Attention Students: Get Ready for a Rewarding Career in the Nonprofit Sector


Choosing a career is one of life’s biggest decisions. Even though we know that people tend to change jobs and even careers multiple times throughout their lifetimes, there’s still a lot of angst and excitement around the question of what we will work we will choose to do.

Increasingly, new job seekers say it is important to find work that is meaningful. Lisa Mort-Pullman, executive director at Volunteer Victoria, has witnessed this trend. “The nonprofit sector ranks highly in terms of meaning-making and is increasingly appealing for people who want to find employment that aligns with their values.”

“Historically,” says Mary Barroll, president of TalentEgg, job site and online career resource for students and recent graduates, “working in the nonprofit sector may have grown out of volunteer experience or been a career people fell into, but today more and more young people are committed to seeking out employment opportunities that give back to society. This has been clearly seen with Millennials, and our research and surveys of the next generation shows that desire for purpose and impact is just as strong among Generation Z.”

If you’ve decided you’re interested in developing a career in the nonprofit or charitable sector, there is no right path to get from point A to point B, but there are seven things you should get before you start.

Get to Know the Sector

The nonprofit sector is bigger and more diverse than most people realize. It employs 13% of the Canadian workforce, although according to the Canada Revenue Agency, 54% of nonprofits operate without paid staff and 86% have fewer than five staff. Canada has approximately 170,000 nonprofits, 86,000 of which are charities (for the distinction between charities and nonprofits click here). “There are also thirteen subsectors in the nonprofit sector and each one is slightly different,” says Mort-Pullman. “We can forget that it includes airport authorities, libraries, seniors centres, and business economic development groups.”

It’s important to understand the differences between the nonprofit and other sectors. Madeline Toubiana, professor at the Schulich School of Business, says, “Nonprofit organizations are complex entities that are often really ‘hybrid’ organizations, which balance nonprofit and for-profit logics to work towards a balance of social effectiveness and financial sustainability.” Colleen Sharen, associate professor, management and organizational studies, who heads up an undergraduate program in nonprofit management at Brescia University College at Western University, adds, “The nonprofit world is very different from the corporate world — in nonprofits, clients may or may not have voice, there isn’t a market factor, and the people being served aren’t those who pay for the product.”

In order to get to know the sector, Sharen advises students to do research. “I recommend starting with Imagine Canada, whose website has tons of information on the sector. It’s also useful to look at the human capital survey done by the Ontario Nonprofit Network to understand the skills nonprofits need.”

It isn’t all facts and figures either. In order to understand what working in the sector looks like, Professor Robert Shea, one of the coordinators of the Career Integrated Learning Project at Memorial University, recommends requesting informational interviews. “Very few employers will say no when a student is interested in their field and wants to talk for 30 minutes. Like other industries, nonprofits are always looking to find the most talented people.” One nonprofit professional suggests, “Talk to people who’ve been there and done that. Listen to their stories, both good and bad. Ask hard questions. Someone asked me recently what regrets I had about choosing a career in nonprofits, and what advice I’d give to someone just starting out.”

This article was originally published on CharityVillage. To read the full piece, click here.