Understanding the World of Nonprofits

What is a nonprofit?

Nonprofits are mission-driven organizations dedicated to addressing a particular social issue or advocating for a cause. These organizations benefit the public, rather than the financial interests of an individual, private shareholder, or group of people. The term “nonprofit” refers to an organization’s tax-exempt status under the U.S Internal Revenue Code (IRC). It means that surplus revenue generated through fundraising, programming, and services is untaxed, but these dollars go towards supporting the organization’s goals, rather than paying its leaders and board members. As a result, nonprofits have a strict focus on fulfilling their mission and serving their community.  Generally speaking, nonprofits share a commitment to bettering society, and while they share that in common, there are many different nonprofits when it comes to size, focus, and type of organization. Over 1 million nonprofits operate in the United States alone, ranging from small community-based organizations, to cultural and educational institutions like museums, universities and colleges (like Tufts!) to large foundations supporting causes around the globe. When most people think of a nonprofit organization, they are usually thinking of charitable organizations, which are the most popular type of nonprofit. Based on the IRC classification, some nonprofits also have the ability to lobby and participate in influencing politics. Nonprofits support a range of issues varying from the environment, education, health and poverty, to gender equality, human rights, and arts education. It’s possible to pursue a career in nonprofits across numerous industries including, but not limited to: 

  • Activism and organizing
  • Environmental advocacy
  • Public and community health, including women’s and mental health
  • Philanthropy and charitable giving
  • K-12 education and higher education
  • Museums and cultural heritage 
  • Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s)
  • Environmental advocacy
  • Policy research and advocacy
  • Community development 

Roles in Nonprofits

There are several types of roles that exist across nonprofit organizations. Some look similar to jobs found in the for-profit sector, and some are distinctive to the nonprofit sphere, or type of work done at individual organizations. Here are some common categories of roles at nonprofits: 

Programs and Service Delivery: Roles in this category can vary greatly depending on organization size and mission. Jobs in this category oversee, manage, and assist with an organization’s programming, service delivery, and special projects and initiatives. Often, this means providing a service directly to a community member (direct service), or building relationships with community organizations. Example entry level role titles: program coordinator, program manager, volunteer coordinator, case manager, counselor/advisor, community engagement coordinator, special projects manager

Research and Evaluation: nonprofits rely on data and evaluation to better understand their constituents and community, determine and improve effectiveness of their programs, and continuously learn about and research the external systems and forces that impact their work. Roles in this category range from highly technical and quantitative roles, to systems-based thinking, and qualitative research.  Example entry level role titles: research analyst, research coordinator, database coordinator/manager, community involvement coordinator

Communications: Even for the smallest nonprofits, communications is essential for an organization to develop its brand, share its mission, initiatives and impact with the public, and communicate with partners, constituents, and donors. In the last decade, communications roles have largely shifted into the digital sphere, with increased emphasis on social media, digital marketing, and targeted email campaigns. Example entry level role titles: communications assistant/manager, marketing coordinator/assistant, social media coordinator, coordinator of public affairs, community outreach coordinator, graphic designer 

Development: Roles in development are responsible for fundraising and managing relationships with donors. Small nonprofits may just have one or two development officers who are responsible for all of the organization’s fundraising needs, as the size of an organization grows, development roles will grow and diversify to meet the financial needs and goals of the nonprofit. Example entry level role titles: development assistant/associate, grant writer, event coordinator, coordinator for corporate giving, fundraising coordinator, donor research coordinator 

Administration, Human Resources, IT, and Finance: These roles are critical to the day-to-day operations of any nonprofit. These roles are very similar to their counterparts in for-profit companies. This can make it easy for professionals with skills in these functional areas to move between worlds. Example entry level role titles: Human Resource assistant, Accounting assistant, Executive Assistant, IT Specialist, Office Coordinator, Website coordinator 

Senior Leadership: While these roles are not entry-level, it’s important to understand the overall structure of a typical nonprofit organization. Senior leaders are responsible for the overall management and vision of the organization. Individuals in senior leadership roles often focus on strategy, high-level fundraising, partnership building, board management, and finance. Example Job Titles: Chief Executive Officer, Executive Director, President, Chief Operating Officer Nonprofits also need staff with expertise in particular subject matter. For example, a community health clinic will need social workers and clinical practitioners like doctors and nurses. After School programs will need teachers, tutors, and curriculum designers. An ocean conservation advocacy organization will need employees with scientific, legal, and organizing expertise. Depending on your interests and skills, there are many potential meaningful paths for you in nonprofits. 

Now What?

Interested in nonprofits but still not sure where to start? As you now know, there are so many types of nonprofit organizations and various roles within them. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you begin to consider work in nonprofits: 

  • What causes and/or issues are you passionate about and want to support?
  • What values drive you and your work?
  • What relevant knowledge do you have and what skills do you enjoy using?
  • What types of job functions or roles interest you?
  • What organizations work on the causes and issues I care about?
  • What job functions or roles would enable you to draw upon the knowledge you have and skills you enjoy using? What types of skills and knowledge do you need to gain to qualify you for those types of positions?

As you think about these questions, you’ll likely realize there’s still a lot about working in nonprofits that you want to learn. Setting up informational interviews is a great next step to learn about what work can look like on a daily basis, hear about various career paths, and get advice for entering the nonprofit sector. The Herd is a great resource where you can identify alumni doing work similar to your interests to talk with. 

Next Steps

  1. Check out our Career Community resources for Nonprofits, Direct Service & Advocacy for useful job boards and professional organizations that will help you identify open positions and continue to learn about the nonprofit landscape.
  2. Schedule an appointment with Sheryl Rosenberg the Career Advisor for Education, Nonprofit & Social Impact to talk more about your specific interests.
  3. Customize your On TRACC emails to stay up to date with resources, jobs, internships and events in all of our Tufts Career Communities.
  4. Customize your Handshake preferences so you don’t miss opportunities or events in nonprofits: Click “Your Career Interests” on the left sidebar in Handshake and complete the questionnaire (you can edit this anytime!) 
By Sheryl Rosenberg
Sheryl Rosenberg Associate Director