01/25/2014 08:34 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2014

So You Want to Save the World? (Part 4): Making Your Own Luck

This is the last of a series of non-profit career-related blog posts. Previous posts are available here.

Many people say you can only get a job in the non-profit space by nepotism or sheer luck. I even have a friend in this sector who tells people never to bother applying online for roles unless they know someone who works in the organization. She was in fact quite surprised when I told her I got my current job applying online from a different country and knowing a sum total of no one who worked there.

However, there is no denying a clear fact: no one is going to build your career for you in this sector. This may be quite unlike big multinational companies or even government offices, where many employers have set up a clearly defined set of steps and where you can expect to be promoted every two years provided that you perform well. Even in the biggest non-profits -- including the very best -- structured career development is generally lacking. That's quite short-sighted and inefficient of them, but you can't change that.

Good connections in this sector, whether in your organization or across different organizations, are worth cultivating to get inside knowledge on open positions and even potentially good recommendations. Here are my thoughts on improving your chances and making your own luck:

1. Internships / volunteer positions - They're essential if you have not had previous work experience (doing them during your studies two to three days a week may be time-saving), but also useful later in your career if you're not finding full-time paid positions immediately. Be sure to look for internships in a) the actual team you'd like to work in (not the marketing team just because the name on the door is the one you admire if you don't care about marketing) and where there is possibility to be hired after. That can be hard to know, and there are never any guarantees, but if you join a fast-growing organization/team and you're a star, chances are there'll be an open position soon that you can fill.

2. Young boards / volunteer chapters / young professional clubs - Think of the top five organizations you admire or would like to work for. Chances are most of them have a way for you to get involved: in their fundraising, by volunteering for a day or several, through a young patrons or board club. None of these will get you a job on their own, but demonstrating interest in their organization early on, and meeting like-minded people at regular socials, whether from that organizations or others, can't do any harm. And if you really want to work in this sector, you should be motivated to do something good in your spare time anyway. I plug the ones I am involved in -- Juilliard and Echoing Green, which are both amazing.

3. Collecting business cards and adding people to LinkedIn - Whenever you meet someone interesting in this sector, be sure to add them to LinkedIn even if they don't work for an organization you're interested in -- you never know where either of you will be in two to three years, and when a relationship may come in useful. If you do want to follow up with them soon after meeting them, don't be shy -- people are often happy to go for coffees and provide advice, and it may help you think through where you want to go even if they don't have a job available for you.

One thing to be clear about -- good connections will almost never replace excellent performance in your degree or current job, great references, relevant experience, and a CV and cover letter without spelling or grammar mistakes. They may help open a door, but closing is still all on you.

To conclude this four-part series -- be clear on what you want to do and what it's going to take, be patient but don't despair, and have fun along the way of getting your dream job in the non-profit sector.