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Breaking into nonprofit work: What you need to know before getting into the nonprofit sector

Bmeaningful’s guide to the nonprofit sector. 

The nonprofit sector can be confusing and perhaps a bit intimidating to someone unfamiliar with the lingo, jargon and practices of a nonprofit. This guide is designed for people interested in getting into the nonprofit sector, landing your first job or making a career switch. We’re here to make it easier to understand everything you need to know but haven’t googled yet.

Are charities the same thing as nonprofits? 

All charities are nonprofits, but not all nonprofits are charities. There’s a few differences, but one of the most important is that charities have to register with the CRA or the IRS. In the US charity status is also known as 501(c)(3)

So what is a nonprofit organization? 

A nonprofit is an organization formed to pursue a goal unrelated to profit (usually one that’s social or environmental) and the money earned goes towards the organization’s goals rather than to the people who work there.

So you mean no-one gets paid?
While some nonprofits rely solely on volunteers, most nonprofit organizations (especially the ones on Bmeaningful) pay their staff. It’s just you get paid, how do you say… less. So if you’re coming from the for-profit sector, be prepared for a salary cut.

Is working at a nonprofit anything like working at a corporation? 

In most of the bigger nonprofits (think staff size of 30+ and budgets in the millions), you may find it similar to working at any other corporation. Nonprofits have revenue (donation) targets, organizational goals, strategic plans, and competitors. Organizationally, larger nonprofits also have different teams from Marketing, Fundraising, HR, Finance/Accounting to Programs and Measurement and Evaluation. Nonprofits, like public companies, also have a Board of Directors that they report to.

The biggest difference is…  

The bottom line at a nonprofit isn’t earning money, it’s to solve a social or environmental goal. Revenue is needed for the organization to operate and if revenue targets aren’t hit, sometimes that means programs get cut and people are let go.

Ok- but at least the workload will be easier.

Think again. Nonprofit jobs may pay less, but that does’t mean they are any less demanding- in fact, it may be just the opposite. The hours can be longer, and with limited resources there’s usually a never ending to-do list. In a traditional corporate setting people’s roles and responsibilities are more defined, often in a nonprofit you become a jane-of-all-trades and do things beyond your job description.

But at least there’s no corporate politics…

Well… even though everyone is working towards a common goal, that doesn’t mean that staff meetings involve holding hands or  singing Kumbayah. The realities of working in a nonprofit are similar to the corporate world, which unfortunately could mean annoying colleagues and office politics. The same root causes, self-interest, ego, turf wars, etc., are to blame for office politics at nonprofits. That being said, the passion you share for the same cause creates a bond between colleagues unlike in corporate settings.

So what are the opportunities for people with a corporate background? 

Nonprofits are in need of people with functional skills to help with positions in finance, marketing, social media, fundraising, business development, event planning, strategy, IT and HR. Cross sector collaboration and partnerships are common, so nonprofits need to be able to speak the language of business and government.

Is volunteering a helpful way to get a job in a nonprofit? 

Short answer- yes. Long answer- also yes. Getting involved – whether it is by volunteering or going to your favourite nonprofit’s events- is a great way to learn about the organization and meet the people doing the work (read: your future colleagues). Many people have successfully segwayed their volunteer work into full time work at an organization they admired.

Any new advancements I should know of in nonprofit? 

Some nonprofits are becoming social enterprises to generate income (not from donations) to supplement the money they receive from donations or grants. There’s also a growing movement to stop calling it the “nonprofit” sector as it is describing something by what it is not.

Key nonprofit lingo to know for the newbie: 

  • Theory of Change : the way in which you think your intervention will help your beneficiaries (the “how”)
  • Beneficiaries: in corporate speak your consumers- i.e. who are you helping/serving with your programs
  • Capacity-building :kind of like training and development
  • ED – leaders of smaller nonprofits (think CEO) are called Executive Directors and are abbreviated to ED.
  • NGO– stands for non governmental organization- meaning an organization that is independent from any government
  • Unrestricted vs restricted revenue. Unrestricted revenue is the type of donation that is free to be spent on anything such as overhead. Restricted revenue is when a donor mandates that it has to be earmarked for a specific project.
  • Development – Development is often used interchangeably with fundraising, it’s the act of raising money. But development is used by some to denote that relationship management is involved.
  • Officer- Job titles at nonprofits can look different than the corporate world, and some junior or mid-level positions are called “officers”.
  • Board of Directors: Nonprofits have a group of people that serve as the governing body of a nonprofit. These people are responsible for overseeing the activities and decisions. Boards meet multiple times over the year.
  • What’s your operating ratio? Nope- not a nonprofit pickup line. This is a number that’s meant to demonstrate a nonprofit’s efficiency in spending on programs to overhead. Accounting wise, employees are considered overhead but some donors don’t like to spend on overhead or administration. Nonprofits tend to strive for an 80-20 ratio (80% of funds go towards programs and 20% of funds towards overhead). But there’s discussion about why focusing solely on this ratio is not as helpful as one may think.

Want to know more about career switching? Here’s a good article about it on Charity Village.


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Bmeaningful Editor

Bmeaningful Editor

1 Comment

  1. March 30, 2018 at 3:51 am — Reply

    To your point above, volunteering is a great way for someone to get their feet wet in nonprofit! Being a full-time staff person is definitely different from being an external volunteer, but the exposure is at least a starting point. You get to learn more about how organizations operate, make contacts, and potentially suss out the functional areas that spark your interest. (On the nonprofit hiring side, it can also demonstrate a real appreciation & commitment to the industry).

    There are so many different types of opportunities that you’re bound to find something that works (here are 6 major categories, for anyone just starting out!

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