Breaking into the Nonprofit Sector: A Guide for Recent Graduates


So it’s your senior year and campus is buzzing. Everywhere you turn there’s a career fair.  Recruiters have blown into town and they’re interviewing everyone in their path.  Your roommates are mulling over offers from Fortune 500 companies and even friends in your community service club are comparing sign-on bonuses. You, however, have never pictured yourself working for a paycheck in a huge corporation. You envision a career spent working towards a bottom line measured by social gains. The nonprofit sector is calling you. The pressure is on to get a job.  Graduation is around the corner, student loan bills are on their way, and the last thing you want to do is move back home with your parents. 

If this sounds familiar, then welcome to the crossroads of your real world responsibilities and your “change the world” sensibilities.  Though the challenge seems daunting, you can land an amazing job in the nonprofit sector with the right strategy and techniques.

Step 1: Know What Moves You

A good place to start is to focus on the social cause or mission that excites you. What issues do you feel strongly about?  Whether it’s the environment, immigrant rights, or education reform, it may take some digging to find the roots of your social consciousness, but this effort is essential before diving into your job search.

Next, think about the characteristics of your dream job. Ask yourself about your ideal organizational culture (e.g. collaborative, entrepreneurial, or results-oriented.) Picture your day-to-day responsibilities. Do you want to be out in the community running programs? Or do you prefer to work behind-the-scenes in an office? Through this exercise, you will develop a detailed understanding of yourself and what you want. This will best prepare you to target the right organizations and opportunities.

Step 2: Know What’s Out There

Unlike corporations that may plan well ahead of their hiring needs and have the resources to recruit on campus, nonprofits recruit when staffing needs arise. Breaking into the nonprofit sector, you most likely will not have the luxury of setting up on-campus interviews or landing that dream job without stepping foot off campus. You’ll need to be proactive to find what opportunities are out there.

Begin by putting those research skills to work!  Find the organizations that inspire you. A great launch pad is idealist.org, a web site with information about over 75,000 nonprofits.  Also, Guidestar provides more in-depth organizational information, such as budgets, staff, and funders. Finally, familiarize yourself with the issues impacting the sector; publications like Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nonprofit Times, Philanthropy News Digest, and Fast Company’s Social Capitalist Award offer a window into what’s buzzworthy in the sector.

Based on this research, create a target list of 5-10 organizations that interest you.  Scour their web sites and find the job descriptions for their entry-level positions.  This way, you can determine exactly what they’re looking for in these positions and tailor your application accordingly. 

Step 3: Get to Work!

Now that you’ve done your homework on yourself and the sector, it’s time to figure out how to put this knowledge. There are a number of nonprofit roles for recent graduates. Some examples of titles that may be good matches include:

  • Program Associate or Coordinator
  • Project Coordinator
  • Special Projects Assistant
  • Executive Assistant
  • Business or Program Analyst

In addition to entry-level positions, there are a number of other ways to gain tremendous experience in the nonprofit sector, including:

  • Service Programs – Public service programs offer amazing (and often paid!) opportunities to get your feet wet and gain incredible experience in your field of interest. Some of the nation’s largest service programs include Americorps, Teach For America, CityYear, and AVODAH.
  • Fellowships – Similar to service programs, fellowships provide recent graduates with the opportunities to gain experience over a relative short amount of time, typically a year or less. Some popular fellowships are offered by Youth Service Oppportunities Program, American Jewish World Service, CORO, and New Sector Alliance.
  • Volunteering – Volunteering is a tried and true way to get your foot in the door, as well as network with nonprofit staff and hiring managers. From your list of 5-10 target organizations, research what volunteer opportunities they offer and sign up. Also, scour the idealist.org, Hands On Network, and Volunteer Match for interesting fundraising event volunteer opportunities.

Though challenging, making the jump from school to the nonprofit sector may be easier than you think.  A strategy based in defining your interests, researching organizations, and pursuing the right opportunities can result in a promising start to a fulfilling career in the nonprofit sector.  You may not be changing the world tomorrow, but you’ll be on your way to making a big impact, one footprint at a time. 


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org