I’ve worked on and off in the nonprofit sector for the last 20 years, and what I’ve learned has often surprised me—or at the very least challenged some enduring myths about the social-impact space.
Looking back at my career, I’ve come to realize that many of these experiences were opportunities for growth. So if you’re new to the field (or just trying to figure out your next step), here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way.
1. There are a lot of different roles out there, so do your research.
I started out in the nonprofit sector in the 1990s. We were still in the very early days of the internet, and I just happened to find a grants administration job in the newspaper’s "Help Wanted" section (remember those?!). It was somewhat related to my college major, so once I received an offer, I happily accepted even though I didn’t know much about the sector and what other opportunities may be available. That one decision led to years of working in educational grants; although I don’t regret it, I’m pretty sure that pursuing that specific career was never my intention! I fell into it rather than having a clear goal in mind.
Now, of course, times are different. You wouldn’t just answer an ad without first getting background information, checking out the organization’s website, your LinkedIn connections, and more. There is plenty of research to be conducted before jumping into a career. Consider the various aspects of the social-impact space. Are you interested in foundation work, or do you see yourself doing more advocacy work? Is your skillset more in line with grant writing or do you want to work on managing programs? Are there specific issues that are important to you? Take the time to speak to people in the field already, whether through personal connections or informational interviews.
2. Don’t assume you have to accept a low salary.
There’s a common misconception that choosing a social-impact career means sacrificing a good salary. Salaries in the nonprofit sector can vary widely, and although some may not pay as well as their for-profit counterparts, you should always consider the total compensation package, including benefits. Sometimes what is missing in salary is made up for in a good healthcare plan or employer contributions to a 403B.
And remember, you should always know your worth and be prepared to negotiate. Salary negotiation doesn’t start once you’re in the job–it has to start with the initial offer. Like a lot of women, in my first few positions I accepted what was offered without negotiating. Only later in my career did I try asking for more before accepting the job. To my surprise, I got what I asked for.
3. Biases exist in the nonprofit sector, too.
Many people assume the nonprofit sector is a place where biases are challenged (or at least hidden), rather than on display. But implicit and explicit biases exist in the social-impact space as well. I worked in an office where my direct supervisor openly said things to me like, “Oh you’re always so good about getting your work done. Must be your Indian culture!” Hearing statements like that made me feel like my accomplishments were not seen as evidence of excelling in my role—rather, they were something that was just expected of me due to stereotyping.
At the time I felt like I was not in the position to speak up. Looking back now, I wonder if I should have confronted the issue. Should I have tried to have a discussion with my supervisor, or consulted with someone in HR? Happily, I have not had to deal with that problem in my other positions, but I now know it’s worth asking how the organization tackles Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion issues in the interview.
4. Even if you leave the social-impact sector, there’s always a place for you when you return.
My career trajectory took me out of the nonprofit sector for some time, and I worked in elementary education and corporate learning and development. I have found that there’s always a way to take what you have learned in other sectors and apply it to nonprofit work. For example, my experience as a teacher was valued in a role managing a mentoring program for high school girls. Even if you have worked in a seemingly unrelated field, like technology, there are always ways to transfer those skills over.
I’ve found working in the social-impact space to be incredibly rewarding, both professionally and personally. If you’re looking for a career where you can bring about positive change and work with like-minded people, take some time to explore the social-impact space and speak to people in the field. You can check out the Idealist job board for opportunities in all facets of the nonprofit sector.
It doesn't matter if you've been working in the nonprofit sector for two years or 20—we're sure you've learned some valuable things along the way! Share them with us on Facebook!
Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.