Conscientious individuals who are passionate about changing the world for the better are often drawn to careers in nonprofits. These careers can indeed present the opportunity for fulfilling work with meaningful impact, but as with any career path, it’s wise to gather as much information as possible before taking the leap. If nonprofit careers appeal to you, here’s an overview to get you started.
What are nonprofit organizations?
The term “nonprofit organization” is defined differently among countries and jurisdictions. This article is based on U.S. definitions and data, though it should be noted that in the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, the word “nonprofit” is not specifically defined – according to the National Council of Nonprofits, it’s an informal category that covers more than 30 different sets of criteria under which an organization can claim tax-exempt status.
The one common criterion is that any money earned in excess of expenses must be used to advance the operations of the organization, rather than paid out as profits to shareholders. Internationally, non-profits may be known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or charities. Broadly, nonprofits are organizations that exist to serve a mission, rather than to generate value for owners or shareholders.
Nonprofits often operate at a loss and rely on donations to fund their operations (which includes employee pay). The term encompasses organizations like charities, research groups, and cultural institutions, but also most hospitals and universities.
The term “nonprofit” is often used interchangeably with “not-for-profit.” In a strict sense, “not-for-profit” refers specifically to organizations that are tax-exempt under the tax code’s 501(c)(7) requirements. These organizations tend to be smaller and are often local. They are not categorically tax-exempt, but some are for other reasons (e.g. churches). They may generate revenue by selling products or services, but these funds are reinvested in the organization rather than distributed to owners or shareholders. A not-for-profit could be a mission-driven or charitable group, or it could be something like a local sports club.
Nonprofits are either member-serving, like credit unions, sports clubs and advocacy groups, or community-serving, like development programs, healthcare and education.
Nonprofit salaries: a warning
Nonprofit jobs generally pay less than their equivalents in the for-profit sector, especially at the entry level. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, professional and management-related workers in the nonprofit industry make $3.36 less per hour than their counterparts in the for-profit sector.
Many major nonprofits are based in cities with a high cost of living, such as New York City. Wages are lower for several reasons. The first reason: jobs are in high demand.
Another reason is that nonprofit organizations have less money to spend than for-profit companies.
A higher percent of nonprofit employees do not rely on their wages as their sole income, and thus can accept lower wages; this drives down wages across the board. Because political and social capital are so valuable in fundraising, nonprofit executives are more likely to be independently wealthy, have a safety net, or be retired from a previous career in for-profit business.
Unlike public sector jobs, most nonprofit jobs are not unionized. Most nonprofits have some percent of work done by volunteers and/or unpaid interns (which for-profits are not allowed to do). Existing volunteers are sometimes given priority in hiring for paid positions, which creates an advantage for people who can afford to devote significant time to unpaid work. There is a gender pay gap as well as a little-documented race pay gap, making nonprofit jobs more accessible to those who are white and/or male and/or privileged.
Nonprofit job titles and salaries
A social media manager for a nonprofit organization handles a nonprofit’s online presence. They do this by posting and responding to comments and questions left on social media platforms. They also often strategize ways to help boost engagement, acquire more followers and promote the organization. According to Indeed, the average Social Media Manager for a nonprofit makes $44,750 per year.
The Director of Communications for a nonprofit is responsible for maintaining the organization’s public image. This includes drafting press releases, overseeing media campaigns and promoting the company. The average national salary for the Director of Communications for a nonprofit is $88,783 per year.
An advocacy manager for a nonprofit oversees advocacy policy and strategy. The average advocacy manager makes $54,576 per year, per Indeed.
A philanthropy manager, also known as a major gifts officer, oversees everything to do with gifts the nonprofit receives. This includes planning events with donors, pitching the organization to donors, and building relationships with potential donors. The average base salary of a philanthropy manager is $63,373 per year, according to Indeed.
A grant manager determines a nonprofit’s funding needs and makes sure the organization follows the grantor’s guidelines. The average base salary for a grants manager is $67,547 per year. A grant writer creates proposals directed at the government, agencies or other donors. Grant writers often work on contract, and compensation can vary depending on the writer’s education level and experience; however, the average base salary is around $43,102 per year.
A program director for a nonprofit researches, plans, develops and puts into action the nonprofit’s outreach programs. This usually includes not only planning programs, but also budgeting for programs’ operations and staying current on laws and regulations to ensure compliance. The average base salary for a nonprofit program director is $62,587, per Indeed. Program directors are usually required to have a Bachelor’s Degree, even a Master’s degree in business administration, human resources or communication.
A development director manages the organization’s fundraising. They are in charge of finding growth opportunities that will lead to increased funding for the organization and developing relationships with donors. A Development Director makes an average of $102,195 per year.
A compliance officer for a nonprofit is responsible for overseeing the organization to make sure it complies with government regulations. Compliance officers educate members of an organization on the law and federal regulations. They complete quarterly and annual reviews about an organization’s adherence to regulations. The average base salary for a compliance officer is $82,661 per year. Compliance manager jobs generally require a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree in accounting, law, business or other related field.
A user experience designer is in charge of an organization’s digital product to ensure it is user-friendly. A UX designer typically has a degree in computer design, computer development or other related field; however, they may also attain the position with relevant work experience and certifications. The national average base salary for a UX designer is $101,613 per year.
One of the most lucrative positions at nonprofit organizations is Lead Data Scientist. A Lead Data Scientist analyzes the outcomes of the organization’s programs. They are also responsible for planning data projects. According to Indeed, the national average base salary for a Lead Data Scientist is $136,447 per year. A data scientist typically will have a degree in Computer Science, Statistics, Mathematics or a related field.
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a nonprofit organization works alongside the board of directors to manage the company’s operations. This generally includes creating and implementing business strategies and policies and ensuring that the organization reaches its goals. The CEO of a nonprofit makes an average base salary of $113,353 per year, according to Indeed.
The Chief operating officer (COO) of a nonprofit handles operations and administrative practices. The typical average base salary for a COO of a nonprofit organization is $118,949 per year.
Careers in nonprofits: where to start
Even if your ultimate goal is to work in the nonprofit sector, it may make more sense to start your career in the private sector and transition later. This way, you can build the necessary skills while paying off debt, supporting children, etc.
In some fields, it’s also possible to split time between for-profit and nonprofit (or paid and pro bono) work. This is usually true of highly skilled professions such as lawyers, doctors and nurses. Whether or not this is a good idea depends highly on the field and the role you want to work in. When in doubt, do your own research, especially by reaching out to people in positions similar to what you want for advice.
Whatever your path, passion for your work and mission is non-optional in this field. If you are not passionate about the cause, you will not be happy, and you probably will not be hired in the first place.
So the first place to start is identifying what you are passionate about. Find a nonprofit that aligns with your values. The next step is to look within your community. Local, grassroots organizations can be the perfect place to begin working in the nonprofit sector. You may start out by volunteering or doing an internship. This can help you build a network of contacts, acquire new skills and acquaint you with the industry. An internship may even lead to a job offer.
Social media is a great place to find job or volunteer opportunities. Follow different organizations you care about and pay attention to their updates.
Another step toward finding a role in the non-profit sector is to pursue an education. The specific degree you go for will depend on the job you are interested in. An Advocacy Manager position at Habitat for Humanity may require a degree in Political Science, Public Policy or International Affairs, while a Data Analyst position for UNICEF will require a BS in Computer Science, Information Systems, Business Intelligence, Data Science or related field. Do some research on the position you want and the organization you want to work for.