When you’re considering your career options, it’s easy to focus on large companies. They’re the ones with the big budgets and the cool stuff to hand out at career fairs. You probably use their products and read about them in those “Top 10 best companies in the galaxy” type lists.
But while you’re weighing your options, don’t forget about non-profits. Sure, they might not have the resources to plan elaborate recruitment activities or get featured in the news as frequently, but their benefits can be just as attractive. Want to work with people who share your values and are passionate about the same things? Finish each day feeling like you’ve made a positive impact on the world? If you work at a non-profit, you can find all that and more.
We caught up with Loren Crippin, Development, Marketing, and Communications Associate at First Graduate to learn more about what it’s like to work in a non-profit—and how you can decide if it’s a good fit for you.
Where do you work and what’s your job title?
I work as a Development, Marketing, and Communications Associate at an education non-profit in San Francisco called First Graduate. Our mission is to help students finish high school and become the first in their families to graduate from college.
What is a typical day on the job like for you?
Staff members at our non-profit fall into two broad categories: (1) program staff, who provide direct service to our students, alumni, and parents, and (2) support staff, who do all the behind-the-scenes work for the organization.
I am part of the support staff at First Graduate and my typical day really depends on what’s happening that week or month. During the school year I’m busier with the communications and marketing side of my job—publicizing our program and events, planning social media content and strategy, and external relations. In the summer and winter, I tend to be more involved with the development side of my job—researching and writing grants, planning fundraising events, and executing online fundraising campaigns.
So, in a sense, there is not a typical day, which is one of the reasons that working at a small non-profit is so much fun.
What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the things you would change if you could?
I think that the best part of my job is that I get to work for an organization that is mission-driven and I’m surrounded by people who care deeply about making the world a better place. I know that there are probably jobs out there that pay more or have better perks, but those aren’t the things that keep me motivated and happy day in and day out. If I am going to spend eight hours a day doing something, I want it to mean something more than a number on a paycheck.
What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?
I went into college a Chemistry major and graduated with a degree in History and Spanish Literature. Go figure.
Right after college I got a job working as a bilingual paralegal at an immigration law firm mostly because I could speak Spanish, research, and write. While you might think that it was a swanky position for a recent graduate to land, the office felt more like a non-profit than anything else. I worked for a solo attorney and together we battled the legal system on behalf of our clients and their families who faced the prospect of deportation due to faulty legal advice they had received.
My experience in the law firm was amazing and changed what I thought I wanted to do with my life. It also made me realize that in order to make the next leap in my career I was going to need to go back to school. For about a year I debated between going to law school or getting a public policy degree.
In the end, I chose to get my Master’s in Public Policy. During my first year I interned at a non-profit organization in New York that did human rights advocacy at the United Nations and I knew that I’d made the right decision.
I have been working for non-profits ever since, almost ten years. In that time I’ve worked for organizations that focus on immigration, education, and human rights. The smallest office I worked in had fewer than 10 staff and the largest had over 100. The scope of my work has been international, national, and local.
It sounds a little scattered, but what I love the most about working in the non-profit world is having the freedom to work in so many policy areas, and developing a skill set that allows me to move from one type of organization to another.
How would you describe working in a non-profit? How is it different from a for-profit organization?
While it might sound silly to say, the biggest difference about working for a non-profit is that you’re working for a company that isn’t focused on making a profit. That means a couple of things:
(1) Yes, we work on tighter budgets—it would be nice if we could afford the newest, shiniest toys to make our work easier, but that isn’t always in the cards. Even larger non-profits with huge budgets are never going to have anything resembling the Google campus or the Facebook cafeteria. In fact, most non-profits make it a point of pride to keep overhead low because it shows that more funding is going towards addressing their mission.
(2) But that’s ultimately what drives our creativity and innovation—I think most people underestimate this point when thinking about a career in the non-profit world. With limited budgets and huge missions we have to be creative with how we approach our work and spend our money. Many small non-profits produce amazing work with little or no funding. A small budget isn’t a license to produce less; it’s a motivation to produce more than anyone thought possible.
(3) And in the end, we still have a bottom line to deal with—non-profits raise every dollar they spend and the amount they raise depends in large part on the visibility and impact of the work they’re doing. Just because we aren’t making money doesn’t mean that we aren’t held to the same standards you’d find in a for-profit company. We are just as accountable, if not more so, to the public and our donors to spend our money wisely and to deliver our best work day after day.
What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?
Life is too short to not love your job, so do your homework before you take the plunge. Research jobs and companies you might like, reach out to your network and speak to people who actually do the type of job you’re interested in, and most importantly keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to follow your heart.
Homework time! Looking for a way to decide if working in a non-profit is a good fit for you? Most non-profit organizations welcome volunteers to help with everything from fundraising and event planning to social media management. Find a non-profit that works with an issue you’re passionate about and look for a way to get involved. Even if they don’t specifically mention volunteer opportunities on their website, you can still get in touch and offer to help.