What You Need To Know Before Getting Your Dream Job Saving The World

Some successful nonprofits let us in on a few secrets about finding a job saving the world, and now we’re passing them on to you.

What You Need To Know Before Getting Your Dream Job Saving The World
[Photo: Flickr user Alayna]

The way we define success is changing.


Lists of the world’s richest CEOs and corporations with the biggest sales aren’t what inspires today’s workforce. Instead, more people are interested in companies that make a difference and are choosing meaningful work over bigger paychecks, as illustrated by a recent Net Impact survey.

As Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers: The Story of Success, “It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether or not our work fulfills us.”

We talked to several nonprofits about what it takes to get a job saving the world, and here’s what you need to know.

Why So Many People Want To Work At Nonprofits

Tim Ifill

While consulting firm Nonprofit HR reports there are more nonprofit positions open now than in previous years, Tim Ifill, executive director of Philly Fellows, an organization that connects college graduates to nonprofits in Philadelphia, says those positions are quickly getting snatched up.

Ifill says his nonprofit generally sees about 125 applications for its 15 fellowship slots.

Rachel Herman, founder and executive director of human-animal advocacy group PAWS NY, believes working in the nonprofit sector is particularly appealing for today’s job seekers because the work is meaningful. “It’s not easy to find a job where you get to wake up each day and know that you’re making a positive difference,” she says.


“Even on the worst day at a nonprofit, you know that your work is going toward something that is (at least hopefully) personally meaningful for you,” Ifill says.

Warm, fuzzy feelings aside, the nonprofit sector also offers an array of professional opportunities in varied fields that contribute to mission-driven nonprofits, Ifill says. Payroll lawyers, gardeners, health care workers, teachers, and real estate developers could all apply.

A Sense Of Purpose May Mean Some Trade-Offs

Some nonprofits will tell you that you generally won’t be making the big bucks while you’re saving the world.

Ami Dar

Ami Dar, executive director at Idealist, a global network that helps connect people and not-for-profit organizations, says that while nonprofit pay may be a bit lower, if the work is more satisfying, many people will be willing to make that trade. “When things work well, the payoffs can be big: a sense of purpose, lots of responsibility at a relatively young age, a sense that you are making the world a little bit better every day,” he says.

However, Ifill believes that with the growth and professionalization of the nonprofit sector as a whole, we can put to bed the old notion that if you want to have a career in nonprofits, you’re signing up to make no money.

“Yes, a lawyer, for instance, who chooses to work for a nonprofit legal services organization will make less than their colleagues at a corporate law firm,” he says. “But they’re not going to be pulling in poverty-level wages or anything crazy like that.”


Understanding the work environment and culture is important to ensure that the organization is a good fit for you, says Carol Robinette, vice president of talent acquisition at American Red Cross.

She says that it is typical for a nonprofit to have a “roll up your sleeves” culture. “Often, nonprofits do not have the infrastructure or size that other companies do, so you may need to pitch in as needed, regardless of your job,” she says.

What Hiring Managers Look For

Most nonprofits want to hire people that are passionate about what they do. “As I tell my team, we want people who ‘skip in’ to work, who truly enjoy being here,” says Gerri Feemster Bostick, chief human resources officer at JDRF (formerly Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation).

In terms of jobs skills, nonprofits aren’t that different from for-profits and are looking for different things, which Shiza Shahid, cofounder of the Malala Fund, an organization named after activist Malala Yousafzai that works to empower girls through education, says really depends on the position. But across the board she says she looks for people who take initiative, are passionate about the mission, and focus on finding a position that fits their strengths and personality.

Robinette says the Red Cross focuses on finding candidates that can deliver a high level of service and drive results, since the organization serves so many people in need.

Herman sees her fellow staff members as partners who can contribute to the organization in ways beyond their job description. “This means I focus on finding people who are thoughtful, intelligent, creative, and comfortable taking initiative,” she says.


What You Should Expect

Gerri Feemster Bostick

You might need to take on extra work: “For nonprofits that lack staff due to financial limitations, employees often take on additional work,” Herman says.

“Unfortunately, there are often misconceptions with candidates believing nonprofits have a lighter work schedule, and staff responsibilities that are similar to a volunteer role with not much professional challenge [or] have lower evaluation and performance standards,” says Bostick. “This is simply not the case at JDRF.”

Understand the ins and outs of their mission: “Do your research before your job interview. Learn about the organization’s mission, culture, and history. Build foundational knowledge of the type of positions that are commonly available in your target organization and then make a connection between your experience and skills and how they might translate to the nonprofit and help us achieve our goals,” Robinette says.

“Don’t be afraid to demonstrate your passion for the cause, but also remember that we need a job done. Don’t say you want to work for us just because of the mission.”

Idealism alone won’t cut it: “[Have] an understanding of the modern nonprofit sector and [for the organizations I work with] an understanding of the structure of poverty,” says Ifill.

“In other words, do they have a more sophisticated grasp of the work than ‘I want to help people less fortunate than me?’ That’s a fine thing to say, we just want to hire people who are a bit past that point. Usually this means seeking folks who have legit experience either volunteering long-term or working summer jobs or internships at nonprofits.”


Measures Of Success

How success is defined by a nonprofit and a for-profit may differ, Herman says, but she believes how you go about achieving success is similar. “It’s important for future nonprofit employees to understand that at the end of the day, it’s still a job and you still have to work hard to accomplish your goals.”

“This work provides me with a strong connection to the people we serve and our mission,” Robinette says. “And when I drive out of the parking lot late at night after a long day, I truly believe I have made a difference to someone.”

About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on,, and elsewhere