Whether you’re just out of college and are looking for your first job, or you are a veteran of the corporate world looking for a way to give back to your community, you may be considering sharing your talents with a nonprofit organization. You’ve probably heard that nonprofits are warm and caring institutions that attract idealistic staff and volunteers who support each other in the service of a worthy cause. And generally, these things are true.

However, here is a mixed bag of things that perhaps you didn’t know about nonprofit organizations (NPOs):

1. NPOs come in many shapes and sizes.

Nonprofit organizations run the gamut from the Girl Scouts to the Humane Society, from search and rescue organizations to the International Function Point Users Group. Even within a single big NPO, such as the Methodist Church or the Salvation Army, there are as many differences among individual agencies as there are between individual people.

2. NPOs desperately need good business people.

Nonprofits are out to change the world, yes, but they are also businesses, and can greatly benefit from good business minds. Most of the financial support for nonprofits comes from donors, so networking and professional relationship-building skills are at a premium. In addition, someone always needs to keep an eye on the organization’s ‘bottom line’ and act as a reality check when overly grandiose ideas pop up, which is a fairly common occurrence.

3. NPO workers aren’t saints.

Unfortunately, NPOs attract just as much corruption, power jockeying, big egos, backstabbing, and political maneuvering as their for-profit counterparts. Nonprofits are also the third most likely type of business to be victims of embezzlement, after banks and government institutions.

4. You’ll have to make some sacrifices.

The most obvious sacrifice is a fat salary, although not necessarily health insurance, retirement or other benefits. Other sacrifices include having any clear benchmarks of progress, knowing that there are clear, long-term business goals (other than staying afloat), having the latest and greatest technology at your fingertips, or knowing that you have a steady stream of funding or even a long-term job.

5. There are some pretty cool perks.

In the US, employees can get a student loan forgiven if they accumulate 10 years of full-time work for a registered 501-C3. Also, quite often you can arrange for flex time, enjoy longer vacations, or dress more casually than is possible at a corporate job.

6. It can be difficult to break in.

Nonprofits aren’t in business to provide easy jobs for people who need them. Like all other businesses, they hire the best and brightest employees they can find, and these employees must work harder than many for-profit employees. Couple this with the fact that in rural areas outsiders are often looked upon with distrust, and it can be surprisingly difficult to break into the nonprofit world.

7. Staff members must wear multiple hats.

Because nonprofits must do more with fewer resources, staff is often required to cover the duties of more than one job. For example, the music director at a nonprofit radio station might also have to be an on-air host, engineer shows, train volunteer DJs, and coordinate the underwriting schedule. The good news is that being assigned to multiple projects like this is great way for those who are new to the job market to gain many different skills quickly, and can lead to rapid career advancement.

8. The work environment can be frustrating.

Because NPOs have to make do with smaller budgets, and their funding is dependent on the whims of donors and the silver tongues of their executives, equipment upgrades and staff training often must take a back seat to the day-to-day expenses of just keeping the lights on. In addition, managers are often hired because of their vision rather than their management acumen. Because business decisions are made democratically, taking into account many different opinions, NPOs are often slower to change than for-profit businesses.

9. There are aspects of working for NPOs that are very satisfying.

People who work for nonprofits tend to love their jobs, they love the staff and volunteers alongside whom they work, and they love the people and the cause they serve.

10. It might be harder to land a corporate job after working for an NPO.

Unfortunately, nonprofits carry the stereotype of attracting incompetent idealists. As Rob Asghar said in this article, “…if you decide to move from the nonprofit world to the for-profit world, you may be saddled with an image of a well-meaning but ill-equipped person from Mayberry.”

A final thought: NPOs don’t ultimately solve the problems of humanity.

At their core, helping organizations were founded on the desire to match people who want to help with people who need help. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with this, helping organizations can unintentionally perpetuate the very problems they are trying to eradicate. While distributing food to those who are hungry may offer short-term relief – and sometimes this is appropriate – it does not teach people to feed themselves, it does not address the problems that led to the food shortage in the first place, and, over the long term, it creates a system of dependence that undermines self-reliance.

Like all other workplaces, nonprofit organizations have their strengths and their weaknesses, but I hope this little article sheds a little more light on what it’s like to work for one of these organizations. Good luck in your career move!

Featured photo credit: Jian Xiu Smiling/ReSurge International via flickr.com

Love this article?