BREAKING AND ENTERING: NON-PROFITS
My first column for ProfessionalGal is up!
My parents taught me about the importance of giving back to your community when I was a little girl. However, I didn’t start volunteering with any regularity until after 9/11, when I was seeking connection to the city I loved and spiritual fulfillment while I worked a soul-crushing job. After a few years of volunteering, I realized that I could use my administrative and writing skills at a non-profit and actually get paid for it.
I’ve been working for non-profits for nearly 10 years now. I’ve seen the public perception of our industry go from one of pitying indifference to excitement. Oddly enough, non-profits are now seen as “sexy.” With this change, there has been a boom in non-profits—the number of non-profits has grown by 25% in the past 10 years. More non-profits means more jobs, but it also means more competition. Want to know what it takes to become a professional do-gooder?
1. GET EXPERIENCE
Like I said above, I got to know non-profits because I volunteered for them. That’s the great thing about non-profits—they have an open-door policy when it comes to free labor. Think about what you want to do at an organization, or what kind of organization you want to work for. Check out Idealist,VolunteerMatch, or OneBrick to see what kind of opportunities are out there.
Because I knew that I wanted to write, I started by doing research for training manuals, collecting news clippings (back when they were kept in actual binders), and writing copies for event materials. Depending on your skills and background, you could offer to do pro bono bookkeeping, mentoring, or dishing out food at your local shelter. Even if you are in a small town, there are lots of ways you can get involved and use your strengths to help others.
2. GET KNOWLEDGE
When you apply to a job at a non-profit, you need to prove that you know something about their mission. Obviously you are going to look at their website and have a good sense of what they do (right?). But for a mission-driven organization, you also need to show that you care about more than just that one organization or getting a job—you care about the issue.
You don’t need to be an expert, especially if you are applying for an entry-level position, but you are going to want to at least scan the newspaper and know what’s going on with the issue. For instance, are you applying to a clean water organization? Make sure to mention West Virginia. An after-school program? See if there have been any cuts to your town’s budget recently. Immigrant rights? Check where reforms stalled in Congress. Make sure that you drop a few words about this recent news in your cover letter to help you stand out.
Of course, you may also have personal experience with the issue. You don’t have to share too much, but do mention that as well. When I applied for my first non-profit job at an HIV/AIDS organization, I talked about my junior high health class and what it was like to grow up in the shadow of AIDS. At the interview, I had shown that I did my research by talking about how young black women (my peers, my friends) were part of the demographic that was most likely to contract the virus. I demonstrated my interest and passion and connected it to my experience. They offered me the job two hours after my interview.
3. GET CONNECTED
The non-profit world is small. Not in a kumbaya way (although we may like to think that), but in a “never burn a bridge” kind of way. It also means that if you get yourself into a few networking events and start to meet people, those connections will beget new connections pretty quickly.
My first non-profit job came, in part, from a recommendation by a volunteer coordinator at another organization. And my next through a friend of a friend that I met at a non-profit leadership course. And my next through a contact of someone who interviewed me for another job. I send job listings to friends and acquaintances all the time, and have acted as a reference or connector for countless more. I won’t say that there’s no competition in the non-profit world, but I have been lucky to meet mostly people who sincerely want to help me when they can.
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