Making a Difference Through Volunteering & Nonprofit Careers

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Volunteer work is not just an item on a resume or college application – it's an essential part of a functioning society. The benefits of volunteer work reach far and wide with a ripple effect that begins with the individual and nonprofit organization and extends beyond the larger community, benefiting everyone in its wake. In this guide, you'll learn more about the importance of volunteer work, how to find volunteer opportunities, and how to transition from volunteering to a career in a nonprofit.

The Importance of Volunteer Work

Volunteer work is the cornerstone that joins charitable service and hard work. While an individual generally does not receive compensation for volunteer hours, the rewards of service go far beyond that of monetary payment. In addition to the personal satisfaction and deeper understanding of community gained in helping a person or organization, individuals who volunteer are likely to develop a network of contacts that can be useful when searching for a job.

There are many opportunities for volunteering in a wide range of sectors, and people of all ages benefit from providing service to others.

Volunteering in Various Life Stages

  • High School
    Teenagers see great benefit from providing selfless service. Volunteering can add depth to college applications and help give teens perspective.
  • College
    Volunteering in college helps students begin establishing their work experience in any certain field. Students can also build a substantial network of contacts.
  • Professional/Postgrad/Adult
    Volunteering as an adult can help keep a resume current with experience, as well as give the individual a deeper sense of pride and community.
  • Finding Your Volunteer Focus

    Choosing where to focus your time and talents can be difficult. Consider your personal values, convictions and interests, and learn about the various volunteer options to help you decide where you would best fit. Individuals who connect with their causes on a deeper level and have skills and talents that are specifically relevant in a certain sector can have a greater impact in their work.

    Main Sectors of Volunteer Work

    While many people think of feeding homeless people or reading to children as their only options for volunteering, there are many more opportunities to serve, including digital volunteering. The main sectors of nonprofits and volunteer work include social and legal services, civic and environmental advocacy, arts and culture, education, health services, and international relations and development. Read more about each sector's accomplishments and available volunteer opportunities.

    Sector Purpose Volunteer Opportunities
    Social and Legal Services Includes organizations that provide pro bono legal aid, individual and family services, residential care, job training and community and housing development. Volunteer by working in toy drives; provide administrative help for social service offices, senior centers, and other community projects.
    Civic and Environmental Advocacy Includes organizations that advocate for human and civil rights, environmental preservation and conservation, and wildlife. Volunteer by leading or participating in a trail or river cleanup, assist in wildlife research, participate in awareness events, or provide administrative service to the organization.
    Arts and Culture Includes performing arts groups, nonprofit radio and television, scientific, natural, and historical museums, orchestras, literary organizations and other humanities-oriented organizations. Volunteer at performing arts centers, theaters, museums, and gardens; provide clerical support; and teach children, the elderly, and the disabled.
    Education Includes colleges and universities, preschools, elementary and secondary schools, libraries and research institutions. Volunteer by tutoring, teaching GED classes, working in after-school programs for children, or participating in educational research.
    Health Services Includes nonprofit hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare organizations. Volunteer clerical skills, assist in health care organizations, or visit and/or entertain patients.
    International Relations and Development Includes four major subgroups: foreign policy research and analysis; international development and relief; international human rights; and international peace and security. Volunteer clerical assistance, assemble care packages for international disaster aid, and help promote and organize events or campaigns.

    Going Global: International Volunteerism

    Volunteers looking to make a global impact through their work find many meaningful opportunities beyond the U.S.'s borders. The reasons for global volunteerism are many, and include:

    Cultural Awareness and Understanding

    It's one thing to see a new part of the world from a cruise ship or tour bus, but quite another to experience a country through the eyes of its people. Global volunteers live with and learn from peoples from other cultures as they help them flourish.

    Help Struggling and Developing Nations

    Rather than just sending a donation through Paypal or sharing a Facebook post, you can be directly involved with an international crisis or issue you feel strongly about.

    Bring Value to a Summer Break, Gap Year, or Vacation

    It's important to earn money and it's nice to have a break from school, but using even part of that time to offer help to nations who need you may end up being a once-in-a-lifetime, meaningful event.

    Launch a Service Career

    For those who envision a career in service to others, global volunteerism can be an impactful way to gain the experience nonprofit employers are looking for.

    8 Questions to Determine if International Volunteerism is for You
    • Why do I want to volunteer overseas?
    • What do I need to live comfortably?
    • How much am I willing to do without?
    • What skills can I bring to a needy population?
    • How much time am I willing to spend?
    • How adaptable am I to change as far as climate, food, living conditions, language barriers, finances, etc.?
    • Have I ever volunteered before? What was my favorite part of that experience? Worst part?
    • When am I available?

    Ask yourself these eight questions to understand your motivations and where you might fit in. Once you've answered these questions truthfully and fully, you're ready to move on to the exploration and planning stages.

    International Volunteering: Tips for Getting Started

    Step 1
    Set your Expectations
    What can you do? Determine where your skills lie, what skills you'd like to develop, and how far you're willing to go outside your comfort zone. Can you dig water wells or otherwise help improve infrastructure? Do you have a background in medical, law or small business?
    Step 2
    Find Local Volunteer Opportunities
    Do some local volunteer work to have a better understanding of how organizations work, what they expect of their volunteers, and what it's like to be a volunteer. Learn more about volunteer needs in your area: Volunteer Match
    Step 3
    Research Global Volunteerism
    Start doing some research on the volunteer opportunities available throughout the world based on your interests, skills and goals. Narrow down to 5-10 organizations and find out if you meet criteria and what additional things you'll need to do in order to qualify and be allowed to travel. Now is the time to request more information and talk with the organizations you're the most interested in. Learn more about questions you should ask before you agree to volunteer with a specific organization: Idealist Volunteer Questions
    Step 4
    Learn About Where You'll be Volunteering
    Before committing to several months of volunteer work far from home, consider a short stint of a week or two to see what it's really like. Learn more about short term volunteer opportunities abroad: Cross Cultural Solutions
    Step 5
    Save the Date
    Check out dates for the opportunities you're interested in. While some opportunities allow you to arrive and depart anytime, many are project based and require specific dates of commitment. Learn more about choosing dates: Global Volunteers Dates and Fees
    Step 6
    Apply to Volunteer
    Apply for acceptance into the program/project you're interested in, being mindful of due dates, fees due, paperwork to be submitted, etc. Learn more about the cost and financing of international volunteering: Idealist-Cost
    Step 7
    Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!
    Complete a travel checklist and determined what items you'll need to get and what you'll need to do before you go, including immunizations, visas, passport etc. Learn more about getting everything done before you go: Moving Worlds

    Get Connected

    General Volunteer Opportunities

    Federally Sponsored Volunteer Opportunities

    Global/International Volunteer Opportunities

    Students and Youth Volunteer Opportunities

    Volunteer Opportunities for Executives and Professionals

    Did You Know? Getting Paid to Volunteer

    Most people don't volunteer for monetary gain. They do it because they have a passion for the cause and for helping others. For those who volunteer in certain sectors, though, they may be able to receive some form of payment or financial relief. Learn more about how to receive compensation or student loan forgiveness for certain types of volunteer work.

    Making the Transition from Volunteer to Employee

    Gaining volunteer experience can often spark a passion within the individual to become more involved in a cause and even seek a long-term career in that field. Harnessing the drive felt through volunteering and channeling it toward a structured job with a nonprofit can lead to financial stability, personal benefits and a greater influence within one's community. Here are some things to think about when considering making the change from volunteer to nonprofit employee.

    Does the organization you volunteer for offer paid jobs? Do you qualify for any of them? If not, determine what you'd need to do to qualify for the position you want and show the employee how you are making strides to land this job.

    Your volunteer position may become so crucial to the success of the organization, you may be able to turn the position into a job. Be prepared to show the organization manager how you've helped the bottom line of the organization. Did you impact fundraising in a positive way? Did you help the organization save money? Any way you can show you've helped in tangible way will help your case as you strive to become an employee rather than a volunteer. Offer to help your organization apply for grants or other financial help that can be used to pay your salary.

    Make a list of the descriptive “action” words that best describe your volunteer experiences. These may include “built,” “taught,” “developed,” “created,” and more. These will be the same words you'll use in your resume as you seek out jobs that match your volunteer assignments. If you've had a positive financial impact on an organization, you should highlight this in your job search.

    Careers in the Nonprofit Sector

    Working for an NPO doesn't mean you won't earn money. In fact, many NPOs pay their employees very well to perform their duties. However, finding the perfect job at a nonprofit organization takes some searching. First, it's important to recognize what makes a company a nonprofit.

    A nonprofit organization (also called citizen sector organization or social benefit organization) is not owned by anyone, and is therefore not controlled by a person or multiple shareholders the way a normal company is. A director or board of directors and a committee made up of members usually leads the nonprofit organization.

    The organization may use any and all profits to further its mission rather than distributing the surplus to investors or directors as dividends.

    All nonprofits are organized to provide some benefit to the public. They are either member-serving or community-serving.

    Many, but not all, nonprofits are tax exempt, either on the state or federal level.

    It's best to perform independent research as well as inquire with the organization about their purpose and NPO status.


    In a 2012 report from the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University, nonprofit employment represents 10.1 percent of total US employment, totaling 10.7 million employees.

    Types of Nonprofits and Careers

    There are many different types of nonprofits. Within each nonprofit sector mentioned above there is a group of organizations working to contribute to their cause. Charities for children, animals, women, human rights, humanitarian aid, education, hospitals and healthcare, arts and culture, museums, schools, and churches are just some of the NPOs in need of valuable volunteers and employees. There are also foundations that sponsor events and programs in the community while they provide funding for individual charities and other NPOs.

    Job opportunities in nonprofits can often be similar to those available in traditional companies. Administration, customer service, project and group management, special team leadership, and serving as head or director are all common positions to be found in NPOs. One exception to this similarity is sales. You won't find salespeople or a sales department at a nonprofit because, instead of convincing people to buy a certain product, employees work to motivate the public to donate time or resources. If money needs to be earned, it is typically done through fundraising, not sales.

    Three common jobs you might find in a nonprofit organization are detailed below, with role description, average salary, and an explanation of why that position is different from an equivalent job in a for-profit company. Salaries vary due to the different duties in each position.



    Fundraising is one of the most important parts of a functioning nonprofit. Fundraisers are responsible for bringing in the money that keeps the business running. They organize auctions, reach out to individual or corporate donors through personal meetings, writing letters, and cold calling, and use other fundraising tactics. Individuals should have the patience required to woo both large and small donors, and the sales skills and ability to take advantage of a wide network.

    Key differences

    Most companies rely on sales of products or services to earn money, but because there is no tangible product to give to donors in exchange for their financial support, fundraisers need to be skilled at making donors feel comfortable giving money, and show them that their donation is significant to the cause of the organization. They may also be required to apply for special funding from government or other institutions by writing grants, though in some nonprofits grant writing is a full-time job in itself.

    Salary: $50,680

    Marketing Manager


    Marketing managers plan promotions, events and campaigns to generate public awareness and increase engagement with the nonprofit. They also attempt to create a consistent image for the nonprofit, sometimes managing public relations and communications. They work closely with advertisers and/or designers, the finance department and fundraisers. They need education, skills, training, and/or experience with marketing, sales, promotions, or advertising. Drafting or issuing press releases, supervising ad campaigns and assisting with event and fundraiser planning are just some of the duties of a marketing manager.

    Key differences

    Working as a marketing manager in a for-profit company typically entails selling products or services to a target demographic, and spreading awareness of the company. The same job in a nonprofit is similar, but campaigns tend to be more emotional, tugging at the heartstrings of the public to get them involved, rather than trying to sell them something. For marketing managers also responsible for PR and communications, it's important to make sure the organization receives as much coverage as possible.

    Salary: $88,590-$115,750

    Finance Operator


    Employees working in finance operations will cover the whole range of financial tasks for the NPO, from accounting to payroll to management of donations and other finances. A business, accounting or finance degree is generally required, and experience in the private sector in a comparable job would be useful to make the tough financial decisions required at a nonprofit. Managing the finances for a nonprofit can be stressful due to the tight budgeting and sometimes low influx of money. Making sure the organization runs efficiently and accomplishes its financial goals is crucial to running a successful business, even if the business is nonprofit. Donors are more likely to invest in nonprofits that conduct themselves professionally with finances because they believe their investment will be wisely used.

    Key differences

    Working in the financial department for a for-profit company is different from working for a nonprofit. The balancing, payroll, bank dealings, loans and other financial management are the same or very similar to a traditional business, but rather than dealing with sales and similar earnings, nonprofits deal primarily with grants and donations, making it more stressful to manage. The incoming funds may be large or small, fluctuating widely depending on donors' generosity. During seasons of shoestring budgets, finance operators and managers will have to make difficult budget cuts and decisions to keep the organization afloat.

    Salary: $63,550-$109,740

    What Makes Nonprofit Jobs Different From Other Jobs?

    Instead of focusing on profits like a traditional company, a nonprofit is focused on accomplishing its mission. This means that the dynamic of the workplace will be different, and more focused on community and influence rather than on gains and sales. Ideally, each employee in a nonprofit will have the ethics, drive and commitment to the cause to make a difference, and be less concerned with making more and more money.

    Biggest Nonprofit Employers

    Some of the largest employing nonprofits in the world are:

    Red Cross

    Goal: To prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.

    Employees: 35,000
    Salvation Army

    Goal: To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name, without discrimination.

    Employees: 108,786

    Goal: To promote youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

    Employees: 19,000

    Nonprofit Spotlight: Goodwill

    You might know the Goodwill as the well-known thrift store chain and charity, but did you know they also help thousands of people find jobs each year? Their mission is to enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families by strengthening communities, eliminating barriers to opportunity, and helping people in need reach their full potential through learning and the power of work.

    While the organization itself only employs about 2100 people, they are devoted to training and helping Americans find employment to better their living situations. Women can take advantage of childcare and part-time jobs while attending school for a career specialty, and those with criminal history or disabilities can find guidance and employment that can help them feel valued and contribute to their community. Youth, seniors, and veterans can all take advantage of a variety of programs. Last year, Goodwill provided learning and training programs, job placement services, and other resources like transportation or child care for over 9.8 million people.

    What Are Salaries Like at Nonprofits?

    Nonprofit salaries will typically be lower than traditional companies, simply because the funds of the company are directed toward accomplishing the mission, not the benefit of those working for the organization. However, this doesn't mean that nonprofit employees earn a pittance. Pay may be on the low end of the scale for certain positions, but it's not unheard of for companies to pay competitive wages. In some positions, salaries are comparable, and in others, they are significantly different.

    Standard Salary* Nonprofit Salary*
    Administrative Assistant $32,748 Same
    Fundraiser $45,341 $42,193
    Business Administrator $50,550 $45,800
    Director of Development $87,071 $58,375
    Community Outreach Coordinator $38,962 Same
    *Salary information (national averages) from

    Starting a Career with a Nonprofit

    Starting a career with a nonprofit is just like starting any other job. You'll need to build a resume and showcase your relevant skills and experience, apply and interview, and start working with a team.

    As with any other job, the more education and experience you have in the field for which you are applying, the better your chances of getting hired and receiving competitive pay. As a general rule, a bachelor's degree is the minimum level of schooling most employers, nonprofit or not, will be expecting. If you also received an associate's degree or any special certifications, make sure you specify it on your application, as it could be the thing that determines whether you get the job or not.

    If you don't have a bachelor's degree or much formal schooling, it's not impossible to find work with a nonprofit. You'll need to establish an impressive network, though. One way to become visible as a potential employee is to spend some time at the organization volunteering. Get to know the people who could eventually be your bosses, and don't be afraid to show them how valuable you are as an asset to the company. Take initiative on certain projects, show strong leadership skills as well as teamwork, and be enthusiastic about your work. Another way to work your way into a company is to intern. It's kind of a halfway point between volunteering and working. It's structured the way a paid job would be, and you'll learn the inner workings of the company, but you'll be there for the experience, not the paycheck.

    If you're applying for a specific position such as marketing or accounting, your education and experience should reflect that you are proficient in that area. If you are applying for a more general position like project or team manager, you'll probably be asked to perform a wide range of duties. NPOs don't always have the funds to hire more people when they get busy, so you may be required to contribute in different ways. For example, if you're the finance expert, you'll probably be handling all of the accounting and banking as well as payroll, and maybe even helping with the occasional fundraiser. If you're an entry-level administrator, you'll be required to do all kinds of work in and out of the office.

    Job-Seeking Resources

    Finding Leads

    The two most important factors in seeking and finding a job with a nonprofit are knowing which kinds of nonprofits would be your best fit, and utilizing the volunteer network you've worked to create.

    There are a vast array of options when it comes to choosing which nonprofits interest you most and in which you could make the biggest difference. Knowing what kind of nonprofit would be the best fit for you can be determined by a simple brainstorming session. Write down your personal values, your passions, your dislikes, your skills and your education and training. Maybe you see a lot of problems with the schools in your community, or perhaps poverty is an issue in your area. Maybe you are passionate about animals and the environment; maybe you are an arts or music teacher and want to see more artistic opportunities for youth. Maybe you want to serve the elderly. Once you've determined where you would like to work, narrow the list down to the positions you would serve well and for which you are qualified.

    Next, make use of your nonprofit network to create opportunities. Your uncle who worked for a nonprofit animal shelter, an old college friend who started a children's charity, a past co-worker who is now on a museum board of directors - call people you know or have worked or volunteered with in the past, and ask if there are any job openings coming up. Call, email, write and meet with people to discover job opportunities that can lead to fulfilling careers. Be persistent and polite.

    There are many resources online that can help to determine the best organizations – matching your passions – to find nonprofit career opportunities. When on the hunt to find the organization with which you can do the most good, here are some places to start.

    A Career Counselor's Advice for Nonprofit Employment
    Career counselor Ann Marie Hardy gives advice to those interested in pursuing a career with a nonprofit organization.

    What kind of schooling is required to attain a career with a nonprofit?

    A person can have any level of schooling to find work at a nonprofit, but as in any sector, the more education, the more opportunity. A high school graduate can generally find entry-level work like office administration or warehouse labor. A college graduate can find a range of career options depending on the specific degree and study focus. A postgrad can get involved at the management level and even become a board member or acting director with the right experience.
    There are also degree-specific career options. Some nonprofits need lawyers. Some need business managers. Some will need medical staff, musical directors, teachers, pastors or photographers. Whatever level of schooling or skill a person has, there's a job in a non-profit somewhere that they could be perfect for.

    Do people need to volunteer in an organization before they can be hired?

    Not necessarily, but it's not a bad way to get a foot in the door. If you know you want to work for a particular organization down the road, logging some volunteer hours can give you some time to build relationships and establish yourself as a valuable team member. Plus, it gives you a taste of what kind of work you'll be doing. You can certainly still find work if you don't have volunteer experience.

    What kind of nonprofits hire?

    Pretty much every kind of nonprofit hires, but you'll need to be a competitive option, especially for competitive fields like social and humanitarian efforts. Try to reflect relevant volunteer or work experience, and show passion for that field. If you have any advantages that make you a better candidate than someone else, show your cards. Nonprofits want to hire the best people for the job, just like other organizations.

    What are popular job options in the nonprofit sector?

    The biggest reason people seek jobs at nonprofits is to feel they are making a big, direct difference. Fieldwork for humanitarian causes is huge; people want to feel like they are giving as much as possible, and changing and saving lives. It takes a lot more than that to run an organization, though. Other popular jobs include those in marketing, fundraising and writing grant proposals.

    What kinds of people are most suited for this career path?

    Givers; people who care about the causes. If you're passionate about your cause and driven to make a difference and help a company meet their goals, you'll do well in a nonprofit. We need hard workers, book-smart and street-smart people, people with compassion, people with unique skills and talents - all kinds of people.
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    Become Team
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