Getting a Nonprofit Job Without Prior Experience: 7 Actions You Can Take Today

“I’m going to New York City for a conference,” Caroline* tells me, her face glowing. “They’re flying me out there.”

We are sitting on a bench at the Bundeskunsthalle (National Art Gallery), wine glass stems between our fingers, on opening night of an exhibit on the Bauhaus movement.

“I would have never thought I’d be working here. I never imagined this was all possible,” she says, a huge smile on her face, eyes alight with happiness. I am thrilled for her, knowing how far she has come.

We met exactly one year ago through our friend Alison*, and spent the evening eating quinoa salad, talking about our boyfriends, the difficulties of moving to a new country, and the absurdities of trying to figure out a career in sustainable development. Caroline was sad that evening, distraught because she could not find a job doing the kind of work she dreamed of doing. At one point, she burst into tears: “I don’t have any experience in this field. I’m working two jobs, trying so hard to find something, just to get my foot in the door, but it’s been five months and I haven’t found anything yet!”

Happily, her situation did not last long.

When summer began, Alison hosted a party, where she introduced Caroline to Gerhard, who runs an organisation that plays a key role in the sustainability sector. Caroline expressed her keen interest in getting her feet wet in the kind of work his organisation did in accrediting sustainability standards systems. Liking her open spirit and friendly energy, he offered her an internship. Caroline was thrilled with the opportunity, and, later that summer, began a full-time internship at the organisation. After the internship, she was offered a full-time job.

Wondering how you, too, can get your foot in the door of a dynamic organisation in the nonprofit and sustainability sector? Here are some things I’ve seen work for Caroline:

1. Look at every day as a networking opportunity.

Alison and Caroline met through a running group. It had nothing to do with sustainability or nonprofits, but was an informal atmosphere where she already felt comfortable, and could be her best self. Alison knew she was looking for a job, and later introduced her to Gerhard at a brunch at her place.

If you’re looking for a job, your friends will want to help. Let them know what you’re looking for, and don’t be shy about asking for an introduction.  

Networking doesn’t need to occur in a professional setting; in fact, it’s more beneficial if you can meet people while being comfortable, having fun, or working as a team. These things will give the best impression of your real self, which is the person that the Managing Director wants to hire, rather than a super professional and manicured version of yourself, who might be boring and forgettable.

2. Follow up strong.

“The first impression I gave Gerhard was not a good one. It was perhaps one of the worst first impressions I’ve ever made,” Caroline later told me.  But, as it turns out, first impressions can be overcome. Keen to get her feet wet in nonprofit work, and knowing he worked at a organisation in the sector, Caroline wrote to him a few days later, saying that she was interested in their work, with her resumé attached.

“I follow through on what I commit to, and ‘yes’ always means ‘yes,’” she wrote to him. She also mentioned her past experience working with people of different backgrounds, growing up in a racially-charged city, and moving to a new country as an adult.

It worked. By the end of that month, Caroline had an internship with the organisation, despite having no prior experience in the field.

“I expressed my interest, my work ethic, and my skill set, and that was enough,” she said.

3. Adopt a learning mentality.

Once you’re offered an internship or a job, don’t sit back and rest. Learn, pay attention, read – play catch up on the job. You will be surrounded by people who have been doing this work for a long time, and who are eager to share their knowledge and contacts – if they sense intellectual curiosity and passion for the cause.

Ask questions, pay attention in every conversation, and, whenever you can, use the vocabulary and jargon of the organisation.

4. Bring all of your skills to the table.

Caroline was hired as a communications intern, but, because she had previously worked as a waitress, was comfortable talking to strangers and thinking on her feet.

If you see an opportunity to contribute to the organisation that requires tasks outside your job description, propose your abilities to your supervisor. You’ll be seen as a self-starter who knows how to take initiative, and you’ll have the chance to show off skills that could lead to a job offer.  

5. Select for long-term success.

Caroline’s experience in the restaurant industry built up her people skills, which meant that once she joined as an intern, she was able to predict the team’s requests by paying attention in meetings and anticipating what her new colleagues might need.

Before joining the organisation’s communications team, Caroline had no experience designing a social media strategy, or writing a budget for an outreach programme. But because of her strong people skills, she was hired, and given the chance to develop new abilities.   

Choose to pursue jobs based on whether they will allow you to develop the skills you’ll need to get and perform the job you want to have in five years.

6. Market your outsider view.

Before her internship, Caroline had never worked in the nonprofit sector. But everyone values a fresh perspective, and her new colleagues were more than happy to hear her opinion on important matters.

I think back to my own conversation with a former boss, drinking cappuccinos together in the office cafeteria. “Why did you hire me, rather than another applicant?” I had asked him. “Because I knew you would bring us new ideas,” he responded, without missing a beat.

7. Build experience using a multi-pronged approach.

Before we called it a night, I asked Caroline if she wants to meet up again on Saturday. She tells me she’s going to volunteer with Democrats Abroad, working on their website and communications strategy.

Just like that, she’s building a portfolio of work that, alongside the learning opportunities she’s been gaining at her current job, she can use to demonstrate skills and expertise to future employers.

And that’s how everyone else gets jobs requiring five years of experience: by amalgamating a portfolio of projects that demonstrate that they have the skills and exposure required by the job posting.

Caroline’s previous restaurant experience might, at first, seem irrelevant to a nonprofit communications position, but she tied her ability to take accurate orders at a café to anticipating the needs and expectations of her colleagues (to succeed as an intern) and her passion for sustainability and the nonprofit sector to demonstrate that she would be a committed and active part of the organisation.

Which of your skills will you highlight to do the same in your next job search? Post in the comments below!

*Names changed to protect privacy.

About the author: 

Malaika Neri

Malaika Neri is a strategy expert for international nonprofits. She studied economic development and NGO management at New York University (NYU), and has since worked in Ecuador, Haiti, Madagascar, and Ghana, with projects funded by USAID, DFID, and UNEP. Malaika runs International NGO Jobs  where you can find tried and true methods for getting your foot in the door and landing your first job in international cooperation and development. 

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