How To Prepare For A Career In The Non-Profit Sector


Whether you are passionate about a certain cause or the non-profit sector in general, there’s no denying that it is a competitive industry to get into.

However, there are steps you can take to ensure that your determination and expertise are effectively communicated when you apply for those coveted non-profit jobs.

Madeline Toubiana, a professor at the Schulich School of Business whose research includes the organizational structure of non-profit organizations, shared her insights regarding the field.

Here are some of the tips she provided for students and new graduates who are looking to enter this hot field:

What are the most valuable characteristics someone who is looking to start a career in non-profit should possess?

Madeline: Non-profit organizations are complex entities that are often really “hybrid” organizations which balance non-profit and for-profit logics to work towards a balance of social effectiveness and financial sustainability. What this means is that individuals who can excel in non-profits are those who are willing to be flexible in their thinking and “wear” many hats so to speak.

If you come from a business school background sometimes you need to be able to drop that profit and efficiency mindset with which you were socialized to apply to all organizational contexts and utilize a social welfare and community mindset. The same goes for the reverse. It is a type of cognitive flexibility. This is a very important characteristic of successful individuals working in non-profits.

Another important characteristic is one that is really important for all organizations, but especially so in non-profits: it is the ability to communicate and connect with people from all different backgrounds. Non-profits serve increasingly diverse communities and your ability to connect and understand the population the non-profit serves is essential to your success.

Furthermore, non-profit governance is a lot more collaborative (in most cases) than traditional governance, so this means keeping communication open and flowing across the non-profit is essential. Thus, as a potential candidate in a non-profit, you need to be able to communicate well with staff, volunteers and community members.

What can students do while in school to prepare for a non-profit sector career?

Madeline: A part of building cognitive flexibility is exposing yourself to multiple and differing environments. This means that in school take courses in sociology, non-profit management or social enterprise if you are in a business school, and if you are in a different department, take courses in a business school.

I also recommend all interested students to focus in on courses of sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) or business ethics. The reason for this is that it is increasingly important for non-profit organizations to find ways to measure and report on their effectiveness in delivering social improvement to their targeted groups. Designing and implementing such social metrics is often not covered in traditional courses. Any opportunity you have to develop your skill set and understanding of social reporting and measurement can make you an asset to a non-profit team.

Furthermore, social media is playing a growing role in engaging and responding to the community the non-profit serves. Developing skills (by taking courses, workshops, etc.) that go beyond “yeah, I use Facebook/Twitter” can make you a competitive and desirable candidate for non-profit teams.

Finally, I highly recommend volunteering at a non-profit. Non-profit organizations often have a large number of volunteers and developing experience in this type of organization is an important step in tailoring your resume, but also helps you begin to determine if this is the type of place in which you potentially want to work.

Is there any value in pursuing an MBA in the non-profit sector?

Madeline: This is a very personal question and so it is something each person will have to evaluate and determine on their own. This said, MBA programs that allow you to specialize in non-profit management can certainly give you a competitive skill set.

However, I would recommend working in the field before jumping into an MBA. Again, this is an individual choice, but most MBAs are designed to speak to an audience that has work experience. This means you will get the most out of an MBA if you have that work experience. When you go to apply for work after an MBA, you will also be in a better position if you had previous experience in the non-profit sector.

Working in the field gives you the opportunity to ‘feel it out’. Does this work environment suit you? What are the challenges in the field now and in the future? This will put you in a better position to make a decision about whether the MBA is worthwhile for you, and if you do decide it is, it will allow you to enter with some problems to solve around concerns in the sector.

Being a full-time student allows you to take advantage of industry-specific opportunities. Many business programs offer extra-curricular clubs that specialize in non-profit operations. The president of the Nonprofit Management Association at the Schulich School of Business, Daryl Edwards, offers a valuable piece of advice: “Perseverance is universally required in non-profit; more than any other sector, non-profits come up against walls and roadblocks that must be overcome.”

It goes without saying that developing qualifications such as these, which are required to be successful in the social sector, will prove a valuable time investment for your future career aspirations in any field.

What are you doing to prepare for a career in the non-profit sector? Share your tips in the comments below!

Photo credit: shawncalhoun

About the author

Michelle Circosta is an iBBA student at York University's Schulich School of Business. Michelle is passionate about business, journalism, and fast food. When she's not swamped with stories or assignments you can find Michelle talking to anybody who will listen. Check her out on LinkedIn at: