What qualifications would help me pursue a career in charitable organizations?
September 25, 2006 9:40 AM   Subscribe

I have decided that the career path I want to follow is in private foundations and/or charities. What steps should I take?

I have a B.A. and I'm not currently interested in continuing on to an M.A., however I am interested in taking any certifications or courses that would be directly relevant to the field.

Other general advice also welcome.
posted by tumbleweedjack to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest just finding out what you are most passionate about, and picking which organization deals with it the most. Then, contact that organization and do whatever it takes to work for them. You might have to work for free though, at least for a little while.

Maybe work volunteer with them on a part-time basis while working at some other job just to pay the bills. Foot-in-the-door.
posted by cleverusername at 9:44 AM on September 25, 2006

What do you want to do for private foundations and/or charities? That might help us help you. Are there any organizations in particular that interest you?
posted by ml98tu at 9:45 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: I don't have any specific organization that I am interested in in particular, but I do know that it will need to be secular, and that I am interested in education, disease prevention, and poverty alleviation.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 9:50 AM on September 25, 2006

A couple general thoughts...

* Do you have experience in areas like budgeting, fundraising, and marketing? A great way to get started in that community is by sitting on boards, and those are the types of general skills most boards need. You won't get paid, but you will have great opportunities to network. (BoardNet may help you find something, but nothing substitutes for networking and proving yourself through successful work.)

* I know you said you aren't interested in a master's degree, but if you're serious about this, you might want to look into an MBA in non-profit management. Having said that, lots of MBA programs offer certificates in important related areas, like board governance, and development. (Kellogg is supposed to be particularly excellent in these areas.)

* Are you most interested in a particular aspect of foundation work? Or is there a particular subject area in which you'd like to work? In either case, start making calls and scheduling informational interviews with people who hold the types of positions you want to hold. Don't be shy... just get in touch with them. You'll be surprised by how helpful some people will be.
posted by j-dawg at 9:50 AM on September 25, 2006

I ask because your question is extremely broad. For example, you can get a degree or certificate in non-profit management. But if you want to do development (fund raise), those programs probably wouldn't be best for you.
posted by ml98tu at 9:51 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: Also, what do I want to do specifically? Anything. I've always been interested in public service and I think I have what it takes to make this a career path to pursue all the way to the top over the course of my life. One day I'd like to establish my own foundation but it's too soon to talk about that.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 9:54 AM on September 25, 2006

Getting a job in a foundation or charity is no different than getting a job in a for-profit company. In fact, many of the big name national non-profits have exactly the same problems as corporate America (bloated executive mgmt, out-of-whack pay scales, etc). I sold to non-profits for a while, and it was actually quite disheartening to see how screwed up many of them were at the executive level.

A commitment to a particular cause can help set you apart a bit, but in most cases they will care more about what skills you bring to the job. Figure out what you have that non-profits might need, and then start selling yourself, just like you would for any other job.
posted by COD at 9:56 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: ml98tu, I was intentionally broad because I want to know what my options are within the field.

COD: My exact question is, I suppose: "What skills do non-profits need?" Then I can go about acquiring those skills.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 9:57 AM on September 25, 2006

That's sort of like asking what degrees are good for jobs in the private sector. The non-profit sector has accountants, managers, IT departments, lawyers, engineers, carpenters, doctors...

Non-profit is more of a group of industries than a field. So you still need to decide what kinds of fields you want to work in, and then look for how those fields are utilized in non-profit industries and see what matches up. You won't be able to figure out what qualifications you need until that point.
posted by mendel at 9:59 AM on September 25, 2006

All you really need is a willingness to earn below private-sector pay (on average - there are always exceptions) and live somewhere that's got an organization you're willing to work for.

If you head over to Idealist.org and look by region you'll probably find there's clusters in areas like NYC and DC, so if you're willing to live there or already do you'll be in a good place to start.
posted by phearlez at 10:05 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: mendel: I see. I guess, not to be smarmy, but I want a job where I feel like I'm helping people directly, not just by answering phones for people who do.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 10:08 AM on September 25, 2006

Non profits need pretty much everything the commercial sector needs. They need accountants, IT managers, Unix admins, Windows admins, sales people (although they are called fund raisers in the non-profit world), communications folks, lawyers, etc etc etc. There are no, or very few, special skills that only apply to the non-profit world. Whatever it is you do well, find some non-profits that need it, and go sell yourself.
posted by COD at 10:08 AM on September 25, 2006

I'd suggest volunteering, to start. Find an organization that fits at least some of your requirements, call up their volunteer coordinator, and have at it. It will give you a sense of what that organization is like, whether they do the sort of work you're really interested in, and what sorts of skills you might need to acquire before applying for a job. My partner, for instance, began volunteering at various AIDS services organizations years ago; she now has a double masters in public policy and public health, and is the director of grants and public policy for one of those organizations. Volunteering is fun, and you meet really cool people, so it's a no-lose proposition.
posted by rtha at 10:32 AM on September 25, 2006

I have worked for NFPs more than I haven't in my work career, so here's my two cents (Canadian, so it may not be worth as much). Note: I refer to NFPs and charities sort of interchangably here, but they are different. It's just easier to write NFP.

Depending on the size of the NFP that you approach or get started with, you may be doing a lot of answering phone and entry level stuff. In that respect, the NFP sector is not much different than the FP sector - everybody has to start at the bottom and work their way up. One benefit to the NFP sector is that in many cases, even though you may be doing more administrative stuff as a start, it is often easier to see how you are helping people directly - if that makes you feel better. Having said that, making a worthwhile contribution or helping people directly, is what you make of it. Identifying a cause or sector that you are particularly passionate about will help you feel like you are doing valuable work (as opposed to just picking a charity that you know does good work and applying).

If you don't want to do that, you will probably need to start with a smaller NFP in a field where you have direct sector specific experience that will make up for your lack of NFP experience. Especially if you are applying for anything that is 'program-related' instead of administration. One thing that I have found that if you want to go this route, your ability to be a generalist as opposed to focussing on a specific skillset would be a big asset. I have worked in both small and mid-sized NFPs, and in most cases, on any given day, I am reporting on grants and budgets, answering calls or emails on the specific programs or projects I oversee or the organization is working on, referring people, planning or giving public talks, finding new sources of funding and applying for them and developing relationships with other organizations. Your ability to be flexible and multi-task will be critical to your success.

Some other things you may wish to educate yourself on either via a formal education or work-experience (although I have a certificate in volunteer management, I don't have an MA or other education experience, it is all work learning):
*The difference between charities and NFPs (tax, legal)
*How financial management is different and the complexities of managing many varying revenue sources (federal grants, provincial grants, chairitable contributions, member fees or donations).
*How the granting system works generally, along with the context of how grants are given and the changing face of philanthropy and volunteerism over the last 10-15 years.
* Governance issues in NFPs and charities (legal, regulatory and liability issues)- especially if the NFP or charity you work with deals with vulnerable populations or deals directly providing front line service.
* Managing people. This can take many forms, including staff relationships, organizational relationships, board-staff interaction, client-staff-volunteer interactions.
* Although you haven't picked a field yet, a knowledge of the policy climate that you are working in and how to deal effectively with government policy makers (aka advocacy and lobbying) will be important - and the restrictions placed on the NFP and charity sector will be very important here as well.
* Public speaking and appearances are often a big part of these jobs, especially since fundraising, sponsorship and other development tasks are so often critical to an organization, and so getting the message out there and being a good networker and relationship builder will be important.

Although they aren't specific skills, per se, knowledge of this stuff provides an underpinning for applying other skills (IT, accounting, legal, policy, writing, communications) that you have in an appropriate way, and many NFPs are looking for people that can hit the ground running with this stuff. It's often the kind of stuff that a certificate or general interest course can provide to help speed up the process. Although I have often toyed with doing a graduate level degree in this area, I have not as of yet - but I have taken a general certificate course that worked well while I was already working a day job.

Everyone who said that you need the same skills that FPs need is correct - but it's the context and how you apply those skills in practice that may be different. Yes, everybody needs to know how to read and manage budgets (especially if you want to do management, as it sounds like you do) but it's important to realize that it can be very different tracking traditional sales and expenses in FP than it is to manage 3 different grants with different end dates, different reporting dates and deliverable requirements in an NFP will make it easier to work in the system. I'm not saying it's easier or harder, just different.

On preview: rtha's suggestion to get involved via volunteering is a good one as well.

Hope that helps - I realize it is long. Please feel free to use the email in my profile if you want to chat in more detail so I don't monopolize the screen any more.
posted by Cyrie at 10:42 AM on September 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

There is good advice upthread. Volunteering is a good idea. If you can swing it financially Americorps is often a good way to get your foot in the door of social service or education organizations. If you want to be doing direct service--often times those are the entry-level positions (depending on the amount of training needed to do those jobs) with the highest turnover. You need to start looking at job listings for nonprofits in your area (Idealist.org was a good suggestion) and start seeing what is a good match for you. It might help to know what your BA is in and what your skill-set is like. I'd like to talk with you more, my email is in my profile, I'm relatively new to nonprofits myself but might have some ideas for you.
posted by fieldtrip at 2:57 PM on September 25, 2006

Also, I think it might be helful if you read about the different types of nonprofits. Here is a page that might be helpful---about.com, but easier to read than the IRS pages. If you want to do direct service I don't think that you are looking for a private foundation--which usually make grants to organizations that then help people.
posted by fieldtrip at 3:10 PM on September 25, 2006

I'm taking a project management certificate program. Some of the people in that (and previous students, according to the instructor) are taking the courses because they are interested in working with non-profits.
posted by sevenless at 10:34 PM on September 25, 2006

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