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Beyond Passion | How To Gain Experience That Will Make You Irresistible To Nonprofits

A chalkboard that says 'I heart my work.'

Passion. It’s the one word I see the most on applications and cover letters. “My passion alone makes me uniquely qualified for this position.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but passion alone isn’t going to get you hired.

Don’t get me wrong, passion is also one of the most essential things in a good employee. If you work in a nonprofit or a socially-minded organization, passion is what gets you through boring meetings, frustrating days, and the inevitable challenges of this type of work. Passion is what helps you hang in there when the pay is low and the project seems impossible. You need passion to survive, and thrive, in a socially-driven company.

Unfortunately, you also need useful skills and work experience. Nonprofits have basic needs: design, marketing, accounting, fundraising, and program management. These needs cannot be met by passion alone. Hiring managers look at your resume to see what you have done before and what experience you have that can help their organization.

This is the inevitable catch-22 many young professionals face: how can I get experience if I need experience first? In the nonprofit world, this can be a difficult conundrum. Many entry-level jobs ask for 2-3 years of prior experience. If you are struggling to find a job that allows you to pursue your passion AND make a living, focus on building skills that translate into nonprofit work.

Here are a few tips on how to start gaining experience.

Don’t focus too much on cause (at least at first)

Many people are drawn to the sector because of a cause they are passionate about. While there’s nothing wrong with this, when you’re just starting, you don’t have to limit yourself to organizations that address that issue. Instead, try looking around at similar organizations that could help you start your career. The director of development at the non-profit I worked for in Guatemala built her skill set while working in fundraising for a museum. She brought experience in event management, individual giving, and corporate sponsorships, as well as her passion for social change.

Be open to “un-fun” work

Keep in mind that non-profits are also businesses. While they love people with passion, they need people who are willing to do the dirty work: crunch numbers, enter data, write emails, cold-call donors. If you can build experience in areas such as fundraising, grant writing, marketing or accounting, you’re much more attractive to an NGO or non-profit. The positions most recruited in social change organizations are not usually “fun” jobs.

Consider volunteering or taking an internship

Volunteers are essential in non-profit organizations, and volunteering builds applicable skills even if you are not being paid. The same goes for internships. Besides, what better way to expand your professional network that working with like-minded people to further a cause you care about?

Think outside of the nonprofit sector

You don’t have to work in a nonprofit to gain experience. Consider working in for-profits (personally, I’d much rather hire an employee with 4-5 years experience in budgeting and planning for a private business, than a young person with ‘passion’ as their only qualification) or even starting your own projects. Keep in mind that working outside of the sector doesn’t mean abandoning social change. Not only are new kinds of businesses popping up that combine purpose and profit, but also you can integrate your cause into your career, no matter where you are and do projects on your own that stand out.

If you are passionate about real social change, get practical about your job search and start building skills you can contribute to your cause.

About The Author


 Ashley Putnam has worked for 5+ years recruiting staff for domestic and international organizations aimed at finding effective solutions to poverty. She currently serves as Fellowship Director for The Work First Foundation, where she manages a program that connects recent graduates with work in urban poverty and public policy. Ashley began her work in career counseling at America Works, where she counseled low-income clients on resume writing and job search in New York. She later worked as Community Engagement Manager for Mercado Global in Guatemala, where she organized internship programs and oversaw private fundraising. Ashley graduated from Barnard College in 2006 with a B.A. in Anthropology. Read more of Ashley’s career tips and advice at or follow her on twitter @AshleyAPutnam

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