Is Working at a Nonprofit for You?

Ritu Sharma sqAs 2014 winds down and we all marvel at how quickly the year passed, thoughts about our contributions to the world and humanity inevitably come up. For some of us, these thoughts are passing wishes, but for some they’re deep career regrets.

Whether you are just daydreaming about greener pastures or seriously contemplating a leap over the proverbial fence, here’s what you need to know about the nonprofit sector, from Ritu Sharma, founding president of Women Thrive Worldwide and author of Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the World.

Myth #1: If the work is fulfilling, it won’t feel like work.

“You do have these peak experiences, when everything comes together—your mission, your purpose, your job. But most work is the day-to-day job. This is why I advise people who are considering the nonprofit sphere to follow their passion, whether it’s the environment, animals, education, poverty or what-have-you. If you are not mission-driven or dedicated to the area you serve, it’s easy to lose your energy and commitment because the work can be hard. It’s the same as in the private sector: If you go with areas that excite you, you will do better because you’re engaged.”

Myth #2: You would have to take a pay cut.

“It is possible to earn a good living in the nonprofit space when you begin to get into the senior levels. The executive leadership level is competitive financially with the private sector. I wouldn’t say there is no financial tradeoff, but it’s not as great as people may think. Don’t let the financial difference scare you away. Many are doing good and doing well.”

Myth #3: In this job market, there must be even fewer openings at organizations.

“Communications is a growth area in the nonprofit sector right now. It’s incredible the amount of content we must produce to feed the social media beast—if not done right, it can distract from the core mission. The good news is that nonprofits are willing to compensate well for content creation skills. Also, there’s a ton of opportunity in fundraising and marketing. The demand for truly talented individuals in those fields is always way beyond supply.”

Myth #4: Corporate skills automatically transfer to the nonprofit world.

“The attitude that corporate work is more efficient and cutting-edge isn’t going to get you hired. Nonprofits are becoming as highly skilled, organized and professional—we just have a different purpose. There are some skills that do translate, like project management. But if you are being told you don’t have relevant experience or the right skills, volunteering is a great way to show what you can do. Get on a nonprofit board if you can and take on a specific project where you’re actually doing the work and displaying your capabilities. This way, you’ll get to know the players, too. Give it time though and be patient. It’s not easy to hop from one sector to the other. It may take a couple of years, but it’s worth it for the satisfaction you’ll get back.”

Myth #5: The aid flows in one direction only.

“One of the most surprising rewards of my work has been the help I’ve received from the people I am ‘helping.’ I have learned a lot about leadership from women who are living on less than $2 a day, and with no education, but are amazing leaders. They can relate to my challenges and we discuss how they deal with them—how to motivate people, mobilize resources, handle conflicts or people trying to tear you down. They are so wise and tenacious out of necessity. I’ve learned so much from them.”

After 17 years of service, Ritu Sharma will be leaving Women Thrive Worldwide at the end of this year, freeing her to do more speaking engagements. She can be reached at [email protected]