Some professions have a straightforward career path—you study pre-med in college, then go to medical school, then do your residency, and then you’re a doctor. Or you go to college, then law school, do a summer internship, and then start working at a firm. The nonprofit sector offers more varied paths. Depending on how you look at it, this can be either daunting or wonderfully liberating. Here’s the lowdown on the winding nature of career paths in the nonprofit and social good sector.
Getting your foot in the door
Good news! There are many ways to get started with a nonprofit or social good career. Liberal Arts majors often enter the nonprofit sector via program roles, putting their critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills to work performing direct service, for example. Others might get their start as executive assistants or helping to manage relationships with grantmakers. Not the Liberal Arts type? Many nonprofit employees make their initial inroads with a particular “hard” skillset—for example, as web developers, accountants, or scientists. And more and more nonprofits are taking advantage of the millennial generation’s comfort with Facebook and Twitter, and hiring social media experts straight out of college. And here’s a pro-tip for you: many new employees are hired after volunteering or interning with the organization or a partner organization, so if you’re thinking about entering the field, start searching now.
Mobility in the social good world
Once you’re hired into the nonprofit or social good sector, you’ll find many routes to a varied career. Nonprofits provide opportunities to wear lots of hats, take on many responsibilities, and move between issues. And the path towards executive directorship can wind through a slew of different departments including fundraising, program development, volunteer management, community organizing, and marketing.
Here are several ways to make moves within and from the nonprofit and social good sector:
- Make lateral moves within a single issue area. This is the ideal strategy for someone committed to a particular cause. For example, you might start out volunteering at a homeless shelter for battered women, and after several years, you apply for and get a job coordinating the volunteer program. Later, inspired by the charismatic Director of Development, you decide to learn to write grant proposals. After several years of working for the shelter, you learn about an opening with a domestic violence prevention program. You begin to wonder if you can have a larger impact if you focus on prevention. You feel your experience largely qualifies you for the position, though you’ll have to brush up on your marketing skills. You take a nonprofit marketing course at a university, and begin applying for jobs. Get the idea? If you’re committed to a particular cause, you may want to become familiar with the various roles, organizations, approaches, and necessary skills required to make an impact.
- Make lateral moves between causes. This might be the strategy for those who have a particular set of skills that they want to hone, but don’t want to focus on a single issue. Sometimes people feel they need to “pick a cause,” but the truth is, the nonprofit sector is full of people with “transferable” skills. For example, the community organizing skills you honed in your years of running voter registration drives will serve you well even if you later switch to a career in climate change advocacy. Of course there’s tremendous value in going deep into a single issue, but sometimes a fresh take is needed to inspire innovative solutions to big problems.
- Switch sectors. Who says the nonprofit sector is the only place you can make a difference? Bringing your knowledge of nonprofits to a career in corporate philanthropy, socially responsible business, social enterprise, higher education, or public service might provide you with a whole new kind of job satisfaction. You might appreciate the work environment, the benefits, your colleagues, or the different approach to social change in ways you hadn’t anticipated. If you think you might someday like to make a switch, consider what transferable skills you want to develop, as well as who you need to have in your network.
- Do it all. I recently asked my niece, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Like many six-year-olds, she has already grasped the power of a “slash career,” as evidenced by her quick response: “I’m going to be an astronaut/scientist/artist.” (“Slash career” is a term popularized by Marci Alboher in her book One Person / Multiple Careers. It describes people who pursue several paths—think lawyer/chef or doctor/painter.) Nonprofit employees have been wearing multiple hats at work since before it was considered cool to do so. This is especially true in small and newer nonprofits where people have titles like “Director of Human Resources and Business Development” or “Operations and Technology Manager.” Keep in mind this isn’t always a good thing—it can lead to burnout and might be indicative of a lack of necessary resources. But if you’re a true polymath, you might feel most satisfied with two or even three job titles.
There are different ways to move in and around the nonprofit and social good sector. You may find this overwhelming, as it’s difficult to map out a full career. However, you don’t have to commit to one defined career path. Instead, make it your goal to acquire true expertise in the fields that interest you, hone a set of diverse and rare skills, and seek out connections between seemingly disparate areas. You’ll serve the sector best if you forge your own path.