Friday, October 3, 2008

Job Search Strategies from a Non-Profit Myth Buster

Today's post comes from guest blogger Shayna Plaut, Assistant Director of Employer Relations at CAPS. Shayna has 11 years of work and internship experience in the field of human rights and social justice (international and domestic), refugee services and training, and was the recipient of a Fulbright Grant which allowed her to live and work internationally. For more information about Shayna, check out her biography (scroll down in the employer relations section). For her insight into the non-profit job world, read on:

I had an interesting conversation with a student the other day…a conversation that got me thinking and is one of the main impetuses for this blog. You see students, you are good teachers ;).

This student has a background in economics and in philosophy. She is fully bilingual and also has a good grasp of French. She came in as a walk-in to discuss upcoming recruiting for the financial sector. I smiled politely and let her know that I would help as much as I could but that finance and investment banking was not my area of expertise. I pulled in my colleague Michael to help with some of her specific questions and referred her to Lauren when she starting to ask about for-profit consulting.

After giving a brief review of her resume I wrapped up the meeting with, “I think you will be in good hands with Michael but if you ever want to do something with that Philosophy degree – or want to mix the two - just let me know.” There was a pause. She looked up and said “Really? I mean, I am interested in non-profits and stuff, I just didn’t know if you get paid. And I don’t know how to get a job there…I thought you just needed to know people. When is their recruiting season?”

That's when I realized there was a lot of myth-busting to do.

First we have a problem with the name: non-profits. All “non-profit” means is that it has a US tax designation of 501(c)3 and thus does not have to pay the same taxes as a for-profit business. It’s an IRS category – not a description of a job or organization or a skill set. A non-profit cannot take direct partisan stances, is governed by a board of directors and accepts donations. If, after you are rich and famous, you decide to donate to such an organization, you get a nice letter in the mail thanking you, “for your generous donation of “x” amount. “ You can then use this letter to help reduce your taxes.

I know, I know, none of this is translating into a job but I want to belabor this point for a bit: NON-PROFIT is a really big category and one must be careful when generalizing.

So, with that caveat in place – let me try and offer some…generalizations:

1) The term non-profit is only used in the USA. Why? Because it is a specific US tax code distinction. In other countries the term used for organizations that are not part of the government are called “non-governmental organizations (NGOs).” Pretty self explanatory. Like non-profits, these organizations can serve the roles of: service provider, advocacy, research, watch-dog and education, and is often a mixture of many of many roles. Non-profits/NGOs can be big (think: American Medical Association, Human Rights Watch, the Sierra Club) and they can also be small. When the organization is run by and for the community it is often called a “community based organization” and at times is referred to as “grassroots.”
2) Yes, if you are an employee, you get paid at a non-profit/NGO. Many non-profits/NGOs also utilize volunteers - but those are volunteers, not staff.
3) Non-profits/NGOs rarely “recruit” in the finance/consulting firm sense. There are some exceptions (Teach for America, the PIRGS, GreenCorps and some of the non-profit schools) but there is not a “season” per say. Non-profits/NGOs often put out job announcements on their websites (often in the “about us” tab) or circulate information through various thematic listserves (Muslims in Public Health, Human Rights Education and Action, Media and Social Change, Children’s Rights, are all examples of specific list-serves that often include job postings). Non-profits and NGOs may also post job openings on employment-focused websites devoted to those sectors. For Chicago specific jobs visit, for international jobs (especially focusing on the intersection of communications and activism/social change in terms of: health, children, gender etc.) go to For more general non-profit/NGO jobs, internships and volunteer activities visit
4) Get out there. The best way to learn about the work being done, and the organizations doing it, is by getting in the field. Go to events sponsored by the various non-profits/NGOs you are interested in. Pick up the literature at the table. Listen to how they frame themselves and their issues. Get people’s names and business cards. Follow up with them and see if you can have a meeting – formally through an informational interview or over a cup of coffee. If you are interested in their work, see how you can get involved. IF you find a match between your skills, their needs and both of your interests – see how that can parlay into a position.
5) Passion is good, but what are your skills? It is great that you care a lot about women’s rights in Africa. is your Swahili or your French or your Arabic? How are your local-language skills? I am sure you love children, but are you CPR certified? I am glad you like to research, but are you familiar with statistical analysis? You want to combine skills, interests and passion.
6) Just as in business there are different positions within an organization – look at those positions and see if you have those skills and interests – don’t just look at what the organization does as a whole. If you want to work on issues of child abuse and have a knack for early-childhood education, you may not want to apply for the accountant position. One skill-set that is often needed in NPOs/NGOs, and often overlooked, are skills often cultivated in more traditional business programs: finance, strategic development and marketing.
7) Narrow down your interests and learn – most importantly, learn by doing. Women’s Rights. Children’s Rights. LGBT Rights. These are all very big categories. What would you like to do? Are you interested in economics? Do you want to be abroad or in the US? What about microfinacing? Now you have a term. Google it. Find some organizations. Google them. Read their mission statement. Find out who their donors are (so you can get a better sense of their funding stream, motivation and financial health), and then see where they operate (many larger NGOs have multiple sites).
8) Come and speak with us at CAPS – we can help guide you in the resume writing, the cover letter tailoring, the networking and then strategizing. All of our staff can help with some of the basics and two of us (Shayna and Max) are focused on the non-profit and NGO sector. That’s what we are here for.

To schedule an appointment with Shayna, call CAPS at (773) 702 - 7040.

Comments, questions, ideas, etc? Post them here.


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