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Ask Alexis | Can I Work in the Nonprofit Sector Without a College Degree?

Alexis Perrotta profile image

Alexis Perrotta

A group of students throwing their graduation caps in the air.

Dear Ask Alexis,

How can I move into nonprofits without a college degree? I have owned small businesses all my life and recently closed a business I owned for 29 years. Any thoughts?


Looking for a Way


Dear Looking for a Way,

Thanks for your question, and I'm sorry to hear you're having a tough time navigating the transition.

Finding that perfect inroad into the nonprofit space that aligns with your unique background and interests can be a challenge, and I'm guessing many of our readers can identify with your frustration.

Hopefully, you'll find some of our existing resources on transitioning into the nonprofit sector (especially those that focus on translating your skill set to craft a great resume) helpful. In this post however, I'd like to focus on your college degree question, so let's jump right in!

College degree as a requirement

Whether an employer is generally for looking a candidate with college diploma or a more specific undergraduate degree, education requirements are a familiar part of the job description boilerplate language. And while this may not elicit a second thought from many of us, some see this requirement as the first roadblock on a long list of obstacles to landing our dream social-impact job.

Luckily, things seem like they are starting to shift. With a new focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, hiring organizations are taking a long hard look at their culture, values, and practices in order to foster more diverse, equitable, and inclusive recruiting practices.

So what does this mean for you?

Well, some argue that by including a college degree or higher education major as a requirement in a job description, organizations are not being inclusive; and hiring managers are beginning to listen! Slowly, organizations have started to reconsider whether it's necessary to include a college degree requirement for certain positions.

If a specific degree is absolutely necessary for the job (think social worker, teacher, physician, etc.), then of course you should expect to find it listed under the requirements. But the new thinking suggests that if you can't speak directly to why a candidate must have specific degree (or a college degree at all for that matter), then perhaps the hiring organization is limiting the applicant pool unnecessarily.

Look for the growth mindset

While it is still a bit too early in the evolution of job descriptions to find many listings that don't require a college degree, there is something else you can do in the meantime! Try keeping an eye out for organizations that showcase a growth mindset.

Hiring organizations that are open to developing their team (rather than determined to hire an applicant who meets 100% of the requirements) are likely to highlight that value in their job descriptions. Words and phrases like "willing to learn," and "comfortable taking on new challenges" are great clues when trying to determine if an organization is going to be a fit for you.

It's these organizations that are going to be the best bet for your specific situation. While they may list requirements that are similar to many of the others you've seen during your search, these are the places that are going to be most flexible and forgiving as you make your case for your transferable skills and experience.

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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