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The Big Picture: Careers in Nonprofit and Public Sector Innovation

The Big Picture: Careers in Nonprofit and Public Sector Innovation

Like all management professionals, nonprofit leaders are responsible for the strategies, operations, teams, and outcomes of their organizations.

Unlike most for-profit companies, however, nonprofits are mission-driven organizations, measuring themselves by the impact they’re able to have on social or environmental issues like conservation, education, health, poverty, arts, and social services, among others.

The most successful nonprofits also recognize the value of a sustainable bottom line.

  • The nonprofit sector is growing: There are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, compared to 1.2 million in 1999.1
  • Nonprofits need leaders: 87% of nonprofits find it somewhat or extremely challenging to recruit new personnel.2
  • Where's the diversity? 82% of nonprofit employees are white and 95% of philanthropic organizations are led by Caucasians.3

The lowdown

An ongoing debate exists about the "best" career path for nonprofit management professionals.

One camp argues that to be effective in a nonprofit, “going corporate” first is the best way to gain specific skill sets. Others argue that going the nonprofit route early on provides more relevant experience and opportunities. There’s no right answer to this debate, and with cross-sector collaboration happening more and more, the border between the two paths is becoming increasingly blurry. To make an informed decision about what's right for you, you’ll need an accurate view of what the nonprofit sector looks like:

They're not all soup kitchens

Not all nonprofits are "direct service" organizations; they range in size, activities, and reach. When organizations like Kaiser PermanenteKiva, and Net Impact all share the nonprofit moniker, you know there's variety in the space. In fact, many nonprofits look and feel a lot like small businesses, generating millions of dollars in earned revenue each year, in addition to (and sometimes instead of) philanthropic dollars. That means nonprofits need to be just as financially rigorous as any company.

Nonprofit employees get paid

While nonprofits often engage volunteers, they also typically have full-time, paid staff members — who actually make decent salaries! “We’re seeing a smaller gap between some for-profit and nonprofit salaries," says Dana Hagenbuch, vice president of nonprofit search firm Commongood Careers, "even in roles where there has traditionally been a greater discrepancy, such as finance or marketing."

Of those offering lower salaries, many provide strong benefits packages and flexible work environments instead (not to mention the daily gratification that comes from knowing organizational decisions are fueled by the mission).

Professional development opportunities are abundant

 While smaller nonprofits may lack the structured training programs of large corporations, professional development opportunities within nonprofits certainly exist. Because many nonprofits are trying to do a lot with a limited budget, there's an opportunity to take on responsibility quickly and collaborate with many different stakeholders, which helps staff develop diverse and in-depth professional skill sets.

Meet the players

Who's addressing nonprofit management issues, and how?

Direct service organizations

When people think "nonprofit," they often think of these folks; organizations, like Rebuilding Together, that provide essential services to low-resource individuals and communities. Direct service organizations run the gamut of social issues, providing job training, basic shelter, education, medical care, and much, much more.

Intermediary and capacity-building organizations

Groups such as Commongood Careers strengthen the sector overall by providing nonprofits with services and resources, including everything from recruiting tools to professional development training.

Policy and advocacy organizations

These organizations research, develop, and support broader causes and interests, rather than working directly with individuals. Examples include nonpartisan think tanks (like the Brookings Institution, for example), and special interest membership organizations (such as the NAACP).


Philanthropic organizations such as The Kresge Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and The Annie E. Casey Foundation provide financial resources and technical assistance to nonprofits. Foundations can be the lifeblood of organizations that don't generate their own revenue (more details can be found in our Philanthropy overview).

How to choose?

With more than 1.5 million organizations out there (check out Guidestar to explore the range), how do you know who to target for your job or internship search? This can be especially challenging for students, as many nonprofits forgo traditional campus recruiting programs.

It can help to think about whether there's a specific issue that you’re really passionate about – say environment, kids, corporate responsibility – and look for nonprofits that focus on that issue area. Or, if you’re more of a do-good generalist, think about the skills you want to focus on or develop for your next position.

There are a number of great nonprofit-specific career sites worth exploring, including Idealist and Opportunity Knocks (of course, the Net Impact job board is a great resource, too). Alumni from your school and fellow Net Impact members who work in the nonprofit field can help point you toward the organizations that might be the best match for your interests.