During my last semester of college, I began the common practice of frantically searching for jobs. Since I majored in social work and always wanted to work with people, nonprofit work seemed like a logical choice. During the past few years, I’ve enjoyed working in the nonprofit sector, but there are a few things I wish my college senior self would have known.
1. Positions may not be open right away, but they will become open.
I remember being insanely jealous of a friend who locked down his corporate job in February of his senior year of college. That is something that’s virtually unheard of in the nonprofit world. Many organizations have a difficult time planning for future positions simply since funding is contingent on grants, fundraising, and government support that could change at a moment’s notice. Therefore, organizations usually will hire at most a month or two in advance simply because they do not know if they’ll have the funding for the same amount of staff in the future.
Nonprofits are also notorious for high turnover, especially in entry-level positions. That often means that once positions become open they need to be filled ASAP. You may be lucky, and this may happen in May right as you are about to graduate, but it’s likely that the job you had in mind will not be open right away. This doesn’t mean you should give up working in the type of position or with the type of population you had your heart set on, it just means you may have to wait. Before graduation, I applied to a couple of case management positions, but I knew I wanted to do something related to youth. I ended up working as a summer day camp counselor and dabbling in AmeriCorps before landing a “career position” at a youth center in March of the following year. Although frustrating, it’s OK to have a job that just pays the bills upon graduation while you search for something that fits your passion and skills.
2. Do your research before applying for a service corps
The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and faith-based groups such as the Lutheran Service Corps or Avodah can be a great option for gaining some valuable experience right after college. While all these programs offer some kind of minimal living stipend in exchange for work in the human services sector, the programs can vary greatly in everything from their application process to the types of stipends they offer to what their day to day expectations are both in and out of the workplace. Some of these programs can even vary among specific branches and place corps members at a wide variety of sites. For example, I was part of an AmeriCorps branch that focused on increasing high school graduation rates. Most corps members were placed in schools working directly with youth full time, however, a few of us applied to special sites that did larger scale work supporting youth.
I ended up getting hired at a national nonprofit focused on youth leadership and service-learning where I was told I would spend about half my time working directly with youth and half helping develop curriculum and programs. In reality, my interactions with the youth were almost exclusively over the phone and email aside from a couple of events. This meant I spent eight hours a day at a desk in the same area where my supervisor sat who seemed like she was constantly looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing. I was doing the work of what should have been an entry-level position, but because it was a nonprofit and labeled as “service” I was earning less than minimum wage. I hated it. Eventually, for both personal and professional reasons things got pretty messy between me and the organization. I ended up quitting six months into my ten-month term. Although I had a less than savory experience with a service program that doesn’t mean people should avoid them. Service programs can be great, but it’s important to know what you are getting into before you accept a position.
3. It’s Okay to Work Part-Time
Many entry-level positions for nonprofits are only part-time. Although I knew this before I graduated college, I had in my head that I needed to find a full-time position. I thought that even if I could support myself on part-time wages it was somehow less legitimate or less adult than a full-time job with benefits. This caused me to restrict my job search after graduation only to full-time jobs. When I knew I was going to leave my AmeriCorps job, however, I started applying to every position I could find that included something I always felt passionate about and skilled in: working directly with children and youth.
I ended up taking a part-time job as the Kindergarten through 2nd Grade coordinator at a youth center. I was working fewer hours but am being paid almost double what I made through AmeriCorps. 25 hours a week at $12 an hour was enough to cover sharing a two bedroom in Minneapolis, food, insurance and maintenance for my used car, and other expenses. My employer did not offer health insurance to part-time employees, but I was able to get health insurance through the state at a sliding scale fee.
When my responsibilities increased, I began asking to increase my hours to full-time to keep up; and about a year after I started the position I was offered full time with benefits. I’m not saying that everyone will be able to sustain themselves on a part-time job, there are a lot of factors that come into play and every situation is different. But it may be worth considering given how many entry-level nonprofit jobs are part-time. I wish I would have considered part-time jobs as a possibility after college because it could have given me more options and saved me some stress about finding that coveted full-time job with benefits right away. Working full time does not automatically make someone more of an adult. Whether they work full time or part time, multiple jobs or one job, their work is just as legitimate as anyone else’s.
Despite my sort of trial and error process starting out in nonprofits, I did learn a lot about what I’m good at, what I’m looking for in a job, and how to navigate the job search process in this sector. Ultimately, I’ve come to realize that just because the nonprofit sector operates a little differently than the corporate or public sectors, it doesn’t mean you should be afraid of pursuing a career in nonprofits.
Emily Uecker is a graduate student pursuing a joint Master’s degree in social work and elementary education. Before graduate school, she received her Bachelor’s of Social Work from a small liberal arts school and worked for several nonprofits. She is a fan of midsized Midwestern cities, $3 Aldi wine, and reading for fun (when she can).
Image via Unsplash