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Nonprofit Careers Without a College Degree | Is It Possible?

Amy Bergen

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A growing plant is surrounded by a post-It with a lightbulb and a torn picture of a graduation cap.
Illustration by Marian Blair

In job advertisements for most nonprofit careers, a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university is almost a given. Through the process of “degree inflation,” in which a degree becomes more common and less of an asset on the job market, more employers inside and outside of the social-impact space are making four-year degrees a baseline requirement. 

But do you really need a college degree to perform these jobs well or advance in your field? For many professionals, the answer is no — in fact, degree requirements may have the unintended result of increasing social, class, and racial inequity across the board. Economist Byron Auguste said he believes four-year degree requirements become unofficial screening devices that shut out many qualified candidates from marginalized populations. 

Similarly, this “educational bias” tends to favor candidates with the financial resources to afford expensive degrees and pay back college debt. 

Degree requirements still exist despite these drawbacks, but job seekers without college degrees can definitely break into the sector, even in roles where a college education is a prerequisite. 

Like anyone who’s looking for a job, you’ll have to find positions that match your unique skill set, and focus on the abilities and experience you do have. 

Look for nonprofit careers that fit your experience

When you see a promising job advertisement that specifies a bachelor’s degree, don’t count yourself out. First, read the position’s responsibilities and other requirements and ask yourself if you’re capable of performing the job—degree or no degree. If the answer is yes, and you’re interested, go ahead and apply. 

There are other ways that a job posting may indicate openness toward nontraditional candidates. 

  • Postings may advertise for something like “bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience” or “bachelor’s degree recommended.” This wording isn’t an accident; it means the organization will consider applicants without degrees.
  • Postings that emphasize a candidate’s willingness to grow and learn, or that mention on-the-job training may be more welcoming to those who don’t meet every listed requirement. 

Your resume and cover letter should highlight your passion for both the organization’s mission and the work itself. This is standard advice for people looking for nonprofit careers, but it can really help candidates without degrees let their qualifications shine. Maybe you’ve spent time working with a community the organization serves, or gained on-the-ground experience in a closely related field. Be sure to mention it.

Emphasize your skills 

Take note of any keywords in the job listing that describe skills the ideal candidate should have. Keyword phrases usually refer to specific competencies, like “data analysis,” “grassroots organizing,” or “community development.” 

Try to organically work those keywords into your application materials if they apply to your experience. This helps ensure your resume will be seen, since some larger organizations screen their initial flood of applicants by using online keyword search tools. It’s also a way to show the hiring manager you’ve paid attention to what they’re looking for. 

Besides pointing out any concrete abilities you have, you’ll also want to show evidence of “soft skills” — traits like problem-solving, conflict resolution, teamwork, critical thinking, relationship-building, and time management. 

Since college often provides an opportunity to develop these capabilities, nonprofit employers may use a bachelor’s degree as a shortcut to find a well-rounded candidate. But college is hardly the only environment where you can perfect soft skills. As you’re prepping your application, think of times when you’ve been able to: 

  • Identify and achieve a long-term goal, individually or in collaboration with others  
  • Mediate interpersonal conflict 
  • Complete a project that demanded attention to detail 
  • Communicate successfully with people from different backgrounds
  • Lead or work well within a team 
  • Find a creative solution to an obstacle 

When employers see a solid track record of putting soft skills to use, they’ll be more intrigued by your candidacy. 

Pro tip: You don’t need to specifically mention your lack of a degree in the application or interview, even if the position specifies a bachelor’s degree. Keep the focus on the assets you do bring to the table. 

If your interviewer brings up the education question, be honest about your degree status, but re-emphasize the skills you believe will help you excel on the job. 

Pursue other forms of education 

College and university courses are great tools for learning, but they’re not the only tools around, and there are plenty of other ways to develop professionally. 

Some continuing education courses are designed specifically for nonprofit careers, while others teach general career skills like software development, web design, or public speaking. Many of these classes can be taken online at your own pace, and several are free. 

If a job listing mentions a skill you don’t have but always wanted, chances are you can find a continuing education course to help you out. 

Pro tip: Maybe you took some college or university classes but didn’t complete a degree program. It’s often worthwhile to add the classes you did complete to your resume, especially if you took them within the past 10 years . This gives employers a greater sense of your knowledge base. 

Other great ways to expand your nonprofit-specific education include: 

  • Volunteer, if your schedule allows. A volunteer stint can give you a lot of inside information about how specific nonprofit industries work, and help you decide if you want to pursue a career in that industry.
  • Hone your language skills. Bilingualism is an asset in many nonprofit careers, especially if you know a language that’s widely spoken around the world, like Spanish or Mandarin Chinese
  • Attend career-related networking events, workshops, or seminars if they’re open to the public. 

Employers will notice your curiosity, time investment, and willingness to step out of your comfort zone, which are all great traits in a candidate. 

While every organization is different, the social-impact space may be growing more accommodating to employees without formal degrees. Nonprofits can even take a cue from the for-profit sector — huge organizations like Google, Apple, and IBM, as well as smaller employees like publishing houses and grocery chains, have dropped degree requirements for applicants. There’s a strong chance more nonprofit employers will do the same in the future. 

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On the hunt for a nonprofit career? Looking to move up the ladder in your current field? Want to spruce up your resume and cover letter skills? Be sure to check out Designing Your Dream Career, our very own free professional development course.

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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