5 Good Reasons To Build A Career In Nonprofits

The dawn of a new golden age of nonprofits came at the turn of the 21st Century. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation came into being and Warren Buffett soon joined as the third trustee and billionaire/funder. The terms philanthrocapitalism and venture philanthropy were suddenly in vogue.

With coffers swelled by the largess of “social entrepreneurs” who had done extremely well in the for-profit world and had confidence in their ability to solve social problems with their business-honed abilities, new nonprofit organizations sprang up to implement visions of a better world. Before long, of course, Forbes created a list of the top names among them – the Impact 30, unveiled in 2011.

Your Move to a Nonprofit May Be Perfectly Timed

More than a decade into this bright and shining movement, some of the original luster has dimmed. Solving intractable problems in world health or education is not as easy as some hoped and believed. But at the same time, the value of executive expertise and respect for staff competence – and the need to reward them – are more firmly established than at any time in the last century.

Nonprofit salaries and benefits are more nearly competitive today than in the past. There is less dependence on cheap or volunteer (and too-frequently, amateur) labor and more respect for innovative  – and expensive – technologies to support human initiatives. The soaring Golden Age of Philanthrocapitalism has given way to a more down-to-earth period of offering retirement-fund matching and dental insurance. The nonprofit world is still weak on management training and career development, but that may be the next threshold. 

The Right Points in Life to Make This Move

Joining the nonprofit world can be strategically sound at any of the following five life stages. Here’s a quick, practical guide.

1. You can’t be sure which career will suit you, so after graduation, you’re postponing graduate school.

You have a social conscience and you’re interested in teaching. Or maybe travel. Oh yes, and fighting poverty and improving world health.  But at 22, you don’t know how to get started. Try these on:

  • Teach for America to see if you want to teach – almost a third are still in the field after five years. TFA gives you a two-year salaried position while you figure out a professional direction and submit your grad-school applications. Founder Wendy Kopp says Teach for America is not only about teaching, it’s “a leadership development organization.”
  • The Peace Corps will prepare you and transport you and support you somewhere in the world to fulfill a two-year commitment. As part of the Peace Corps, your expenses are covered and you’ll finish with a “readjustment allowance” (currently more than $7000) and some valuable life lessons. 
  • Americorps is a domestic Peace Corps. You and 80,000 other Americorps members perform community-oriented public service jobs and gain experience. There may be a living allowance and health insurance and you receive a Segal Americorps Education Award on completion of the program.

2. You’re staggering under your student-loan burden and at the rate you’re paying, you’re looking at 20 to 25 years of indenture.

The programs listed above and many other public-service jobs may be counted toward the ten years of public service required for several existing federal student-loan forgiveness programs, and the Department of Education is working to add more. See Who Is Eligible For Student Loan Forgiveness?

Be sure to keep up regular payments on your loans in order to qualify; the feds are unforgiving toward deadbeats. (Find the list of fields that qualify at studentaid.ed.gov.)

3. You’re in mid-career when you find yourself wondering if this is all there is.

Maybe you are bored or at a professional plateau. Or you’ve put in your 20 or 25 years at something, so now you qualify for a pension and it’s a good time to get out. Maybe you feel called to service by a charismatic leader. Whatever the reason, you feel it’s time to give something back, do something that really matters to humanity. You are stirred by these words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” :

         Lives of great men all remind us

         We can make our lives sublime,

         And, departing, leave behind us

         Footprints on the sands of time.  

Once this realization takes hold, it may not be easy to shake off. Start looking for a worthy organization to transition to, or consider what extra training you may need to position yourself to be hired. If you have access to financial resources, you may want to spearhead creation of a nonprofit to accomplish a mission you believe in passionately.

4. You enjoy the community that gathers around a cause or creative field – political issues, art and music, higher education – but don’t want to become a front-line practitioner.

Maybe you are low on talent, lack the training or just can’t see yourself in the requisite lifestyle. 

Working for a grant-giving foundation, a theatrical nonprofit, a university career-counseling office or a think tank is a way to be around the people you enjoy in a respectable role – above the gofer level, that is. Also, look at the nonprofit professional associations in the field.

5. You have reached the Third Age, as Europeans have named it – the Age that comes between Middle and Old – but you have enough energy, mental and/or otherwise, to be restless.

It’s time for an “encore career.” Start your exploration by reading Don't Retire Early – Change Careers Instead.

Marc Freedman leads an organization known as Encore! or Encore.org that helps older people locate second (or third) careers that matter. Longfellow’s poem also said, “Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal.” What goals have you not fulfilled? What’s left on your bucket list? What wrongs in the world still need righting?  “Let us, then, be up and doing…Still achieving, still pursuing,” wrote the poet.

Or, to put it another way, quoting the late Bob Moawad – a successful athletic coach and the former CEO of the Edge Learning Institute: “You can’t make footprints in the sands of time if you’re sitting on your butt, and who wants to make buttprints in the sands of time?”

The Bottom Line

Think about it.