All over the country, a couple million young people are graduating from college, including my little sister, Joelle! This weekend, she graduated from Howard University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. I’m so proud of her, I can hardly stand it. It’s been an amazing celebration weekend with all of our family in town from Ohio, Georgia and Virginia. But after all the partying and congrats we did as a family, our first question to Joelle was, “So when are you gonna get a job?” She’s in the market looking for her first “real” job right now just like everyone else her age. Fortunately, her career field of nursing provides a very clear avenue for what to do next after school. After you graduate with a BSN, you take your certification test, then you go to work at a hospital or clinic. Even better is that in Washington, DC, the starting salary for nurses comes out to about $27 an hour. So new nurses have a pretty linear career path and a good chance that they will earn a good salary.

But what about those that don’t?

What about young people like me who came out of college with a degree in English and no idea what to do with it? Those new grads should definitely consider the nonprofit sector as a career choice for a number of reasons.

Nonprofit Doesn’t Mean “No Money”
Many young people get turned off from the idea of working in the nonprofit sector because they think the term “nonprofit” means that they won’t get paid. While most nonprofits aren’t ever going to be able to pay you six-figures, many positions command a very competitive salary, especially in large organizations. So if you’re that English major like me and you’re good at technical writing and you learn how to write a grant proposal, you could be on track to earn quite a bit more than you thought. Higher paying jobs in nonprofits include: fundraising, marketing & communications, finance and policy.

Nonprofits Are Still Hiring
There are many bright spots for young workers who wish to pursue a career in social change. The Bridgespan Group’s 2009 report, Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits showed that nonprofits were still hiring in this economic downturn. According to the Bridgespan Group:

In the next 12 months, 28 percent of nonprofit organizations with revenues of $1 million and above plan to make one or more senior management hires, translating to 24,000 vacancies in 2009. Those projected vacancies are largely the result of retirement, since much of the existing leadership is comprised of boomers. Vacancies also stem from new roles being created due to an increase in organizational complexity based on growth in prior years.

According to Bridgespan, the need for new nonprofit leaders is especially strong in two areas: human services and arts organizations.

It’s Easy to Know Where to Start Your Job Search
What happens when you ask a current nonprofit professional, how did you find your first nonprofit job? For many, there’s only one answer to that question: Idealist.org. Like many people, I found my very first full-time nonprofit job on their website. And it was the perfect job for me in the beginning of my nonprofit career! Since for-profit job searching can be in many different specific fields, it can be difficult to know the best place to go to look for openings. Idealist, however, provides a one-stop shop for anyone who’s just starting a nonprofit job search.

Your Degree is Transferable to the Nonprofit Sector
No matter what the financial outlook may be, great nonprofits still need great people with education, talent and passion. Bridgespan’s survey respondents reported that 50 to 75 percent of the roles they will need to fill in the near future look to require traditional business skills (finance, general management, marketing/communications, planning, evaluation, operations, technology, and human resources). So whatever field you earned your degree in, a nonprofit organization can probably use your knowledge and skills.

Entry-Level Nonprofit Salaries are Similar to For-Profit Ones
When you’re just starting out in your career, the salaries you will be offered are pretty much the same whether you work in nonprofit, for-profit or even government.  A friend of mine graduated with a Bachelor’s in Urban Planning and got offered $32,000 to start at a real estate firm. When I did a short stint as a county court clerk in Virginia right after college, they paid me $29,000. So the numbers game is really quite misleading. Nonprofit careers are just as profitable as any other when you don’t really have any work experience yet.

You’re More Likely to Get a Fancy Job Title
True story: I was offered a job as a Director of Development when I was 22 years old. I couldn’t believe the organization wanted to hire such a young person to be in a leadership position to fundraise for the organization. Then I learned that the nonprofit only had one employee, and I would be the second. I wouldn’t be supervising anyone and I would be the agency’s first Director of Development. This type of situation may not appeal to everyone, but if you play your cards right and stay in a role with that title for at least a year, you can use it to your advantage when negotiating for future jobs. If you can obtain a job as a ‘Director’ in a nonprofit organization, it will look much better on your resume than being a mere ‘Assistant’ at a for-profit company.

You Gain Experience Outside of Your Job Description
Most nonprofits require all employees to work outside of their job descriptions. Office managers may get opportunities to write grant proposals and learn all about fundraising. Receptionists could be called upon to organize a group of volunteers for a rally on Capitol Hill. Joining the staff of a nonprofit organization can be hard work doing several jobs in addition to the one you were hired for, but you quickly become a generalist in many different areas of skill and knowledge. In the long run, this can will help you become a well-rounded professional who can add value to any type of organization.

You Get Access to the Higher-Ups
Most nonprofits have a small staff, so it’s likely that your immediate supervisor will be the Deputy Director or CEO of the organization. That means you get to spend more time with top leadership than if you would at a large for-profit separated by layers of middle management. You could have the opportunity to create a great mentor-mentee relationship from the big boss, helping to cultivate your own leadership in the process. If you have a strong relationship with the CEO, it’s also likely that they’ll be able to serve as a strong references for you when you apply for future jobs.

Your Organization Will Have a Better Reputation Than Most For-Profit Companies
Think about it. Young people who work at Goldman Sachs right now probably hang their heads in shame when people ask them where they work. Between Wall Street’s failings and the general “profit-first, people-second” nature of many for-profit brands,  it’s not a given that the company you choose will be seen positively in the public eye. In contrast, most nonprofits will be held in high regard because of their altruistic missions. Bonus: if you snag a job at a large organization like Girl Scouts of America, Teach for America, College Summit,  etc. you also get to benefit from positive name recognition in the community.

You’ll Have an Instant Network of Peers
As you begin your career, it’s important to have access to low-cost professional development and a place to network with peers your age. Enter the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), a national movement to promote an efficient, viable, and inclusive nonprofit sector that supports the growth, learning, and development of young professionals. YNPN engages and supports future nonprofit and community leaders through professional development, networking and social opportunities designed for young people involved in the nonprofit community. Over the past five years, YNPN has become the nation’s premier organization for young nonprofit professionals to connect with like-minded peers. With over 30 YNPN chapters representing 20,000 young nonprofit professionals working in a variety of capacities, it’s definitely something you want to be involved in. Most major cities have a YNPN chapter that you can plug into: find a chapter in your area.

Your Work Will Matter
Young people are becoming increasingly more disillusioned with government, Wall Street, politicians, and even our parents, whose fire for social change may have died out in the 70s. We’re tired of our professors and our families telling us what to do and how to fit in with the crowd. We want to do something important with our lives. Something that has meaning. We want to work someplace where we can rock the boat, where we can make a huge difference in the lives of others. And nonprofits, by virtue of their missions are a perfect place to fuel that passion. Nonprofit work ain’t easy, but it will certainly be the most important work that you will ever do. Can you say that about the average for-profit company?

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