Careers in Nonprofits

Introduction to Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofits are mission-driven organizations dedicated to addressing a particular social issue or advocating for a cause. In technical terms, “nonprofit” refers to an organization's tax-exempt status under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code Section as a 501(c)(3) organization. What this means is that surplus revenue generated through fundraising, programming, and services is untaxed, but these dollars go towards supporting the organization’s stated goals rather than paying its leaders and board members. As a result, nonprofits are set up with a strict focus on fulfilling their mission and serving their community.

While all nonprofits share a commitment to bettering society in some capacity, they are incredibly diverse in terms of size, focus, and type. In the United States alone there are millions of nonprofits ranging from small, community-based organizations, to cultural and educational institutions such as museums, universities and colleges (like Wellesley!) to large foundations supporting causes around the globe. Nonprofits are engaged in a range of issues, some of the most common including education, health, poverty, arts, the environment, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, food security, and racial justice. This variation among nonprofit organizations means that it is possible to pursue a career in a nonprofits across numerous industries including, but not limited to:

  • Museums, community arts, and cultural heritage
  • Public and community health, including women's and mental health
  • Philanthropy and charitable giving
  • Higher education
  • Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s)
  • Community-based education
  • Environmental advocacy
  • Policy research and advocacy
  • Activism and organizing
  • Community development 


Professional Roles Within the Nonprofit Sphere

As we just learned, there is great variety within the world of nonprofits. Nevertheless, there are several types of roles that exist across almost all organizations. Some of these will look similar to jobs found in the for-profit sector, whereas others are distinctive to the nonprofit sphere. The most common nonprofit roles fall into these broad categories:

  • Senior Leadership: Roles in senior leadership are responsible for the overall management and vision of the nonprofit organization. Individuals in senior leadership roles often focus on strategy, high-level fundraising, partnership building, board management, and finance. 
    • Example Job Titles: Chief Executive Officer, Executive Director, President, Chief Operating Officer
  • Programs and Service Delivery: Roles in this category can vary widely depending on seniority, organization size, and mission focus. However, jobs in this category oversee, manage, and assist with an organization's programming, service delivery, and special projects and initiatives. Often, these roles are community-facing, focusing on building relationships with and serving the needs of community members and those they serve.
    • Example Job Titles: Program Director, Program Manager, Program Coordinator, Volunteer Coordinator, Director of Special Projects, Director of Training & Learning, Community Engagement Manager
  • Development: Roles in development are essential to the functioning of nonprofits as they are responsible for fundraising and managing donor relationships. While smaller nonprofits may have only one or two development officers who are responsible for all of the organization's fundraising needs, as the size of an organization grows, development roles will likewise grow and diversify to meet the financial needs and aspirations of the nonprofit.
    • Example Job Titles: Major Gifts Officer, Development Associate, Director of Major Gifts and Planned Giving, Donor Event Coordinator, Grant Writer, Manager of Corporate Giving, Assistant Director of Fundraising Strategy, Donor Research Coordinator
  • Communications: Even for the smallest nonprofits, communications is essential for an organization to develop its brand, share its mission, initiatives and impact with the public, and communicate with partners, constituents, and donors. In the last decade, communications roles have largely shifted into the digital sphere, with increased emphasis on social media, digital marketing, and targeted email campaigns. 
    • Example Job Titles: Communications Director, Director of Public Affairs, Social Media Manager, Graphic Designer, Marketing Specialist, Community Outreach Coordinator
  • Research, Evaluation, and Measurement: Nonprofits rely on data, measurement, and evaluation to better understand their constituents and community, determine and improve the effectiveness of their programs, and continuously learn about and research the external systems and forces that impact their work. While some organizations are research-based, engaging in primary research as a part of their mission that will then be disseminated to outside audiences, others engage in research, evaluation, and measurement as a means to continuously improve their work and expand its impact. Roles in this category will range from highly technical and quantitative roles to systems-based thinking, to qualitative research. 
    • Example Job Titles: Director of Evaluation and Monitoring, Senior Researcher, Policy Analyst, Research Coordinator, Database Manager, Community Involvement Specialist
  • Administration, Human Resources, IT, and Finance: These roles are critical to the day-to-day operations of any nonprofit. Roles in this category are essentially the same as their counterparts in for-profit companies, creating the potential for easy movement for such professionals between the two spheres. Of note, information technology roles are growing especially fast as web presence and online giving become increasingly important for nonprofit success.
    • Example Job Titles: Office Manager, Human Resource Generalist, Accountant, Executive Assistant, IT Specialist, Payroll Manager, Chief Financial Officer, Office Coordinator, Website Manager

The size, budget, and and type of nonprofit will greatly affect the number, type, and level of specialization of roles within an organization. Additionally, many nonprofits will also need staff with expertise in particular subject matter. For example, a community health clinic will need case workers, clinical practitioners such as doctors and nurses, and patient services professionals. A nonprofit that offers afterschool programs will need teachers, tutors, coaches, and curriculum designers. A climate change advocacy organization will need employees with environmental, legal, and organizing expertise. Depending on your interests, skills, and interests, there are so many potential career paths in the nonprofit sector. 


Considering a Career in Nonprofits

The wide variety of nonprofit organizations and the diversity of roles within them can make it a bit difficult to start the process of determining whether a career in nonprofits is the right choice for you. As you beginning the process of considering a career in nonprofits, a helpful place to start is by asking yourself a few questions, such as:

Questions to ask yourself Questions for the nonprofit sphere
What causes and/or issues are you passionate about and want to support? What organizations work on those causes and issues?
What values drive you and your work? What organizations share and support those values, both through their work and their organizational culture?
What relevant knowledge do you have and what skills do you enjoy using? What job functions or roles would enable you to draw upon that knowledge and use those skills?
What types of job functions or roles interest you? What types of skills and knowledge do you need to gain to qualify you for those types of positions?


As you begin to consider these questions, you’ll likely discover there is even more about working in the nonprofit that you’d like to learn. At this point, a great next step is to set up informational interviews with individuals working in nonprofits to get a better sense of what their work looks like on a daily basis, learn what steps they took to get to where they are professionally, and glean any advice they may have for entering into the nonprofit sector. The Wellesley Hive is an amazing resource where you can identify alumnae who may be doing work similar to your own interests and goals. 


Employment Resources for the Nonprofit Sector

Ready to start searching for nonprofit jobs, internships, and/or volunteer opportunities? Here are some useful job boards and professional organizations that will help you identify open positions, learn about networking opportunities, and better familiarize yourself with the nonprofit landscape:
National Resources
Resources Specific to Massachusetts
Remember, you can also find nonprofit jobs using Handshake and other general job search sites such as Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and SimplyHired.

Okay, but can I make a living working in nonprofits?

Yes! One of the most common misconceptions is that individuals working in the nonprofit sector earn far less than their peers in the for-profit or government sectors. This is not necessarily the case. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earnings between sectors are quite similar. In fact, in some sectors such as education, health care and social services, and cultural institutions, median annual wages in the nonprofit sphere slightly surpass those in the for-profit sphere. 
Event better, job growth in the nonprofit industry has been strong historically. New research findings reported by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies Nonprofit Economic Data Project reveals that between 2007 and 2016 nonprofit employment grew by nearly 17% while for-profit employment grew by less than 5%. Considering that this time period was dominated by the years following the 2008 recession, this growth underlines the resilience of the nonprofit sector. More importantly, these findings highlight that as government and for-profit businesses tighten their belts in times of scarcity, it largely falls to nonprofit organizations to pick up the slack and provide needed services. Looking forward, this strong growth is expected to continue, with some notably strong projections for fundraising (15%) and social and community service occupations generally (14%).
Granted, entry level nonprofit positions are never going to offer comparable compensation packages than those in the financial or tech industries. However, when considering a career in nonprofits, it is important to consider more than salary alone. Recognizing that their salaries tend to be a bit lower, many nonprofits are actively promoting policies that provide their employees with a good work/life balance. This may come in the form of generous time off, the option to work from home, transportation reimbursements, or robust health insurance packages. It might also take the form of more horizontal organizational structures and opportunities for professional development. Also, working at a nonprofit can be personally fulfilling, giving you the opportunity to work for an organization that shares your values and is working to address a social issue or advance an agenda that resonates with you. It is difficult to assess the monetary value of meaningful work.  
To put this into perspective, here are a few illustrative statistics for Massachusetts nonprofits in 2017:
  • The average base salary for an entry-level position was $28,700
  • The average base salary for a manager-level position was $58,600
  • The average base salary for a director-level position was $80,900
  • The average base salary for an executive-level position was $127,100
Additionally, according to the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, the nonprofit sector is especially strong in the Massachusetts, with over 529,000 nonprofit jobs (making up 17% of the workforce) at the end of 2015. Of particular interest, the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts extends beyond the typical education, healthcare, social services, and arts spaces, encompassing industries not typically associated with nonprofits including professional and technical services, life sciences, maagement, finance, and information. In other words, no matter your academic background and professional interests, there are spaces for you in the nonprofit sector.

Next Steps

To continue to learn about the nonprofit sector, set up an appointment with Katy Ryan, the Career Community Advisor for Education, Nonprofit & Social Impact. 
Also, make sure to sign up for the ENSI Newsletter to learn about jobs and internships, resources, industry trends, and events. Follow these steps to register for the newsletter:
  • Click "Your Career Interests" on the left sidebar in Handshake
  • Scroll down and select any communities that interest you under the question, "Which Wellesley Career Community Best Matches Your Interests?"