How to Find a Nonprofit Job That Fits

Finding a job that lasts can be challenging in any industry. Many candidates are so focused on impressing potential employers that they neglect to properly assess whether the job in question is a good fit.

When seeking a nonprofit job, consider two important aspects, says Michelle Heck, co-founder of recruiting agency Nonprofit Talent: whether a group’s mission is one you can support fully, and whether employees are sending warning signs about the work environment.

The Chronicle talked to Ms. Heck and other experts to get tips on how to evaluate a prospective post. Here’s what they had to say.

Analyze the job description. If you’re searching on listing websites like Idealist.org or Monster.com, make sure to review the job description carefully, because it can be telling, says Heather Krasna, a career coach for the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group.

Make sure the listed responsibilities are straightforward. Some lower-level or newly created positions might not come with clear expectations, which could make them challenging, Ms. Krasna says. She recommends asking the hiring manager for clarification if you aren’t clear on what the job entails.

Also look for cryptic lines about having the ability to "manage conflicts" or work in "high-pressure" environments. That language might mean the workplace is chaotic, she says.

And if the listing spells out that you’ll be working long hours and weekends, take it at face value — and if that’s not acceptable, look elsewhere.

Check the Form 990s. Review a few years’ worth of the charity’s Internal Revenue Service filings on GuideStar. (You might also find them on the nonprofit’s website.) Pay attention to the donor list, Ms. Heck advises: "If the revenue is coming from predominantly one source, ask about that, because what if that goes away?" If you’ve been offered the job, you might also ask to review the organization’s strategic plan to get a sense of how it will continue to raise funds, she says.

Checking the section showing salaries for the charity’s top-paid employees will help you set expectations for your compensation. If the executive director makes $100,000 per year, you’re not likely to reach a comparable level in a lesser position, Ms. Krasna says.

Be sure to examine how the charity spends its money, too. That will give you a sense of its priorities, she says — for example, if it spends a ton on salaries but little on the mission.

Conduct an online search. Do a quick Google or LexisNexis search of the charity. You might find unfavorable or embarrassing press coverage, but you also might find glowing testimonials that show the impact it makes in the community, Ms. Krasna says. While "you don’t have to go overboard," she adds, it’s better to be as informed as possible.

Find out why the last person left the job. If the person you may be replacing only lasted a few months, or if the job you’re seeking appears to have a revolving door generally, something is probably wrong, Ms. Krasna says. On the flip side, if there was someone in the position for many years who was promoted or took a higher-ranking job at another nonprofit, that’s a sign the post could be a steppingstone, she says.

Ask what makes the nonprofit a good place to work. If you get to the interview stage, ask people there what excites them about their jobs, Ms. Krasna advises. If they hesitate or give half-hearted answers, it could be a sign they’re unhappy. If they are quick to list the things they love, that’s encouraging.

Consider asking as well about the challenges of working at the charity, Ms. Krasna says. Sometimes, people are honest about things like exacting bosses or lack of resources.

Keep your eyes peeled for signs of office culture and whether employees seem happy. While you’re interviewing, take note of how staff members interact with each other, Ms. Krasna says, and whether people look pleased to be there.

Office layout can be instructive, too. If the CEO’s desk is located among those of other employees, that might make for an uncomfortable work environment. "It sounds cool because that means they’ve got a really open-door policy," Ms. Krasna says, but it also means that the top boss is going to hear everything you say.

Find out if the nonprofit is flexible about schedules. Amy Eisenstein, a fundraising consultant, recommends inquiring whether the organization is open to things like flex time or working remotely. If not, it could indicate that "it’s not going to be a great work environment, and they are not keeping up with the times," she says.  

Pay attention to questions while interviewing. What interviewers ask can tell you a lot. Ms. Krasna recalls being asked in an interview if she could handle people with "difficult personalities." She took the job and quickly realized one of her managers was unpleasant and often shot down her ideas. In hindsight, she says, "It was an obvious warning."

Ask if you’ll be able to help set your own goals. One major issue for nonprofit employees, particularly fundraisers, is that unrealistic expectations are often dictated by superiors, Ms. Eisenstein says. If you’re considering a high-ranking position, it’s also worth checking if you will be allowed to attend board meetings and help craft strategy.

Talk to people who have worked there. Perhaps the best way to determine if a nonprofit is a good place to work is to talk to former and current employees, maybe even the person who last held the job you’re seeking. LinkedIn has made it easy to find people who used to work where you might be working, Ms. Krasna notes.

But be careful, she warns: Some ex-employees might be biased and skew your opinion, and some organizations might be uncomfortable with you reaching out to former and current workers. During the application process, only talk to people you trust, she advises.

Make sure the mission matters to you. People often think that taking a position similar to their last job will work out fine, even when the new group’s mission is vastly different, Ms. Eisenstein says. That’s not always the case.

"If you’ve worked in five arts organizations, then making the leap to a social-service agency is going to be a little bit hard," she says.

Her advice? Be honest with yourself about whether the group’s work means something to you. "It’s a no-brainer to work somewhere where you believe in the mission."

Back to listing