How To Apply For A Nonprofit Job

If your passions are leading you to do more than just volunteer on weekends, here’s how to start applying to nonprofit organizations.

How To Apply For A Nonprofit Job
[Photo: Flickr user IFLA HQ]

When people start searching for a nonprofit job, they often want to know how nonprofit hiring differs from that of for-profits, so they can master the job search.


There are two key distinctions:

  1. Many nonprofits don’t follow a recruitment schedule.
  2. Because of small budgets, you’re not likely to see nonprofits recruiting at colleges or holding job fairs. Instead they rely on their networks and job postings online (including on their own websites).

However, I find that the misconceptions of nonprofits keep more people away from the sector than actual recruitment practices.

Say the word “nonprofit” and people think of soup kitchens and homeless shelters. No pay or low pay. All liberals and all smiles.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with these institutions, and the sector does struggle with issues of compensation. But with over one million organizations claiming 501(c)(3) status–and this is just one type of nonprofit–you need some clarity around what the sector actually looks like, what you want to contribute, and what kind of social-impact career you ultimately want in order to find a great opportunity. Here are a few ideas on how to apply for a nonprofit job:

1. Don’t Just Focus On The Sector

Focus on the cause you love and skills you want to use. If you say, “I want to work at a nonprofit” do you really mean that any of the jobs on Idealist (and there are over 11,000 of them!) would be a great fit for you? Of course not. You have causes you’re interested in, skills you want to use and develop, non-negotiables you need to be met in your career, and impact you want to see. So why not start with those things?

Aside from the clarity it gives you, you’ll better explain yourself in a cover letter and interview. This might also lead you to different kinds of organizations: nonprofits, social enterprises, government agencies, etc. In the end, your goal is to make an impact using your gifts.


2. Get To Know Organizations And Careers By Volunteering

One thing that really makes nonprofits different from for-profits is volunteering. Through volunteering, you not only give back to a cause you care about, but you can also get your foot in the door, explore a new career path, build your network, and gain the skills and experience necessary to make you a competitive candidate. And nonprofits love tapping their volunteers for positions.

I’m sure saying “volunteer” makes people think of picking up trash in a park (again, a wonderful thing!). But the kind of volunteer opportunities that are available are as diverse as the sector itself.

I’m on the board of a small foundation that gives grants to colleges and universities to cover the cost of housing for promising female students in New York City. I also just completed a pro-bono grant writing project for a Community Development Financial Institutions fund (CDFI) that supports businesses in Appalachia. There are many opportunities to choose from.

3. Think Beyond Salary

Last year Dan Pallotta gave a TED Talk entitled, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong.”

He talked about many things, but the one point he made that got the sector riled up was about salaries. No, the sector will not offer $400,000/year salaries anytime soon, but organizations are open to different kinds of benefits including flextime, working from home, a better title, or support for professional development.

4. The Basics Of A Good Resume And Cover Letter Still Apply

While nonprofits might not recruit like for-profits, they want what many for-profits want: talented, committed people who are passionate about the work.


To demonstrate this in your resume and cover letter many common-sense rules apply:

  1. Follow directions!
  2. Tailor your resume and cover letter to the position for which you are applying.
  3. Showcase accomplishments, not just duties.
  4. Emphasize transferable skills if you’re switching sectors.
  5. Be clear about why you want to work with that particular organization.
  6. Make sure your materials are error-free.


About the author

Allison is an editor at where she manages, a community for job seekers who want social impact careers. Outside of Idealist she loves learning about Wordpress and making a mess in her kitchen