How to Work for a Nonprofit
There are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States—encompassing everything from global charities like UNICEF to your local food pantry, from world-class museums to neighborhood community centers.
If the idea of working for nonprofits appeals to you, consider the following steps.
1. Follow Your Passion
Nonprofits are deeply mission-driven, and they expect their employees to be too. Focus on the areas you’re most committed to — it may be art, education, global welfare, sustainability, religion, human services, or something else altogether. The classes you choose, the student groups you join, and the volunteering you do can all demonstrate your devotion to potential employers.
2. Develop Your Expertise
You don’t need to study business to work for nonprofits, but it can be a big advantage. Nonprofits are organizations that often function as businesses, but for public or social benefit rather than profit. The goals are different, but many of the principles that make an organization successful are the same.
While business school may not be the only or most traditional path to working for a nonprofit, a business education paired with nonprofit work experience and commitment to a cause can make you an invaluable leader at an organization whose mission you care about.
Just ask Laura Lott, a Kogod alumna and the current president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for and nurturing excellence in museums across the country.
“AAM was struggling financially when I joined, which was part of the attraction,” she said. “I had the ability to help them get back on a strong financial footing. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to make the world a more empathetic, just and better place.”
Working at a nonprofit, you’ll benefit from a diverse knowledge base and strong collaboration skills. At Kogod, we offer marketing and management classes specifically for nonprofits. Our students also have ample opportunity to take classes and work alongside similarly-minded students from American University’s School of Public Affairs and School of International Service.
3. Get Real-World Experience
If you’re interested in forging a path to the nonprofit world through business school, look for a program that offers ample hands-on learning opportunities, including with nonprofits. These can be internships, consulting projects, or student group opportunities.
At Kogod, we’ve paired students with nonprofits through courses and our pro bono consulting projects.
"It's a great way for a nonprofit to gain some expertise or some hours of dedicated labor, for something that they don’t necessarily have in their budget," said adjunct instructor Catherine Poulin who supervises students on nonprofit consulting projects. "Meanwhile the students get some consulting experience, and they get to go learn about the organization, their program, their mission, and to really think from a business consultant’s point of view."
4. Choose the Right Location
There are nonprofits everywhere. Often big cities offer more opportunities, and some of the biggest and best nonprofits are based here in Washington, DC.
"Washington, DC is rich with non-profit employers of all industries and sizes, including mission-oriented start ups, social impact organizations, trade associations, charities, health care organizations, universities, international focused organizations, federal government entities and business and community development organizations, just to name just a few," says Angela Petras, Kogod's Assistant Dean of Experiential Learning. "Students who want to be in the non-profit world purposely place themselves in DC to network with and intern at these non-profits, with the goal of eventually joining them full-time."
5. Think Outside the Box
Beyond traditional nonprofit organizations and roles, interdisciplinary collaboration can create positive social change through other means, including public-private partnerships and entrepreneurial ventures.
“I’m really driven by my desire to create opportunities for young people in Africa,” said Kogod MBA student and Nigerian entrepreneur Abolaji Omitogun. “As a venture capitalist, I hope to raise funds to invest in African entrepreneurs, giving them exposure to larger amounts of financing. There’s so much potential there but there just aren’t the opportunities. Business is a force to address this.”
Growing your network — through internships, volunteering, faculty, and alumni mentorship — can yield innovative solutions for the local, national, and global problems you care most about solving.