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Making a Difference: The World of Giving Careers in the Nonprofit Sector

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For this year's graduates it's a time of celebration and, for many, concern. A tough economy is only part of it. What to do next? Where to go? What type of life to embark on?

I'd like to suggest they look outside the usual paths and consider a career in the nonprofit sector. Think about it. Growing up we're told we can be doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, even president of the United States. But it's rare to hear about the wonderful careers in the philanthropic (nonprofit) world. It's just not on the radar when we consider our choices. And it is not something that career counselors even discuss, let alone raise as a possibility.

This is not a surprise. Just this spring Indiana University awarded five graduates the first-ever bachelor's degree in philanthropic studies. Yes, the first.

Maybe that's why most people don't know the breadth and depth of the nonprofit sector. With an estimated 1.5 million charities in the U.S. alone (not counting churches and houses of worship or nonprofits with an annual budget under $25,000), there are countless job opportunities. And they exist across a wide spectrum of interests and issues. Working in a nonprofit often means you can have a job and fulfill your passion.

Just consider:

• More than 12 million people are employed by nonprofit organizations. That's 9 percent of the U.S. workforce, so more people work in the nonprofit sector than in the automotive sector or the electronics sector or even the oil and gas sector.
• Jobs range from leadership positions, fundraisers and program staff to support positions such as research, janitorial services, accounting, IT, human resources, marketing, administrative, and more; consider that every type of position that exists in the "for profit" world also exists in the nonprofit world.

Nonprofit organizations can be found across the country -- in cities, suburbs and rural areas. They serve communities, address community problems and build community assets in diverse ways. Surveys show that most people feel the nonprofit sector does the best job of helping people and handling resources; better than corporations or the federal government.

By working in nonprofit you can choose an area that you care deeply about. For example, if you are really passionate about feeding hungry people in this country, you could explore job opportunities within the food bank community by starting with Feeding America. If you care about animals you might choose to work in one of many animal-focused nonprofits such as the Humane Society of the United States or the World Wildlife Fund. If you are committed to improving the environment you might consider the Sierra Club or the Nature Conservancy. The list is endless, especially for those interested in fundraising, with jobs available in the arts, health care, education and social services sectors, among others. In other words, you can do what you love and the money will follow!

Dispelling Myths About Working in the Nonprofit Sector
• YOU CANNOT EARN A SALARY WORKING AT A NONPROFIT: People who work for nonprofit organizations earn a salary, enjoy strong benefits (even retirement funds!) and have meaningful careers. In fact, even in the slow economy, U.S. News & World Report has noted that salaries in nonprofits are continuing to grow.
• BUSINESS PEOPLE DO NOT WORK AT NONPROFITS: Many intelligent people who have graduate degrees and years of for-profit experience work at nonprofit organizations.
• THERE IS NO UPWARD MOBILITY IN NONPROFIT WORK: The nonprofit world provides many people with life-long careers and there are innumerable examples of those who started in entry level positions who've become Executive Directors or Presidents of large nonprofit organizations.
• THERE ARE NO DIFFICULT PERSONALITIES IN THE NONPROFIT WORLD: Fooled again; while there are a lot of nice people in the nonprofit world, there are also the usual difficult personalities that are found in other sectors. (See, nonprofit is just like everywhere else!)
• THERE IS NO COMPETITION IN THE NONPROFIT WORLD: While collaboration is strongly encouraged and can be found throughout the nonprofit world, competition is alive and well in the nonprofit world.
• NONPROFITS ARE INEFFICIENT ORGANIZATIONS: While the measures for success are often different than in for-profit organizations, in order for nonprofits to get the funding -- from individuals, organizations and agencies -- that is their lifeblood, they have to show that they're efficient and effective.
• DO I HAVE TO BE A FUNDRAISER OR WORK IN A SOUP KITCHEN IN ORDER TO HAVE A JOB AT A NONPROFIT? Although fundraising gets stellar evaluations as a career in terms of the job market, prestige, and job satisfaction, the fact is there are a wide variety of positions needed in every nonprofit organization, from accountants to IT staff to human resources professionals, managers, case works, program staff, etc.
• NONPROFITS ARE NOT PROFESSIONAL: Most nonprofit organizations are very professional in nature.
• NONPROFITS ARE ONLY FOCUSED ON LIBERAL ISSUES; IN OTHER WORDS, CONSERVATIVES NEED NOT APPLY: With 1.5 million nonprofit organizations, there are causes on both ends of the spectrum (conservative and liberal) and at every point in between.
• NONPROFITS ONLY NEED VOLUNTEERS: While volunteers are integral to the success of nonprofit organizations, nonprofit staff (think of the organizations mentioned above and examples like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Kennedy Center and Harvard University) are professional and paid.

A career in the nonprofit sector is a rewarding and positive experience that provides a vibrant and stimulating work environment. Here are five recommendations and tips on easy ways to begin your career in the nonprofit sector that will allow you to Make A Difference (M.A.D.) when going to work in this area:

• Volunteer on a regular schedule at your favorite nonprofit or in an area that is important to you; by volunteering you will witness first-hand the possibilities of working in the philanthropic sector (and gain important contacts).
• Meet with people from the nonprofit sector to learn more about all the career possibilities; have a cup of coffee and discuss the charitable field.
• Check out these websites for available fundraising positions if that is your interest (fundraising is a terrific way into nonprofits): www.idealist.org; www.case.org; www.afpnet.org; www.philanthropy.com; and www.ahp.org.
• Take a class; you don't have to earn a bachelor's or master's degree but can learn more by sitting with others in the classroom and gaining additional skills that will help you get a position. A simple search on the Internet will produce educational institutions in your area that offer nonprofit courses.
• Attend a conference. Check out these two that have national, regional and local conferences: AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals), and CASE (Council for Advancement and Support in Education).

Bonus tip: Read books on the philanthropic sector and consider a career as a fundraiser. In 2009, U.S. News and World Report listed fundraising as one of its "Best Careers" to consider for that year and beyond!

Most individuals who work in the nonprofit sector find their work very exciting and they are tremendously satisfied with the opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile. Surveys have shown that people who work in the nonprofit sector are much happier with their work than those who work in the for-profit or government sectors.

By choosing a career in nonprofit -- no matter what role -- you can be assured you will be Making A Difference (M.A.D.) and embarking on a successful career! Are you ready to be M.A.D.?