How a Nonprofit Job Is Different from a For-Profit Job

Get Ready for the Unpredictable

Happy nonprofit employees
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Are you sitting in your corporate cubicle daydreaming about what it would be like to work for a nonprofit rather than stay in the for-profit world? Maybe that corporate grind seems too dog-eat-dog, and you’d like to do something that seems more purposeful. Or, perhaps you're looking for your first job and saving the world seems very appealing.

For-profit jobs and nonprofit work have advantages and disadvantages, so there is no easy answer to what you should do. However, most people know more about working in the business world than they do about the nonprofit world. So, here are some things (good and bad) you should consider before going for a nonprofit career.

Unpredictable hours

Nonprofit hours don't always fit a business template. Fundraisers may need to seek out potential donors in the evening or on the weekend. Special events may need to be staffed on weekends or even on holidays. Clients may require service at odd hours.

Fulfilling a social mission is not like selling a product during specified "open" hours. On the other hand, most nonprofits are willing to give compensatory time off when your hours become overwhelming and even allow flexible work hours. That can be a nice perk.

The upside to unpredictable hours? Variety, variety, variety. There are so many tasks you might be asked to do at a nonprofit, and your hours can seem strange sometimes, but it’s never dull.

You may work an occasional weekend, and the setting may change from office to outdoors or an exciting venue for a special event — no time to feel chained to a desk or confined to four walls.

The upside to those unpredictable hours is the flexibility you may receive at a nonprofit. Working a weekend might mean some time off midweek. And nonprofits seem very welcoming to the idea of flexible work hours and working from home.

Also, being able to learn how to do several different things eventually may prep you for a better job later. Often the corporate world slots people into a narrowly defined area that can seem stifling. Nonprofits seem perennially understaffed, so everyone has to learn many skills.

Budgets that are often not even adequate much less luxurious

Efficient use of every dollar is typical of nonprofit work. 

Your office furniture and computer equipment might be hand-me-downs, and the office location might not be precisely prime. Flexibility and a frugal eye are necessary for most nonprofit groups. It all depends on the type of nonprofit you work for and its size.

Institutional nonprofits such as hospitals or universities tend to be better financed than a small social justice organization working in the inner city. It's best to decide how critical such things are to you before deciding to go for any particular nonprofit job.

Salaries in smaller nonprofits may well seem inadequate when compared to for-profit work. But that may not be true when the entire range of nonprofit jobs is considered. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2016 nonprofit work paid better than for-profit work when benefits were taken into consideration. However, since nonprofits include service organizations such as healthcare, that might push the average pay up since there are many highly paid professionals that work in that industry.

Salaries in nonprofit work depend on the nature of the nonprofit organization and its size as well as the type of position you hold there. A doctor in a hospital earns a lot. The CEO of the American Red Cross earns a lot. Top fundraisers often enjoy quite competitive pay. Location of the nonprofit also impacts salaries. A nonprofit in Washington DC likely pays much better than a similar one in the midwest, although the difference in cost of living might wipe out any differences.

Low pay for nonprofit work might be a myth or stereotype, so don't let that keep you from investigating nonprofit work.

Reaching agreement within a group

Nonprofits depend much more heavily on consensus to reach decisions. Working with volunteers is very different than working with paid staff, for instance.

Nonprofits tend to be more open, democratic, and process-driven than companies that deal with products and customers. That can also be a blessing. Many people enjoy the flatter organizational structure in a nonprofit and being included in most decision making.

All of that talking can be fun and instructive. Listening skills can be honed, and persuasive methods can be learned. All of it will be useful as you climb your career ladder.

Nonprofits can create a more family-like atmosphere than most businesses. In fact, they typically pride themselves on their work-life balance. Just check out why people like to work at a nonprofit for an idea of the positives of nonprofit work.

Dealing with multiple audiences

People working in for-profit are accustomed to one audience -- the potential purchasers and users of the products or services provided. But in nonprofit, there are multiple audiences with unusual relationships with the organization.

Donors, for instance, are not customers in the usual sense. Volunteers often do the work similar to paid staff but enjoy a very different relationship with the nonprofit. The people who consume your service or product may not act like the consumers of a product.

Dealing with multiple stakeholders requires flexibility and the ability to compromise. At the same time, it can be very challenging in a good way. It's pretty hard to get bored when you have to think always on your feet and outside the box.

Wearing multiple hats 

Because staffing in many nonprofits is constrained, you may find that you have to do multiple jobs all at the same time. A fundraiser, for instance, may have to handle public relations and plan an event besides visiting with donors and creating fundraising materials.

All of this can also be fun and challenging. And there are plenty of opportunities to learn a broad range of skills. Nonprofit workers often find themselves becoming multi-skilled, which can be very helpful in building one's career.

It is not unusual for people to start in nonprofit work and parlay those skills into a corporate job. In a nonprofit, you will meet many community leaders who serve on the board or as volunteers. Those folks can be excellent resources when you go job hunting the next time.

The bottom line

All of these differences between for-profit work and nonprofit can be challenging. But, if you make the change fully prepared, you might find working in a nonprofit more rewarding than you think.

Proper research is the key to jumping ship with eyes wide open. Many of us who have made successful leaps from one sector to the other found informational interviews to be our best bet, followed by working as a volunteer in one or more nonprofits before making a final decision. Should you look for a high-level management position within a nonprofit, often an advanced degree, such as a Master's can help too.

Article Sources

  1. "Nonprofit pay and benefits: estimates from the National Compensation Survey," Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2016, Accessed Sept 13, 2019.