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The nonprofit sector is more dynamic than most people think. Join us in debunking some of the more pervasive myths and see a career path in the sector in a new light.

Myth #1. "Only rich kids need apply."

Or: "No one makes any money in the nonprofit sector."

The truth: Most nonprofits rely on volunteers in addition to paid staff.

The term "nonprofit" does not mean that nonprofit professionals do not earn a salary. "Nonprofit" refers to the 501(c) tax code in the United States. Nongovernmental organization, or NGO, and "charity" are the common terms used outside the U.S.

Revenues generated by nonprofit organizations go back into programs that serve the organizations' mission. There are no stockholders receiving annual financial dividends, and employees rarely receive a bonus at the end of a good year (although it is possible and legal!). According to Independent Sector, in 2022 nonprofits contributed $1.4 billion to the U.S. economy.

Myth #2. "The nonprofit sector is for private-sector rejects"

Or: "The nonprofit sector is for people who couldn't make it in the business world."

The truth: Nonprofit organizations are full of intelligent people with a passion for their work (many with graduate degrees and years of experience across a multitude of sectors).

Many people switch between the nonprofit, government, and private sectors during their careers. Each line of work presents its own set of challenges, but there are many talented people in all three sectors.

Folks from the private sector who choose to sector switch are often surprised to learn how difficult it is to make the transition into the nonprofit sector, which has different, rigorous standards of success.

Myth #3. "No upward mobility."

Or: "Working for a nonprofit is not really a career path."

The truth: Working in the nonprofit sector sometimes is considered taking a break from the "real world," with the implied assumption that it is not an option to spend a lifetime doing this work. In reality, the nonprofit sector provides many people with a lifetime of exciting work. Nonprofits also tend to offer young people more leadership opportunities than other sectors. In 2022, nonprofit employees made up 6.5 percent of the American workforce.

If you're considering a career in the social-impact sector and want to better understanding your earning potential and career path, try our Nonprofit Salary Explorer.

Myth #4. "It's all smiles, all the time."

Or: "Everyone that works in the nonprofit sector is nice."

The truth: Most people who work in the nonprofit sector do care about making the world a better place, but so do plenty of people that don't work in the nonprofit sector. Don't be surprised when you encounter difficult personalities, big egos, and office politics can exist in any professional environment. Perhaps a higher percentage of like-hearted people work in the nonprofit sector, but there is no way to measure this, and there are plenty of exceptions.

Myth #5. "Get ready to coast."

Or: "The nonprofit sector is not competitive."

The truth: In a world of limited resources, nonprofit organizations compete intensely for media attention, recognition, talented staff, funding, and other resources.

In some cases, competition among organizations with similar missions may be detrimental to the pursuit of this shared mission, but competition also can be healthy, and a catalyst to adopt more effective programs. Organizations collaborate often and talk about working together even more.

But some organizations provide a similar service and compete to be the most effective provider of that service. In other situations, organizations work on different solutions to a similar problem. On certain issues, organizations may have missions that are in direct opposition to one another (abortion, environmental reform, gun control, etc.).

Myth #6. "Wasting time and money."

Or: "Nonprofit organizations are inefficient."

The truth: Nonprofit organizations do not usually have clear bottom lines or profit margins; serving a human or environmental need makes success and efficiency much more difficult to measure.

Add to that the reality of limited resources and an emphasis on serving beneficiaries and clients and it becomes clear why the sector is often perceived as inefficient.

Of course, some organizations are bound to be inefficient and disorganized (just as we see plenty of dysfunctional entities in other sectors), but we also need to consider measurement and analysis practices that may be new to us. For example, measuring impact and success through a survey is fairly common in the nonprofit sector, as is longer-term analyses of recidivism among beneficiary populations.

Myth #7. "I can't deal with people."

Or: "Nonprofits only do direct service work."

The truth: While some of the organizations that are most recognizable as nonprofits (soup kitchens, mentoring programs, etc.) offer direct service programming, many nonprofit professionals hold titles like accountant, computer programmer, salesperson, human resources professional, manager, fundraiser, or executive. Many more are researchers and advocates for certain issues or support the work of direct service organizations.

Myth #8. "Poor and poorly dressed."

Or: "Nonprofits lack resources and are informal."

The truth: Universities, some hospitals, and many other large institutions with multi-million dollar annual budgets are nonprofit organizations, too. Cultures within nonprofits vary, but business casual attire is the norm at many large and small nonprofits.

Myth #9. "Only for liberals."

Or: "Nonprofits only support left-wing causes."

The truth: The nonprofit sector itself does not have a political agenda, and many organizations exist to provide services and promote interests that the government does not. The organizations within the sector lean left, right, and everywhere in between.

Myth #10. "I love volunteering, so why not?"

Or: "Working for a nonprofit is just like volunteering."

The truth: Many nonprofits rely on volunteers to help carry out their mission. Volunteers, however, are often shielded from the organizational, financial, and other challenges with which the actual employees of an organization must contend, to say nothing of the burnout faced by many who have spent more time working in the field.

Alexis Perrotta profile image

Alexis Perrotta

As the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.

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