in the lives of others, leading me to explore nonprofits.

There are plenty of places to find great volunteer opportunities, including Idealist and even on campus. If you want more structure and support in your volunteering, join an associates or junior board of a nonprofit. It’s a great way to support an issue you’re passionate about, gain leadership skills, and learn about job opportunities.

Gaining skills and finding a cause you love are equally important.

During graduate school I did six (!) internships, two at the same time. All of the organizations I interned with worked on different issues. At the time, I thought it was more important to focus on gaining experience and skills in a specific job role, which for me was fundraising. My focus on fundraising resulted from my love of writing and wanting to use this skillset to contribute to changing lives for the better. (Also, I’ve realized that at many nonprofits, especially if you’re just starting out, your job duties extend beyond your position. You’ll often be called upon to help others throughout the organization, so it’s good to have a variety of skills.)

Now, I think it’s just as important to gain experience in causes you are passionate about as it is to gain work experience. During my job search, I noticed that many organizations stated that they preferred candidates who had experience either working on a specific issue or with a specific population. At the time, I just wanted to help people who needed it, but I think it would have been valuable to build experience on specific issues to give me a greater edge in the job search.

Demonstrating fit means showing passion.

Even though I did not have experience working on homelessness issues before joining my current organization, I demonstrated my fit by emphasizing my experience with other underserved populations, specifically incarcerated girls. I was able to show a passion for helping the members of our society who are too often ignored. Not having experience working on a specific issue shouldn’t deter you from applying for a job with an organization that seems interesting to you. What worked for me was showing my understanding of how the issues I worked on previously are related to the issue the organization works on, and that I would make a commitment to learning more about the specific cause of the organization.

I’m early in my career, so I know that my career journey is going to take many twists and turns and I’m excited to go along for a ride. In the meantime, these lessons will help me as I continue to grow and work in this sector.

What lessons have you learned while searching for a job in the nonprofit sector?

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Tasasha Henderson currently works as a grant writer for a nonprofit organization that provides housing and supportive services for homeless individuals and families. Her experience includes working with organizations that tackle issues such as mental health, HIV/AIDS, and juvenile justice. You can read her blog where she writes about social issues that matter most to her.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Samira

    Nice article!

  2. Tiffany

    I question the value of volunteering. I have been in the nonprofit sector for about 8 years, and switch jobs every 3 years or so. I have been to a lot of interviews. Never once has anyone ever asked me about my volunteer experience. And it’s not as though my volunteer careers has been boring, I have volunteered as a probation officer, data manager, event planner, and at-risk youth counsellor. Never once has any interviewer/future employer ever asked about it. This makes me think it doesn’t matter.
    When asked why people volunteer, the number one reason is because it’s important to do good deeds. The second reason is usually less altruistic, work experience, new skills development, etc. Perhaps employers are doing the same. They say volunteer experience matters, but it really doesn’t.

    • Sara

      To Tiffany’s comment: I think it is out responsibility to bring up our volunteer experience in an interview if we think it has given us applicable skills to the position we’re applying for. Perhaps the titles of your volunteer positions don’t sound relevant, so they don’t ask – you have to draw the lines for them (as Ms. Henderson says “demonstrating fit”) as to how it makes you a better candidate. If you’re applying to be a grant writer, perhaps serving food at a soup kitchen isn’t very applicable, so I wouldn’t bother mentioning it, but if I had done fundraising for the soup kitchen I would make a point of mentioning it, either in the cover letter or in the interview when they ask about my relevant experience.

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