Finding entry-level nonprofit work
December 8, 2014 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I’m trying to figure out the best way into nonprofit work, ideally grant writing and development. Most of my work history has been in retail and food service, but I’ve been volunteering for a tiny Friends of the Library group for the past year. Where should I be looking for work? Americorps? Keep refreshing like a madwoman?

Recently, a grant application I submitted for $5,000 was accepted. So that is encouraging. Even better is that I finally graduated college with a BFA in creative writing. But here are the problems I’m running into:

1. Most organizations want at least a year of admin experience.
2. I’m currently living in Southern California (Orange County) and while there are some jobs in L.A. and the Bay area, it seems like most nonprofits are based on the East Coast. And I’m not bilingual, which is a disadvantage here.

So does doing Americorps to gain nonprofit experience seem like the best route? Should I move to where the jobs are in NYC or Washington DC? Does it make sense to apply for a short-term internship that pays very little? (How many questions can I ask in one paragraph????) I do have a decent amount of savings thanks to working while living at home. I know I should have a job before I move, but will they even look at my application if I’m out-of-state? I’m totally willing to start at the bottom and work my way up; I just want to know how to get my foot in the door.
posted by book 'em dano to Work & Money (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yep. I recently did a year of AmeriCorps VISTA in VT (Be sure you're looking at VISTA for what you're interested in, not State/National) and the training and experience was totally worth it. You just have to be sure that the organization that you're working for is invested in you having as good of an experience as you are invested in serving.

Feel free to MeMail if you have more questions about the experience.
posted by youcancallmeal at 1:54 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

What type of nonprofit do you want to work in? Something like a small local animal shelter, or something massive like Doctors without Boarders, or something in between? Is there a cause you're particularly into?

I can tell you, the conventional wisdom is that the well-paying nonprofit jobs are very heavily concentrated in NYC, DC, and San Francisco. Not exclusively concentrated, of course. (Aside from the fact that they're just big cities, this is because of proximity to the United Nations, to the Capitol, and to a major flight hub to Asia, respectively - and to the fact that they have many wealthy residents to hit up for money.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:56 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

My experience is that nonprofits in Washington, DC, are unlikely to hire entry-level employees from out of town. There are enough interns knocking around DC that they don't have to look. Interns from out of state are more likely. Internships actually in development offices seem relatively rare, but if not that you could find something in a communications/external affairs office.

For what it's worth, my own path to nonprofit grant writing and development glory was a few years as a student working in my university's annual fund office, then I packed up and moved to DC to be able to search locally for an internship or full time gig, which I found. This was in 2006, so certainly pre-2008 financial crisis and it still may be more difficult now than it was then.

I think the advice to not move before you find a job doesn't really apply for entry-level work.
posted by AndrewInDC at 2:04 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Americorps is great way to get your foot in the door and get experience. Try to get a position with an organization you're also interested in working for full-time. You'll have a year to prove yourself and when the right full-time job opens up at that organization you'll have a better shot at it.

I'd advise you to aim for medium-sized nonprofits rather than tiny ones. The larger ones have more money to hire people and are more likely to be able to hire you on full-time after your Americorps year.
posted by aka burlap at 2:06 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Remember to also be looking at the Chronicle of Philanthropy Jobs section and Higher Ed Jobs in various categories. A lot of jobs that are actually development/institutional advancement jobs wind up in both those places.

Also look at private secondary schools in your area, since they often have smaller Development offices and are more willing to hire people without experience specific to the field. In my experience when I worked in Development, we hired entry level people with admin experience based on potential more than specific fundraising experience.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 2:55 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, also-- I used to teach college classes on crafting resumes for entry level positions, feel free to memail me if that would be helpful for you.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 2:57 PM on December 8, 2014

There is also an association of fundraising professionals (may not be exact name). They may have resources or job listings.
posted by postel's law at 4:07 PM on December 8, 2014

If you have enough buffer to pay for living expenses for a bit (disclaimer: I've only seen this work in DC and SF) you might consider volunteering part time for 2 mid- to large-scale non-profits, do a REALLY good job, let them know you are seeking a permanent, paid position, and one of them will likely hire you in a few months. Knowing that another org may scoop you up will incentivize them to take steps to keep you.

There are TONS of non-profits in California. Go to the Foundation Center access point closest to you (usually your local library) and do a location search for grant recipients.
posted by ananci at 4:15 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can also keep an eye on SoCalHERC, HigherEd Jobs, and CASE. I think the type of position you want is usually called "advancement coordinator" or "development coordinator"; sometimes they want experience, sometimes they don't.

Try applying at your alma mater; your degree from them may outweigh your lack of experience. Most universities have big fundraising departments and you may have better luck getting a start there and then moving to a smaller non-profit (if that's what you want to do). There are also LinkedIn groups for fundraisers - join a few and post your question there and you might get some good answers, or connections.

Also, CASE has a Students and New Professionals section, with fellowships, mentoring and student support.
posted by mogget at 4:19 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think an internship is a good idea -- it can give you experience in a work place environment and a foot in the door wherever you intern. Of you can find an internship where they let you do prospect research or help in other areas of development, that would be great. You won't get paid, or the pay will be low, but it will give you a line of experience on your resume that will open things up more. You don't mention in your question -- do you have ANY internship experience at all? This is a little "told you so," but it would've been a good idea to intern at a non-profit in college to show office experience. You may just have to do that now.

All that being said, it's not impossible to get an entry-level job in advancement or fundraising without prior experience. I know people who have been hired out of college for "external affairs," which is grant proposals. It just might be a bit harder. Before moving to an expensive city like NYC, you may want to stick around there and do the intern thing and then move for an actual job.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:59 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Americorps is 100 percent worth it IF AND ONLY IF you vet your host site carefully and verify that they are not a sinking ship using you as cheap labor to fix huge structural problems beyond your control/a place with a horrendously abusive work climate/some other kind of unspeakable hellscape. There are former Americorps people I know who worked at great organizations, got hired on for real either at their host sites or at other non-profits upon completion of their year, and are now happy little non-profit employees and/or grad students. Way at the other end of the spectrum there's me, still working through the shit my abusive Americorps boss put me through in therapy, lo this embarrassing number of years later. Don't be me. Therapy's extra expensive on an Americorps stipend.

Re that last point, a little less snarkily; if you have any dependents, ongoing large medical expenses, etc, think extra hard about whether Americorp's really the right thing. (You're eligible for student loan deferment and food stamps, at least.) A good Americorps experience is the exact right path into the fields you describe, but that tiny little stipend is no joke. (This is a hugely problematic thing in terms of who ends up getting to do Americorps/work at non-profits more generally, but that is a whole separate rant.)
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:24 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great advice, everyone, especially links to other job boards. I'm really interested in progressive causes related to women, LGTB, etc., as well as arts-related organizations. But checking out university development depts sounds like a good idea too.
posted by book 'em dano at 9:01 AM on December 9, 2014

The non-profit where I work has been hosting an AmeriCorps member on our development team each year for the past ~5 years. All of our hires had little to no non-profit experience but were college educated, and could write. We looked for folks who seemed: quick on their feet, enthusiastic, computer savvy and a good culture fit.

We LOVE having them! All of our alumns are successfully employed, some with us and some elsewhere. I think you could talk to any of them and find that it was a good experience and they learned a ton.

There is a certain level of administrative hoop-jumping you have to deal with, and definitely, definitely vet your host site. Our members had regular meetings with other AmeriCorps folks at host sites around our area, and heard about some people who didn't love their posting.

Also, be very prepared for the financial reality and do your research on cost of living if you're moving to a new area. Lastly, send me a pm if you want details on our position (job description, etc.)
posted by nerdcore at 11:04 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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