Advice for 20-Somethings

A Reality Check for Nonprofit Candidates

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007

The nonprofit sector makes up a significant chunk of the Washington job market, but it's one that private sector and government workers can find mysterious. They like the idea of putting their skills to use for the greater good of society but aren't quite sure how to make it happen.

"Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector," by Laura Gassner Otting, answers that question (Kaplan Publishing, $16.95). It challenges myths about the nonprofit hiring process, helps workers weigh the pros and cons of nonprofit jobs and outlines a strategy for breaking into the sector. Stories from professionals are sprinkled throughout. (Kaplan Publishing is a division of The Washington Post Co.)

Her advice is sound. Besides her own experiences working in the nonprofit and political worlds, Gassner Otting is president of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a search firm that she founded.

The book handily breaks down some of the most common myths about working in the nonprofit sector.

The biggest is that you'll starve if you take a nonprofit job. It depends on the work you do and, more importantly, the work the organization does. People often don't realize how diverse nonprofits are. The broad category includes schools, hospitals and trade groups, as well as activist and cultural organizations.

Organizations fighting for civil rights, human rights, women's rights or animal rights tend to pay less, Gassner Otting points out. "In fact, it's not uncommon to find nonprofits that fight against poverty paying their own employees impossibly low salaries," she writes. (Or offering hypocritically poor benefits. I have one friend who works for a women's rights group who is postponing having a child while she pushes for her employer to provide its mostly female staff with maternity leave.)

But it doesn't have to be like this, Gassner Otting says. For better pay and benefits, look to research institutions, foundations, colleges and universities. Bigger organizations tend to pay better than smaller ones. And people with specialized skills, such as in finance or IT, earn more than those working the phone banks.

The book also walks workers through the process of deciding whether nonprofit work is right for them through a series of questions. My favorite: "If someone gave you $5,000 a month to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?"

Gassner Otting cautions workers about thinking that nonprofit work represents a way to escape hard work and office politics. If anything, the nonprofit world can be trickier to navigate because so much of the reward is emotional, not monetary. The lofty goals of the organization can quickly lead to burnout. "This great purpose often places a heavy weight -- and even, sometimes, a chip -- on the shoulders of those doing the work," she writes. And even if you maintain a positive attitude, chances are someone in your office won't.

Once you get past the attitude issue, there's the matter of your background. "The first thing most hiring managers look at when they open your résumé is your current job and current company. This will most likely be the first strike against you," says Gassner Otting. "The second thing is your education; if it is solely business-related, it may be your second strike. Strike three may be a lack of numbers showing relevant scale or scope of your projects and accomplishments; a huge difference between what you've done and what you want to do . . . won't make you look like a good fit for the position."

Language matters. Think stakeholders, not shareholders. Donors, not investors. Clients, not customers. The book translates these and other more subtle differences for the would-be nonprofit worker. Get that, and you're on your way to finding a nonprofit job you love.

Talk About It

Why did you choose a nonprofit job over the government or the private sector? Whether you're happy or unhappy with your choice, I'd love to hear about it. What would you say to a recent graduate who is thinking about taking a job in the private sector? E-mail your story to Please include your full name and a daytime phone number.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company