Career Options in the Nonprofit Sector

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Career Opportunities
Nonprofit Careers
Nonprofit Organization
Nonprofit Organization (NGO)
Recognizes the diversity of job opportunities in the nonprofit sector with nearly 13.5 million people working as employees of nonprofit organizations in 2007 (approximately 10% of the nation's workforce).


It is important to recognize that the nonprofit sector is composed of many different types of organizations. Sample nonprofit organizations include: health, education, religious, and service organizations, foundations, research institutions, and self-help groups. Sample nonprofit organizations include: Yale University, Mayo Clinic, YMCA, Alcoholics Anonymous, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Kiwanis, Habitat for Humanity International, Chicago Art Institute, Planned Parenthood, and World Vision. 

Nearly 13.5 million people worked as paid employees of U.S. nonprofit organizations in 2007, or approximately 10% of the nation's workforce. This makes the nonprofit sector the third largest industry in the U.S., behind only retail and manufacturing, and larger than industries like finance and insurance, transportation, and construction. If including all of the Americans who volunteer with nonprofit organizations, the sector is by far the largest (Salamon, 2012).

There are more than 2 million organizations in the nonprofit sector as of 2009 and they represent 12.6% of the gross national product of the United States.The nonprofit sector is made up of member-serving organizations and public-serving organizations. Member-serving organizations make up about 18% of all nonprofit organizations and include: social and fraternal organizations; business and professional associations; labor unions; mutual benefit and cooperative organizations; and political organizations. The remaining organizations are public-serving, and include: funding intermediaries, religious organizations, service providers, and social welfare/action agencies.

Nonprofit organizations hire for all types of positions, from chief executive officer to receptionist. Moreover, most nonprofits need individuals with strong communication and fundraising skills. Examples of jobs with nonprofits include: development directors, public relations managers, fundraisers, museum curators, artists, administrative staff, counselors, teachers, researchers, writers, public policy specialists, community activists, program officers, and librarians.

Idealist careers dispels myths related to working in the nonprofit sector, such as the idea that nobody makes money in the nonprofit sector. In reality, one in twelve Americans work in the nonprofit sector, and most nonprofits rely on paid staff, not only volunteers. There are many benefits to working the nonprofit sector that might draw employees as well, such as a more casual work environment, generous benefits, and more flexibility with schedules. Another myth is that people work in the nonprofit sector because they’ve failed in another sector - many intelligent and educated people choose to work in the nonprofit sector because of a passion for their work, and oftentimes people switch between sectors during a career. People often think that successful career paths don’t exist in the nonprofit sector, while nonprofits can offer a long and successful career, and many nonprofits offer younger employees better opportunities for leadership and advancement. These are just a few examples of the kinds of inaccurate assumptions that are made about working in the nonprofit sector (Idealist Careers).

While still acknowledging the challenges, the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers highlights the benefits of working in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits tend to have an organizational culture of like-minded people who are working towards a cause and seek to do meaningful work to effect positive change on their communities. Nonprofits can often act more quickly to meet a need than organizations in the government of for-profit sectors. Additionally, employees may be drawn to the nonprofit sector because of the promise of greater responsibility such as managing volunteers and working on special projects, and there is frequently a higher level of flexibility with how work is carried out, allowing for greater employee creativity (Busse, 2008). 

Historic Roots

In the United States, community groups formed before government institutions were in place. The members of these groups offered mutual support and found solutions to problems, and they formed voluntary organizations. After governments were created, Americans continued to rely on voluntary organizations to provide certain services. Initially, volunteers fulfilled the needs of these organizations. Yet, as the nonprofit sector grew, hired staff began to replace volunteers.


The nonprofit sector offers a great deal of variety to allow for selection by personal interest. Individuals exploring the nonprofit sector for careers can consider the categories of arts, culture and recreation; health care organizations; educational institutions, foundations;; religious organization; and social services organizations. Salamon (2012) reports that just over 2.5 million people are employed in the recreation and arts field. Of these, the majority (88%) are employed in sports, recreation and entertainment. Twelve percent, approximately 312,000 people are employed by arts and culture organizations - theaters, symphonies, museums, and galleries. This is just one example of the importance and prevalence of employment in the nonprofit sector.

Due to a variety of factors including changing demographics, shifts in family structure, and an increase in immigration, the demand for nonprofit organizations in the United States remains prevalent. Between 1998 and 2005, employment in the nonprofit sector increased at a rate 2.5 times more quickly than average employment, and the growth continued through the 2008 recession until present. With the growth and increasing complexity of the nonprofit sector, there has been a growing need for professionalization in the field, including things like new and growing philanthropy professional organizations and publications, and an increase in nonprofit management and philanthropy degree programs being offered across the country (Salamon, 2012).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

With continued professionalization and the nonprofit sector gaining a reputation for being efficient and competent, the need for employment in the field continues to develop. Although there are certainly a number of challenges and disadvantages the nonprofit sector faces, there are also a variety of factors contributing to the ongoing growth of the field which give hope for the future of philanthropy. Some of these factors include the intergenerational transfer of wealth, or the passing along of money to the baby boomer generation, the dot com phenomenon, which led to new wealth for entrepreneurs with an interest in charitable ventures, and the willingness of organizations to collaborate and contribute to the globalization of philanthropy (Salamon, 2012).

Career specialists recommend that the best way to find a job with a nonprofit organization is to respond to the numerous position listings on internet employment sites, and on the web sites for the particular nonprofit organization of interest. For example, a premier source of position listings is The Chronicle of Philanthropy (, a publication that posts hundreds of positions each week. Other useful search sites include,,,,, and

Key Related Ideas

  • Nonprofit job search
  • Internet employment sites
  • Careers in the nonprofit sector
  • Nonprofit organizations


Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Arts and culture organizations (e.g., museums)
  • Environmental organizations (e.g. Sierra Club)
  • Foundations (Ford Foundation)
  • Nonprofit hospitals and health clinics (e.g. Mayo Clinic)
  • Private educational institutions
  • Relief organizations (e.g., American Red Cross)
  • Religious organizations (e.g.., churches, denominational offices)
  • Youth organizations (e.g., Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.)

Related Web Sites

The following are popular employment sites:

America's JobBank:
Career Web:
Job Options:

The following web sites specialize in nonprofit job listings:

Access: Networking in the Public Interest:
The Chronicle of Philanthropy:
Community Career Center: Action Without Borders:
Internet Nonprofit Center:
Job Star California, California Job Search Guide:
The Management Center:
Nonprofit Career Network:
The Nonprofit Times:
Philanthropy News Network Online:

GuideStar ( contains a listing of U.S. nonprofit organizations.


Reflection Questions

Can careers in the nonprofit sector be both fulfilling and successful?

What skills do you think are necessary to be successful in a philanthropic organization?

What do professionals in the nonprofit field study in college?


Anheier, Helmut. Nonprofit Organizations: Theory, Management, Policy. New York, New York: Routledge, 2014.

Busse, Meg, and others. The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for First Time Job Seekers. Action Without Borders, 2008.

Idealist Careers. 10 Myths About Working in the Nonprofit Sector.

Greenfeld, Karl Taro. "A New Way of Giving." Time Magazine (July 24, 2000).

King, Richard. From Making a Profit to Making a Difference. River Forest, Illinois: Planning Communications, 1999.

Krannich, Ron and Caryl. Jobs and Careers With Non-Profit Organizations. Manassas Park, Virginia: Impact Publications, 1999.

Paradis, Adrian. Opportunities in Nonprofit Organization Careers. Lincolnwood, Illinois: VGM Career Horizons, a division of NTC Publishing Group, 1993.

Salamon, Lester. America's Nonprofit Sector: The Primer, 2nd ed. New York: The Foundation Center, 1999.


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.