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Movin’ On Up: Nonprofit Career Paths

Today’s nonprofit sector is growing faster than ever. In fact, Independent Sector reports that nonprofit employment doubled to nearly 10 percent of total U.S. employment in the past 25 years. The report also predicts that by 2010, the nonprofit sector will employ 15 million people. With this growth comes a demand for strong nonprofit talent, as well the opportunity to build a long-term career in the sector.

This article explores a few proven career inroads that provide opportunities for advancement.

Ways In and Up

Nonprofit career options vary widely at the entry level, but the most popular inroad is program work, or positions that provide opportunities to work directly with the constituents served by an organization. Often people enter the sector on the ground-level as a tutor or community advocate. From direct service, people often transition into coordinating aspects of programs, such as managing volunteers, and then eventually managing entire programs. While this is a natural progression within the field of program management, direct service positions can also serve as a springboard to positions in different functional areas within an organization.

“Most people go into nonprofits thinking they are only going into the program arena. But getting involved in development, marketing, or some of the other important functional areas can be a smart idea for those seeking to advance their careers,” said Cassie Scarano, Vice President and Co-Founder of Commongood Careers. One of the inherent challenges to advancing in program work is that there are many positions on the ground-level, but only a limited number of senior management positions. Considering other skills that you can bring to an organization, like fundraising or marketing, in addition to having first-hand experience in direct service, is a great way to create career opportunities within or across organizations. 

Building a Career in Nonprofit Development

Careers in nonprofit development provide ample opportunities for advancement and long-term success. Development is the area of each organization responsible for all aspects of fundraising, including pursuing and obtaining funds from foundations, corporations, individuals, and government sources, as well as managing activities like grant-writing, annual appeals, events and strategic campaigns. “There will always be high need for development professionals. Because of the demand, people in the area of development have lots of opportunities, tend to progress quickly and are often amongst the highest paid in an organization,” Scarano said. 

The area of development is multi-faceted and requires different skills depending on the type of position and organization. Writing is important in development positions related to grant writing, while strong interpersonal skills are necessary for positions focusing on nurturing donor relationships. Some development positions are more research-based while others focus on the logistics of planning special events for the organization. There are also positions that are more general and require the development professional to incorporate many of these skills strategically.

Executive Support as a Strategy for Advancement

An often overlooked entry point for new nonprofit professionals is a role as an executive assistant. “While many people avoid these types of positions because they don’t sound glamorous, they actually provide a huge number of opportunities for advancement and provide access those at the entry level would never have otherwise,” Scarano said. 

An assistant to a high functioning executive is connected to all of the senior leaders, both internal and external, with whom the executive corresponds through reviewing and drafting emails and other correspondence, managing the calendar, and fielding phone calls. Additionally, this position often includes work on special projects that are essential to the organization, such as analyzing data, creating reports, or supporting hiring. Especially in dynamic and fast-paced socially entrepreneurial organizations, something as basic as taking notes at a board meeting or managing an executive’s calls can provide a huge amount of experience and insight into the way nonprofits work. 

Also, the executive assistant position is tremendously constructive to a nonprofit career. “Being impressive in an executive assistant role can be a fast track to advancement,” Scarano said. In fact, many executives treat these roles like fellowship positions, making sure that after a year or so their assistants are ready to move on and up, either within that organization or to another nonprofit. 

The Nonprofit Advantage in the Long Run

When on the fence about deciding whether to enter the social sector or head for the private sector, there are some things to take into account about nonprofit jobs that might make a difference in your decision. For example, working at a nonprofit can help you develop highly transferable soft skills like being able to take on leadership, being flexible, and having strong interpersonal skills. 

Working at a nonprofit can also give you personal experience with things that you might not have access to in larger, private sector organizations. “Generally in nonprofits, especially smaller organizations, you get a broader view of how an organization runs, have more access to strategic decision making, and are challenged to take initiative,” Scarano noted. Senior leadership tends to be younger and the environment more collaborative in nonprofit organizations, thus providing those at the entry level more opportunities to have a hand in the organization’s growth while also providing opportunities to advance within the organization. 

What’s more, today’s trends show that the private and social sectors are converging, so that those who want traditionally private sector benefits with traditionally social sector values have more options. “It’s no longer about deciding if you are either mission-driven or profit-driven,” Scarano said. “Instead, people need to consider where on the continuum they fall and what factors on a whole are most motivating to them.” Today’s socially entrepreneurial nonprofits are able to provide many opportunities to develop strong business skills while at the same time aligning with the personal values of their employees. “Choosing a career path is a harder decision today because the sectors are no longer so black and white,” said Scarano, “but with that challenge come many great career opportunities.”

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