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Ask Cynthia | How do I Break into Nonprofit Work (Again)?

Cynthia Jaggi

Different colored post its with question marks on them.

For this month’s Ask Cynthia, we have a question from an Idealist Careers reader who wants to make a bigger impact in her career but is not confident that she will seriously be considered for the opportunity she’s yearning for. 

Dear Cynthia:

I have been in my job outside of the nonprofit sector for some time, but my roots are in public service. I've always wanted to one day have a job that had positive social impact, one where I could make the lives of those I help better- or at least make a dent- to make our world a little better. At my current job, I feel the yearning to work someplace where I can truly make a bigger impact like I've always wanted to make. Now I feel like I lack experience in the nonprofit sector to be seriously considered if I were to apply for something I was really passionate about. Any advice on how I can break through?



Dear Maya,

Bravo for continuing to pursue what you're yearning for! Here are three pathways to consider in your situation:

First Path: Ask for advice - you never know where it can lead!

Write down the profile of the type of position that would manage or hire you for your ideal position. Often we focus so much on what we want to be doing that we don’t think about who the big influencers are on that role. Once you have an idea of what role or job title would be managing your position, research people who fit.

First see if you already know someone in your network- someone who either fits the role or can connect you to someone who does. If you don’t already have them in your network research local organizations and organizations where you have a pre-existing relationship or a connection. For example, a mission that relates to your passion or an organization located in your neighborhood. You can use Idealist to search for organizations with these different profiles. Relationships you’ve cultivated at organizations where you’ve volunteered or donated your time or money will make it easier to connect. Contact one or two of the people on your list. Ask if you can take them to lunch and learn more about what they are working on. Let them know how passionate you are about the field and that you are exploring ways to become more involved professionally.

Once you get a meeting, do your research. Make sure you have an understanding of the organization’s work before you start the conversation.

Remember that your conversation can serve as an informational interview. Ask not only about current projects, but what they see emerging in the field in the future. Ask what conferences or events they would recommend and if there are ways you might be able to get involved. Often these kinds of conversations can lead to opportunities to build more current experience and learn about open positions.

Second Path: Create More Experience

One of the most effective ways to jump over the hurdle of not quite having the right experience is to volunteer or find a side gig. It might be with the type of organization you want to work for. It could also be with an organization that gives you relevant experience even if their mission is different. This type of experience has a few benefits:

  • You are building experience and references that you can use in your job hunt and beyond.
  • You can gain experience and up-to-date knowledge of the field.
  • You give the organization the opportunity to experience your value. This experience together has the potential to lead to future opportunities, either with the organization itself or a similar one.

It can be daunting to think of adding another time commitment to your schedule. If you are passionate about making a change there’s usually a way. In some cases you might be able to arrange to complete projects remotely or on your own schedule (late night, early mornings). There's especially room to negotiate if you’ll be taking on volunteer work. Co-create an opportunity to give you the experience you need and maximize your value to the organization.

Third Path: Apply anyway!

Sometimes we underestimate our value. Your relevant background, even if it was awhile ago, could be what an organization is looking for.

Do some research on the positions that are out there. You may come across opportunities where your total professional experience meets the requirements, even if you don’t have experience working at non-profits. In those cases reach out to the hiring manager. Ask if they are open to non-traditional backgrounds. Lots of organizations use standard templates as a starting place for the job descriptions. They may not specify all the variations they would consider. In reality, they may be open to a wider variety of applicants. That's especially true if they feel the skill set you do bring has some unique benefits. For example, many nonprofits have started to operate businesses in order to generate revenue. These social enterprises need people with a combined for-profit and non-profit background. If you are interested in learning more about this trend, take a look at The Human Rights Campaign store, the multiple social enterprises started within the Catholic Charities network or the Alfond Inn and Conference Center owned by Rollins College.

The great thing about these three pathways is that you can walk all of them at the same time! You can ask for advice, volunteer or look for side gigs and start applying to jobs. If you pursue them all you speed up your chances of success and speed getting there.

You might find yourself thinking “Yeah, I’m going to go for it 110%” and then not doing anything for a week or two. In that case, pick one path. We can easily get overwhelmed and afraid when we take a new direction. That's especially true when it's a direction we’ve been dreaming about for a long time.

The most important thing you can do is take one action today. Find one job to apply for, one person to ask for advice from, or one organization to volunteer with. These small steps can snowball into just what you are looking for.


By Cynthia Jaggi

Cynthia Jaggi

Cynthia Jaggi is an entrepreneur and leadership expert for people who are looking to create massive impact. Through her writing and courses, she's here to shake up your approach to creating your most meaningful life and work while making it all feel like fun. She was named a lean-startup ambassador for her work bringing a lean approach to social impact and her insights have been featured on Business Insider, Women 2.0, and Idealist Career Adgice.

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