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Tips From A Hiring Manager | How college grads can break into the nonprofit sector

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Graduation season is here! So we’re sharing tips on how college grads can find great careers that give back. Be sure to follow the series. If you are ready to search for a great opportunity, explore the 17,000+ nonprofit, social enterprise, and government jobs and internships on And if you want to connect with fellow young nonprofit professionals, join the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Virtual Networking Fair, Friday May 17th at 1pm EDT.

Even if you have your heart set on joining a nonprofit, it can be hard to land that first job. Ashley Putnam, Fellowship Director for The Work First Foundation, shares advice on the best way to wow hiring managers.

Congratulations, you are about to graduate! You have your degree in “change the world” management, your passion for social change, and your street smarts. There is one thing you are missing: a job.

As you browse around all of the job openings out there, you might find yourself facing tradeoffs, specifically the tradeoff between making money and doing good work. In fact, I have had this conversation with numerous peers: “Do I take the job at that nonprofit, or do I pay off my college loans?”

Today I would like to tell you that these two things are not mutually exclusive. As a recruiter and young professional myself, I have seen the struggle between the do-gooder and the practical realist. I have worked abroad on very little money, and I have worked in the private sector.

Everyday I receive hundreds of resumes from young people looking to find an “in” with a company. If you want to get that dream job where you can both make an impact and make a living, here are a few tips:

Don’t be afraid to take an internship

Everybody starts somewhere. Internships are an excellent way to build your professional network as well as your applicable experience.

Practical experience is more powerful than coursework

This doesn’t mean you should ignore the great work you did in class, but make sure your have practical experienced highlighted on your resume. Most employers are more interested in your internships or software knowledge than your course on “United Nations Politics and Policies.”

Be willing to do busy work

I have interviewed graduate students who cringe at the words “administrative work.” Newsflash: everyone does paperwork, even the Executive Director. Organizing files, making copies, and even answering the phone are tasks that any young professional should be comfortable doing. To quote a former employer: everyone wants to save the world but no one wants to do the dishes. If you want that dream job, show me you’ll do the dishes.

You have more experience than you realize

If you volunteered in the summer working with children in Haiti, you are comfortable working with the underserved and can work in high-pressure environments. If you managed a restaurant, you have experience in sales and can meet company goals. Keep in mind that non-profits and socially-focused organizations need practical skills as much as (or perhaps more than) anyone else. Your resume should be focused on actions (use lots of verbs!) that demonstrate what you can do for my organization.

Give your resume an additional quantitative boost

If you organized a community outreach program, how many people did you reach? If you threw a fundraiser for your student organization, how much money did you raise and how many people attended? These figures give your resume tangible weight and give the recruiter an idea of what you can do.

Do your research

There is nothing I dislike more in the world than a cover letter that is obviously generic: “I would like to work for your campaign…” when I am recruiting for a non-profit. Delete. Know what the organization does, where they do it, and why their work is important. Don’t just read the “about” page on the website. Look at the online profiles for current employees, and imagine yourself writing a similar profile with your cover letter.

Keep your connections

Networking, I have found, is the number one way anyone finds a job. Almost 80% of the people I have hired in the past five years have been referred to me through someone else. Why? As a recruiter, I know you won’t recommend someone who you wouldn’t hire yourself. Tell your friends you are looking for a job. Tell your parents. Tell your professors. Tell your old employer. Reach out to fellow alumni. Your network is the most powerful thing you have.

Realize that there are many paths to your ideal job

Don’t beat yourself up for not being on the “right track” to your socially-impactful well-paid position. Keep in mind that there are many paths to your perfect position, and that “ideal job” may change along the way. Relax and make the most out of your current experience. I would much rather hire someone who built solid skills in a different field, than someone who has jumped from job to job trying to find the perfect fit. Give yourself time to learn and move up where you are.

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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