The nonprofit landscape is as diverse as the many different populations we serve. When asked to define a nonprofit, most people talk about charitable and educational causes, and while these are essential elements of the sector, there is more to being a nonprofit than meeting 501(c)(3) status. There are dozens of 501(c) statuses that comprise the industry, and each one has its own unique qualities. But for now, I’m going to focus on the ones that we’re likely to be working for: those that fall into the 501(c)(3) or (c)(6) categories.
To belong to the former group, an organization must focus on religious, charitable, educational, or scientific endeavors, public safety testing and research, prevention of cruelty to children or animals, or the promotion of international amateur sports competition. These types of organizations comprise the bulk of nonprofit employers. To be in the latter group, an organization must be a business league, trade association, chamber of commerce, real estate board, or the like. With very few exceptions, most people who identify as a nonprofit professional work for one of these two types of organizations. (For example, credit union employees are more likely to identify with the banking industry than nonprofit.)
Within these organizations, vocational specializations tend to be similar. Nearly every job within these organizations falls into one of five areas: development, programming, government affairs, communications, or executive administration.
Development professionals are responsible for generating income. This is why even in the worst economy—and especially then—nonprofits are always hiring for these positions. Because there are many ways to bring in funding, development has many subspecialties. Managing a capital campaign requires a different skill set than grant writing. Likewise, sponsorship development requires different skills than managing planned giving and managing public-private partnerships is different from developing useful affinity plans. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but it gives some context as to the variety of ways nonprofits can source new funds. Oftentimes, nonprofit development managers make good salespeople in the for-profit world. The two share some useful qualities: they’re usually outgoing and have good people skills. This is not by chance, either. Both have to convince others to give them their hard-earned money; the difference being that in the nonprofit world, the person giving their money doesn’t directly receive a product or service in exchange.
Common titles in this area include: development director/manager/officer/assistant, grant writer, donor relations specialist, campaign manager/associate, sponsorship manager, and individual giving associate.
Programming is even more diverse, it encompasses the services the organization exists to provide. Educational nonprofits can run the gamut from universities to preschools, and from research institutes to think tanks. For them, programming can be instructing students, publishing research results, or anything in between. Animal welfare organizations may conduct spay/neuter clinics, fostering and adoptions, veterinary care, or animal training. Foundations award funds to their selected beneficiaries. This could require specialized subject matter expertise, such as experience in veterinary medicine or social work, or more general, but equally refined skills like event production and management, curriculum development, or community organizing.
Common titles in this area include: program director/manager/officer/assistant, education director/manager/specialist, event manager/specialist, conference manager, social worker, case manager, membership director/specialist, and many more.
The government affairs field deals with development, advocacy, and implementation of policy on behalf of an organization’s constituents. It is, in other words, lobbying. What level and branch of government they interact with, and to what extent, varies according to the organization’s mission. However, an effective government affairs staff needs to be well versed in the political systems and climate in which the organization operates. Although it is not a requirement, they are often lawyers, as the work entails considerable legal research and analysis and the ability to competently represent others before government bodies.
Common titles in this area include: government affairs director/associate, policy analyst, legislative analyst, and government relations officer.
Communications is much more straightforward. Nonprofits have public relations, advertising, and social media needs similar to the for-profit world. The communications staff is responsible for presenting a unified message to the public and to the organization’s constituents regarding its activities and how they advance its mission. There is, of course, quite a bit of cross over between each of these areas, and communications probably has the most interaction with the others.
Common titles in this area include: communications director/manager/specialist, social media manager/specialist, public relations manager/coordinator, publications manager/coordinator, graphic designer, copywriter, editor, and others.
Finally, there is the executive administration field. While this may seem like a catch-all category, it may be easier to think of it as the organization’s headquarters or command center. Here you’ll find the chief staff executive and the staff members that support his/her work, such as finance and accounting, personnel, IT, and operations staff. These positions ensure that the organization runs properly and on mission, and that each of the previously noted fields are working together. Ultimately, though, the executive is responsible for the performance of everyone else, and reports either to the organization’s president or chairperson, or directly to its Board of Directors.
Common titles in this area include: CEO, executive director, managing director, deputy director, director of operations, finance director/manager, personnel/HR manager, and more.
Now that we’ve covered who does what in a nonprofit, let’s address how to advance within it. Choosing one’s career path is a very personal journey. Some people are perfectly content doing one job and doing it extremely well; and that’s good, because those people develop an incredible wealth of knowledge that can contribute enormously to a particular mission. Others, though, may want to have more diverse experiences and upward mobility. The best advice for those people can be found in a previous article: become a jack-of-all-trades. Cross training is essential to your long-term survival and progression in the nonprofit sector.
Since ours is an ever-changing industry, having professional flexibility is key. Sometimes budget cuts will necessitate the elimination of a particular position. That doesn’t mean that person’s job goes undone. It just means that someone else will have to pick up the slack while still doing his or her own job. If you demonstrate early on that you can learn and occasionally fill-in someone else’s place, you’ll increase your value to the organization and become more indispensable. Even when budget cuts are not a concern (assuming you can imagine such a world), possessing this malleability will not only make you a go-to person among your peers, it will also single you out among your superiors. From their point of view, a person who can do many things can also oversee many things—and that is what makes you a candidate for advancement.