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Nonprofit Overview

  There are approximately 1.4 million registered nonprofit organizations in the United States that employ more than 12 million people, yet many people do not realize what a nonprofit organization actually is. “Nonprofit” can be used to describe a variety of different organizations, but it generally is applied to those that are neither government nor private sector organizations. Nonprofits are also often called the not-for-profit sector, the third sector, the independent sector, the philanthropic sector, the voluntary sector, or the social sector. In general, nonprofit groups are organizations that are “dedicated to specific mission that enhances the social fabric of society.” Unlike organizations in the private sector, they are not organizations that are meant to make money for owners or investors, and unlike government groups, they are not able to create change through legislation or enforceable law. Rather, nonprofits exist to try and create a better world by promoting a cause or providing a public service as defined by their mission statement.

  Nonprofits exist in all types of fields and can be characterized by a number of factors. “Nonprofits can be defined by tax status, what they do with surplus revenue, the existence of a volunteer board of directors, or the fact that their work is directed by a mission statement.” Despite the ambiguity inherit in trying to define a nonprofit, generally those who work in nonprofits are united in their passion for service and helping others. That passion may be demonstrated through work involving direct interaction with those that are being served or may involve planning and administration of programs, or even creating strategies for the entire organization. Some distinguishing characteristics of most nonprofits include: 1) their focus on a mission or purpose, 2) a standard form of organization, 3) independence, since nonprofits do not answer to shareholders or public demands like business or government organizations, 4) public benefit, nonprofits “are focused on providing benefit to the community at large and to serving public—not private—ends,” 5) and voluntary board leadership.

  While people usually think of nonprofits as youth centers and soup kitchens, nonprofit organizations comprise a variety of different fields and interests. They “address issues such as poverty, the environment, youth development, community service, health care, workers’ rights, public policy, violence prevention, the arts, economic development, and many more.”5 They can include religious institutions, universities, hospitals, trade associations and unions, museums, as well as many other establishments. Currently, the most booming nonprofit areas include social services, healthcare, economic development, social activism, and charities that serve new immigrants. It is important to note the misconception that all nonprofits are all liberal, left wing institutions. Actually, the third sector includes organizations that vary from liberal to conservative (like the National Rifle Association and the Heritage Foundation) and those that have no political leanings (such as the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders).

  Competition for jobs in the nonprofit sector is extremely competitive, yet job prospects are good. And, while salaries are far lower in this field than in the business sector, working in a nonprofit “is a great way of effecting change in local, national, and international communities on a range of issues.”

Who They Serve:

  As defined by both law and custom, nonprofits exist to serve public, not private, ends. Yet, the way they choose to do this varies immensely. “Nonprofits work in communities throughout the country. In rural areas and small towns, a single organization (such as a church or community center) may provide a wide range of services and host many groups of community volunteers. In larger urban areas, there are a multitude of organizations that undertake more focused missions and serve more specific demographic groups. Nonprofits serve communities, address community problems, and build community assets in such diverse ways that there is no simple categorization for the work that they do.”

Nonprofit Specialties

  Most nonprofit organizations can be characterized as either a Member-serving Organization or as a Public-serving Organization. Member-serving organizations “target specific segments of the population such as political parties, professional associations, and labor unions. Public-serving organizations are what most people think of as nonprofits; these are charitable organizations, social welfare institutions, and religious organizations.” Below is a look at some of the more common categorizations of nonprofit organizations.

  Business, Professional, Labor, Political, and Similar Organizations - These nonprofit associations are the most prominent, comprising approximately one half of the third sector in 2006. These associations aim at promoting the interests of the members and the profession as a whole. For example, labor organizations promote the interests of its members by negotiating improvement in wages, benefits, and working conditions.

  Social Advocacy Organizations - These associations comprise about 14 percent of the third sector. Their goal is to “promote a particular cause or work for the realization of a specific social or political goal to benefit either a broad segment of the population or a specific constituency.” The three types of social advocacy organizations include human rights organizations, environment, conservation, and wildlife organizations, and all other social advocacy organizations. “Human rights organizations address issues, such as protecting and promoting the broad constitutional rights and civil liberties of individuals…Environment, conservation, and wildlife organizations promote the preservation and protection of the environment and wildlife…Other social advocacy organizations address issues such as peace and international understanding; organize and encourage community action; or advance social causes…” Some prominent social advocacy organizations include the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Sierra Club, the NAACP, Republican National Committee, National Organization for Women, and AARP.

  Grantmaking and Giving Services - These organizations encompass approximately 10 percent of nonprofit establishments and include such groups as grantmaking foundations, voluntary health organizations, and “establishments primarily engaged in raising funds for a wide range of social welfare activities, such as health, educational, scientific, and cultural activities.” Most grantmaking foundations award grants from trust funds and are classified usually as private or public foundations. Funds from a private foundation come from one source, while public foundations usually receive funds from multiple sources. Examples of such organizations are The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Oregon Community Foundation, the Nike Foundation, the United Way, American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association.

Nonprofit Breaking In

What Employers Want:

  As nonprofit organizations vary extremely in type and size, it is hard to classify exactly what qualities employers are looking for. It also may depend on the type of positions they are recruiting for. For example, organizations looking for individuals to directly serve their clients, normally, all nonprofit organizations are looking for candidates with strong communication and fundraising skills since it is necessary for nonprofits to constantly mobilize public support. In addition, creativity and initiative are important since workers can be asked to work in a variety of different areas. “Basic knowledge about accounting, finance, management, information systems, advertising, and marketing provide an important advantage for those trying to enter” the nonprofit industry.

  Knowledge of a second language can also be extremely helpful. Generally, employers try to select applicants “who have effective communication skills, a strong sense of responsibility, and the ability to manage time effectively.” While on-the-job training is usually provided, formal education is almost always necessary for advancement in this field. Those looking for advancement usually gain a bachelor’s or master’s degree in human services, counseling, rehabilitation, social work, or another related field.

  By and large one of the most important skills nonprofit employers look for is a candidate’s ability to fund raise. One employer has said, “If you know how to raise a dollar, you’re eminently employable.” Creativity and the ability to bring in money in new ways is an absolute plus. Marketing and communications skills are crucial in fund raising, and while skilled fundraisers are always in demand, “those with experience in major gifts, planned giving, or capital campaigns” are becoming more interesting to nonprofit employers. Business experience is also considered an advantage in this field.

  Nonprofit careers are extremely competitive, and therefore employers look for candidates who have gained experience in the field prior to employment. Those looking to work in the nonprofit sector are strongly encouraged to gain experience either through volunteer opportunities, fellowships, year-of service programs, or internships.

What They Hire Undergraduates to Do:

  While there are no defined standards for entry into the nonprofit field, a bachelor’s degree combined with communications or nonprofit experience gained through volunteer work or an internship is considered the best preparation. In addition, information technology skills or being bilingual or bicultural are considered attractive qualifications. “Year of Service” programs are also a great way for recent college graduates to get started in the nonprofit sector.

  Common entry-level positions in the nonprofit sector include: research assistant/associate, project/program coordinator or assistant, executive assistant, organizer, volunteer coordinator, administrative assistant, event planner, etc. While entry-level careers in the nonprofit sector offer more responsibility, leadership, and immediate growth opportunities than in the business or government fields, entry-level salaries in the field tend to be lower than in the business sector.

Nonprofit Alumni

Tracy (Williams) Yellen- MJD & Associates, Inc.. Managing Partner, International Studies; Environmental Science Minor, Class of 1992

  1. Describe what you do and how you got started in your current career. - I am a management consultant for non-profit organizations. I started my career working on international environmental issues and found my way after some time working with non-profit organizations. After a period of time building housing for low-income women and children and working on fundraising and management for the YWCA and International YWCA, I quickly learned the need for quality management and fundraising expertise for non-profit organizations. I became Managing Partner of a consulting firm in 2007, providing management and fundraising services to non-profit organizations in the U.S.-Mexico border area.
  2. What is most rewarding about your job and/ or industry? What is most challenging? - Helping mission-driven organizations become more effective at their work is incredibly satisfying. Nonprofit organizations are a growing and important sector in our community. Ensuring that they have well-qualified volunteer and staff leadership is incredibly important to ensure that individual contributions, foundation grants, and government resources are being effectively employed by this sector to better communities and lives.
  3. Is your career the same or different from what you had envisioned your career would be when you started at Hopkins as an undergraduate? How is it similar and/or different? - I expected to work in the International arena upon graduating from Hopkins, for the public sector or an advocacy organization. I did not expect to work in the non-profit sector.

Additional Alumni Profiles

    Networking with alumni and other professionals who work in these fields can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Use Johns Hopkins Connect to contact alumni to ask for their advice. You may also find professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family.

    If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.

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  Networking with professionals who work in this field can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family can be very helpful. You may also explore career opportunities by talking with employers at career fairs, and company presentations.

  Internships - research positions and summer employment are highly effective ways for you to try out a field, gain experience and skills and make professional contacts.

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  If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.