Nonprofit Careers: When Mission Matters


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It’s easy to consider working for a large corporation. Pay and benefits are often above average and sometimes there’s prestige in having a certain company’s name on your resume. But maybe you want a job for which you feel an emotional bond, with a mission that you can support. You want to make a difference on day one, not only in the job, but also in the community.

Consider nonprofits.

Simply speaking, nonprofit organizations take surplus revenues and plow them back into the “business,” to help fulfill their mission. What’s important for job seekers is that the nonprofit sector is considered a major industry in nearly every state in the U.S. with steady job growth and a positive economic impact. In New Hampshire alone, the nonprofit sector contributed $11 billion in revenue and it employs 15% of the entire workforce.

While most nonprofit jobs are in health care, there are many jobs available in education, social services, and the Arts, including museums and performing arts centers. Plus, within these industries is a variety of interesting and fulfilling work.

Here is an overview of various roles within the nonprofit sector that you may want to explore.

Nonprofit Career Paths

Nonprofit Program Development

Some of the most abundant job opportunities in the nonprofit sector can be found within program development. In these roles, you’ll help design and develop initiatives, resources, and interventions that serve the needs of a nonprofit’s clients or community. Simply put: program development is where you can see the nonprofit’s mission come to life.

Program development roles exist at all levels within nonprofit organizations, from the entry-level to the executive suite. Early on in your career, you may serve as a program assistant and be responsible for various administrative tasks. As you grow into a manager, the role will focus on operations, such as managing timelines, budgets, and resources.

The nature of program development work will vary greatly based on the nonprofit. Program development professionals at an organization like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) may help coordinate, promote, and organize support groups for people with mental health conditions. Those working for a social or human services organization may offer programming related to affordable housing assistance. These roles tend to be project-based. Many organizations have a defined set of programming activities, events, or initiatives that take place each year, and program development staff are often challenged to find efficiencies in their operations, diverse and sustainable funding structures, and innovative ways to make continuous improvement to these annual activities.

Soft skills like communication are highly valuable in program development. It’s common to be the connecting thread between volunteers, staff, the board of directors, and other stakeholders. It requires a level of diplomacy, sincerity, clarity, and good humor to your communication style.

If you’re a collaborative, action-oriented aspiring nonprofit leader, program development offers a range of exciting career opportunities.

Education & Training Opportunities
Nonprofit Management & Governance

The work of nonprofit leaders serving in executive roles is rooted in management and governance. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, nonprofit governance has a dual focus: achieving the organization’s social mission and ensuring the organization is viable.

A nonprofit Executive Director or CEO works closely with a nonprofit’s board of directors on management and governance matters including staffing, volunteer management, funding, asset management, program evaluation, strategic planning, and more. Specific tasks may include reviewing policies, risk management, publishing annual reports and financial statements, and filing annual returns with the IRS.

Sustainable and high-growth nonprofit organizations often exhibit an effective governance structure that’s productive and supports ethical decision making. There are a range of governance structures that nonprofit organizations may use. This is typically detailed in the organization’s bylaws when they are founded and evaluated annually to ensure that the structure continues to be impactful and supportive of the mission.

Education & Training Opportunities
Financial Planning and Management

Within the realm of financial careers, there are a growing number of individuals and entities specializing in nonprofit financial management. No longer is it enough for a nonprofit’s financial records to be in order; organizations must be able to demonstrate good financial systems to meet all the other rising demands on today’s nonprofit.

For example, new revenue recognition regulations or changes to charitable giving guidelines require a more sophisticated level of financial services and expertise, creating the need for specialized financial professionals at nonprofit organizations.

Some nonprofit financial managers will work directly for the organization. More often, they may find employment at a firm that either specializes exclusively in nonprofit clients, or has a dedicated department that focuses on this niche. In this case, the financial manager will oversee multiple organizations on behalf of the firm.

If mission-driven work appeals to you and you like the idea of using financial data to advise leadership on strategic decisions, a career focused on nonprofit financial planning and management may be a great fit.

Education & Training Opportunities
Marketing for Nonprofits

Marketing professionals in the nonprofit sector develop and communicate the organization’s value proposition to its current and potential supporters, the general public, and the mass media using a range of marketing channels and techniques. This work is closely connected to program development, event planning, fundraising, volunteer management, and executive leadership; you may have direct oversight and responsibilities in these areas or you’ll have frequent collaboration with colleagues who support these roles.

Like any other marketing role, marketing mix principles, use of analytics, social media, advertising, and creative messaging are important. Nonprofit roles have a particularly strong emphasis on understanding the target audience. At a nonprofit in the health care sphere, you may promote programs and services that can improve population health. At a nonprofit cancer institute, a marketer may create campaigns to cultivate major donations to support research. In both instances, the marketer will need to appeal to the target audience in a deeply personal way in order for the intended message to resonate effectively.

Another aspect of nonprofit marketing is the ability to be nimble. You may not have access to common marketing resources, tools, and technology and its incumbent on the nonprofit marketing professional to use creative problem solving to either maximize the resources you do have, or think differently about how you can create new opportunities. For example, nonprofit marketers with slim advertising budget often work with media outlets on  trade agreement to gain free advertising in exchange for giving the media outlet visibility as a sponsor of an event.

Marketing professionals who are adaptive, resilient, and persistent may be well suited for a marketing career in the nonprofit sector.

Education & Training Opportunities
Fundraising & Resource Development

Those working in fundraising and resource development research and assess the most appropriate funding sources for the nonprofit organization, including but not limited to contributions from individuals, foundations, corporations, and even government entities.

The funding strategy for the organization will influence the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of the fundraising and resource development staff. For example, some organizations are highly reliant on grants and as such, will put more resources into the grant development process. In comparison, other nonprofits rarely pursue grant opportunities, and may have more success targeting individual donors through capital campaigns, or securing corporate sponsorship for events and programs. Excellent communications, research, critical thinking, relationship-building, and writing skills are essential, no matter the funding source.

Aspiring fundraising and development professionals will find a range of entry-level job opportunities. Fundraising roles will focus more on planning events, soliciting sponsorship, securing in-kind donations, applying for grants, and ensuring programming meets the stringent grant requirements. Work in development is more about relationship building. Those who specialize in development will spend the majority of their time networking, building community and maintaining relationships. Development is a form of fundraising but not all fundraising is development.

While entry-level work can be administrative (keeping records of donations, coordinating mass mailings, conducting background research), there’s valuable exposure to the more sophisticated aspects of these roles, such as writing and presenting proposals. Mid-career fundraising and development professionals will be responsible for researching and recommending the most appropriate funding sources and executives provide the strategic lens to shepherd these recommendations into practice.

If you thrive in research-based projects and have a knack for persuasive communication and writing, you may enjoy a career in fundraising and development.

Education & Training Opportunities
Program Evaluation

While program development is what helps bring a nonprofit’s mission to life, evaluation of these programs is just as important, ensuring that the organization can continue and thrive. Think about it: a program can’t run unless it has funding. And, a program that lacks indicators of success will have trouble successfully reaching potential funders. Evaluation helps bring it all together!

Someone with a program evaluation focus will collaborate with those in program development at the onset of a new initiative to discuss and define the measures of success. The program will be designed in a way that allows these success measures to be captured throughout. Using this data and evidence, a program evaluation professional will assess the effectiveness of the program and use the results to drive continuous improvement. These success metrics are often cited in grant materials, either the initial grant proposal or the follow up report. The data is also valuable for the organization’s annual reports to demonstrate the organization’s value proposition and provide “ROI” to stakeholders and financial supporters.

Job opportunities in program evaluation can be found in federal and state agencies, colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit consultancies that service these types of clients. Because of the cross-over with many other areas of nonprofit work, it’s typical to transition into a program evaluation pathway after gaining hands on experience with program development, marketing, or fundraising and development. Because of the emphasis on data analysis, a background in statistics, research methods, and data management is helpful.

If you’re a strong analytical thinker who is results-driven and dedicated to sharing measurable goals for the common good, program evaluation is an excellent career to pursue.

Education & Training Opportunities
Volunteer Recruitment, Management, and Retention

Volunteers are increasingly important in the United States. Not only do financially strapped organizations use volunteers to enhance their capacity, but policy-makers and community leaders see volunteering as a vehicle to improve communities and solve public problems. For many nonprofits, volunteers may support the day-to-day operational needs of the organization on a very fundamental level. Often, they have a more profound impact on the nonprofit’s ability to meet its strategic goals. For these organizations, the case for a strong volunteer program led by skilled managers couldn’t be easier to make.

The role of a nonprofit volunteer manager has evolved over time. It’s much more than scheduling representatives to work at the check-in table at a fundraiser event. A volunteer manager must understand the organizational needs, advocate for volunteer involvement, and design opportunities for the volunteer workforce to address these needs in a mutually meaningful way. Those leading a brand new volunteer program will be able to create these volunteer roles and articulate the skills and requirements needed, while those who inherit an existing program will evaluate these opportunities on an ongoing basis to ensure the volunteers’ efforts align with the mission.

Cultivating a strong network of volunteers involves management skills similar to those observed in human resources professionals. Attracting talent—whether as a volunteer or for a paid position—is a challenging process, making training, retention, and recognition important priorities for volunteer managers.

If you’re a community-orientated manager who is interested in helping people, causes, and projects meet their potential, consider a volunteer recruitment, management, and retention role.

Education & Training Opportunities

Advancement in the Profession

As we’ve discussed, within each of these nonprofit professions, you’ll find a range of dynamic opportunities to make an impact and grow your career. Graduate school offers a reliable way to deepen your subject-matter expertise and gain the qualifications necessary to pursue a manager or director role. Common graduate programs include leadership, nonprofit leadership, project management, and more.

In addition, there are a variety of innovative web-based learning opportunities to gain exposure to different areas of nonprofit management and diversify your knowledge.

Landing Your Job

It takes a lot of passion, creativity, and of course, marketable skills to get noticed in the job market. Talented individuals can find rapid upward mobility either within their own organization or by applying their earned knowledge at other nonprofits.

Because of the collaborative and helpful nature of the nonprofit community, finding these jobs is easy. Websites in each state aggregate openings, acting as clearing houses for opportunities and can help simplify your job search, and offer up valuable networking opportunities:

If you are thinking about a career in the nonprofit sector, consider Granite State College alumna, Vicki Hebert’s advice.

“Find an organization with a mission that you’re passionate about, and volunteer for them. If you find this kind of work appealing, develop the sort of knowledge base that you need for the sector. Nonprofits are looking for everything from grant writers to budget and volunteer managers, and more.”

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This blog was originally published in October 2017 and was updated to reflect emerging trends, data, and career outlook in the nonprofit sector.

New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, 2019 Nonprofit Sector Report (visited December 22, 2020)
John Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, The 2019 Nonprofit Employment Report (visited December 22, 2020)