How To Create Your Own Non-Profit Career


The non-profit sector comprises 1.2 million employees working across over 69,000 organizations.

And yet, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Ipsos Reid, only 2% of Canadian youth aged 16 to 27 named the sector as their first choice to build a career.

A recent report by the HR Council for the Non-Profit Sector that looked at Gen Y attitudes in relation to the sector found that it was perceived that the trade-off for meaningful work through non-profit employment is lower salaries, less benefits and less job security.

“[Consider] an issue that is close to your heart and that makes you feel compelled to act, and it might turn into something you could never have imagined.” —Elliot Verreault, Founder, It’s One Humanity

It’s true that jobs in non-profits are attractive to many as a labour of love rather than payoff, but there are plenty of other perks.

Work in this sector is often considered to make a difference and can come with a more relaxed corporate culture, less hierarchy and a broad range of responsibilities and roles.

As a result, jobs are actually highly competitive and recent grads may need to get creative if they find their heart lies in non-profits.

Create your own opportunities

When Sally Buckley was completing her master’s degree in business management in the UK, she had little idea that she would soon spend one year in Canada setting up an office for Ethiopiaid, a fundraising organization that supports local community projects in Ethiopia.

Sally made the leap into non-profit work after successfully competing for a position in the charity office of a corporate firm where she had been working in the online marketing department. Then, as her contract in the charity office was coming to an end, she began to panic about jobs. Now hooked on non-profit work, she wanted to stay with the charity office, but there was nothing available at the time in the UK.

Knowing that Ethiopiad had offices abroad in Australia, Sweden and Ireland, she decided to create an opportunity, rather than wait for it to come to her. Soon after suggesting to the firm’s founder that Ethiopiaid open a new office abroad, Sally found herself on a flight to Ottawa faced with the challenging task of setting up the Ethiopiaid Canada fundraising office.

Her initiative paid off. After playing a leading role in the successful launch of the new office, she was poised to land a competitive position as the foundation manager for the charity branch of a UK clothing company, where she continues to love her work.

Similarly, Elliott Verreault began his undergraduate studies in international business at Bishop’s University in Quebec with the intent of preparing for a high-powered corporate career. When he found himself more absorbed in the media coverage of an international conference on climate change, he realized his passion lay in non-profit work. Seeing a gap in existing organizations and seeking to get youth involved in environmental issues, he founded It’s One Humanity, a Geneva-based NGO that now comprises a team of 15 people networked over 11 countries.

The experiences of both Sally and Elliott prove that a little bit of luck, perseverance, and ingenuity can launch a career in the non-profit sector. If your passion is for non-profits, consider the following advice to make sure you’re competitive in this challenging and rewarding sector.

First, find your passion

Consider “an issue that is close to your heart and that makes you feel compelled to act,” says Elliott, “and it might turn into something you could never have imagined.”

The non-profit sector is diverse. “Work out what area you want to work in,” Sally suggests, “whether it’s something international or in your own country.” Having a clear idea of the type of work you want to be in will help to focus your job search, whether it’s medicine, relief work, community development, outreach or any number of non-profit areas.

Put your education to work

Even though Elliott no longer dreams of becoming an elite business consultant, he believes that what he is learning in business will serve him well as a social entrepreneur.

Sally, too, credits some of her success to the skills she gained while studying business. A basis in marketing, finance, analysis and other basic office skills is a valuable asset for non-profit operations.


Volunteer experience on your resumé shows employers that you’re committed and interested. “I went to Africa and volunteered in an orphanage,” says Sally. “While this wasn’t directly related to getting a specific job afterwards, it made me really passionate.”

For Elliott, it was volunteer experiences in Nepal and Africa that expanded his perspective. “The people I’ve met in non-profits are so happy to be doing what they’re doing. It’s very ‘on the ground’ work where you see the difference you can make.” Whether it’s visiting the country you want to work in or whether it’s filing in a charity office in your own country, volunteer experience matters.

Get your foot in the door

According to the HR Council, many people working in non-profits got their start through internships, which may or may not be paid. “Don’t worry about getting that ‘ideal’ job,” advises Buckley. “Be prepared to take a really rubbish job to start.”

Though the non-profit world is broad in scope, it can also be quite a tight-knit community, so launching a career is all about getting your foot in the door. Once you’ve landed an internship or entry-level position, make the most of internal postings and network with other organizations.

Photo credit: help by Emma Taylor on Flickr
About the author

Carley Centen is an aspiring writer/editor passionate about storytelling and obsessed with obsolete words and impractical typewriters. She holds an honours B.A. in International Development Studies from Trent University and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Socio-Legal Studies at York, which she hopes will help to prepare her for a career in non-profit communications or consulting. Carley is currently (and sporadically) developing her writing at her personal blog, C. Centen (Run).