Your First Step Towards a Career in Non-Profit Work

Updated October 25, 2022

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Your First Steps Toward a Career in Non-Profit Work

There are no age limits on kindness, and volunteerism provides avenues for involvement to kids and adults alike. If you're passionate about giving back to your community, the hard work and dedication you put in during your education could also lead to a career within the nonprofit arena. This guide features information about how to get involved in volunteering, common jobs within nonprofit organizations and how to land your first job in this sector.

How Volunteering Benefits Students

Volunteering strengthens both those who give their time and the organizations they support. Nonprofits are always in need of help to carry out their mission, but volunteers also walk away from the experience with new skills, more empathy and greater awareness of how important these organizations are in sustaining communities.
Here are some of the many benefits students gain by volunteering:

Personal growth

“Over and above any specific work skills gained – which depend on the type of volunteering being done – volunteers learn patience, compassion and understanding,” says Rachel Doyle, CEO and Founder of GlamourGals, a foundation that organizes teen volunteers to provide ongoing companionship and complimentary beauty makeovers to women living in senior homes.

Improved adaptability

“Knowing how to cope with challenging situations at a moment's notice” is an underrated skill according to Doyle, and one that employers are always looking for. “This is an excellent skill that translates into academic success and professional careers.”

Increased happiness

According to a study by the London School of Economics, individuals who volunteered monthly described themselves as “very happy” seven percent more often than those who didn't. Individuals who volunteered weekly were 16 percent more likely to call themselves “very happy”.

Stronger resume

Because nonprofits often work on a limited budget and need extra support to accomplish all their goals, volunteers frequently have the chance to dig into meaningful work they otherwise wouldn't experience in an entry-level role. Students who immerse themselves can walk away with concrete experiences and skills that catch the eye of prospective employers.

Life experience

Recent graduates often get unfairly judged as having less life experience than seasoned professionals, but volunteering often opens up a whole new world for students to experience and learn from. In addition to building empathy, volunteerism frequently helps individuals see things from different perspectives, problem solve and value diversity.

Getting Started: Volunteer Programs for Students

Opportunities for volunteering exist at every student level, and parents can get their children involved in serving others even while still in elementary school. Here are organizations that help students of all ages start volunteering:

Elementary school

  • Citi Impact's Meal M.A.N.I.A.

    The Millions Are Needing Immediate Aid (MANIA) program encourages children and people of all ages to join in on fun, two-hours shifts packing meal boxes for individuals in need. Although the program is based in Chicago, volunteers pack boxes for both local and overseas communities who need food. If you're interested in this type of volunteering, try to find a similar program in your area.

  • Habitat for Humanity Youth Program

    Habitat provides a range of opportunities for children aged 5-8 and 9-13 to take part in building homes for individuals and families in need of shelter. These opportunities are available for families who want to contribute or whole school grades who want to use it as a volunteer field trip.

  • Multiple Sclerosis Association of America's Swim for MS

    Swim for MS is a great option for elementary students as they can create their own swim challenge and then fundraise within their local community. Students may decide to create a one-time challenge (such as swimming two miles) or perhaps challenge themselves to swimming every day for a month. Donors can then sponsor their swims, with the final amount raised going toward the MSAA.

Middle school

  • The Humane Society of the United States

    The Humane Society offers volunteer opportunities for individuals of all ages, including middle school students. With locations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, even students in remote areas can provide meaningful care and nurturing to animals in need.

  • Keep America Beautiful's Great American Cleanup

    Each year, KAB hosts a nationwide cleanup day for volunteers who want to beautify their communities and get litter off their streets. This is a great opportunity for middle and high school students, and provides opportunities for individualized volunteering or a class-wide project.

  • Do Something

    This nationwide organization works to involve students aged 13-25 in meaningful volunteer roles. Students can use the site to find a specific cause they're interested in, while also specifying how much time they have to give, the type of role they want and where they are located.

High school


    DOROT, whose name stems from the Jewish word for “generations,” encourages high school students to volunteer by providing direct services to elderly generations. Examples of opportunities include holiday package deliveries, food drives, playing games and engaging in conversation.

  • University of North Carolina's Medical Center

    UNCMC accepts high school volunteers for a range of roles within the hospital, including in the gift shop, nursing units, outpatient clinics, medical engineering and newspaper deliveries. Students must be in at least their freshman year of high school to apply.

  • Volunteers for Peace

    VFP has been providing international volunteer roles with nonprofits since 1982 and in recent years has expanded to offer programs for high school students. In addition to serving others and gaining valuable skills, participants also learn about other cultures, meet fellow students and create memories to last a lifetime.

Non-Profit Internships

Feeding America

This national nonprofit provides a range of internships throughout the year, including those specifically focused on communications, food sourcing, logistics, member services coordination, philanthropic outreach, public policy and research.

Who Can Apply?

Feeding America Internships are available to full-time undergraduate students who have finished their first year of college. It is also available to graduate students.

American Red Cross

Internships at the organization's national headquarters in Washington D.C. are available year-round in 10-week sessions. Informal, unpaid internships are available, as well as formalized paid internships requiring 40-hours of work per week. Students can typically intern in any of the departments at the organization, depending on need at that time.

Who Can Apply?

Undergraduate and graduate college students.

Best Friends Animal Rescue

Students with a passion for saving and rehoming animals can find many opportunities at this nonprofit with locations in New York, California, Utah, Pennsylvania and Georgia. In addition to working with specific animal populations, Best Friends Animal Rescue interns can also assist with events, social media, hospitality, marketing and public relations.

Who Can Apply?

High school and college students.

College Diabetes Network

College Diabetes Network offers a number of innovative virtual internships for students who may not otherwise be able to find a suitable location. Current roles include virtual student videographer and graphic designer, both of which allow interns to complete their hours from anywhere with an internet connection.

Who Can Apply?

Undergraduate and graduate college students

Student Leaders Internships

Bank of America runs this annual program for approximately 225 students and connects them with nonprofits in their local communities. Students received paid summer internships before attending a national student leadership summit in Washington D.C.

Who Can Apply?

High school juniors and seniors

The Smithsonian

Located in Washington D.C., The Smithsonian offers every type of internship imaginable for someone passionate about history, art, culture, science and even nonprofit administration. High school students are eligible to take advantage of summer internships, while college students can choose from summer or semester-based programs.

Who Can Apply?

High school and college students

How to Find & Land a College Student Internship

Star Students: Non-Profits Started by Kids

Volunteering for, interning with, or working for nonprofits are all great ways to serve your community, but there's also the option of recognizing a need and starting your own organization. The social entrepreneurs highlighted below did so when they were in elementary and high school and have continued growing their reach over the years.

  • Leah's Hope Founded by: Leah Gimre, 16 Leah started this non-profit when she was just 16-years-old (she's now 24) in response to her younger sister Grace being adopted from China at the age of one. While looking at colleges, Leah realized how fortunate she and her sister were to have educational access, but wanted to do something for teenagers living in Chinese orphanages to help them attend college. The organization currently works to connect these children with funding to pursue their postsecondary goals after leaving the orphanages.
  • The Ladybug Foundation Founded by: Hannah Taylor, 8 After noticing a homeless man forced to dig through trash to feed himself during a cold winter, Hannah created this charity that houses and feeds homeless men and women in Canada. Now 21-years-old, Hannah has continued the mission of the Ladybug Foundation, increasing efforts to provide food and shelter while also raising more than $3 million for her cause. In addition to program development and fundraising, Hannah speaks regularly on the subject and has visited nearly 200 schools with the message of hope for homeless populations. She also founded a second charity which provides a K-12 curriculum to encourage children to make change in the world.
  • Project CS Girls Founded by: Pooja Chandrashekar, 16 Pooja started this nonprofit after her sophomore year of high school when she saw the need for programs that encouraged and advocated for young girls' involvement in technology and science. Currently a senior at Harvard University, her nonprofit now has dozens of employees and volunteers who work to stage the organization's national competition, open-ended technology workshops and a range of national and international chapters on high school and college campuses.

Volunteer & Non-Profit Scholarships

The Bonner Scholars Program

Amount: $4,000

Students who attend one of the 25 participating colleges and universities are able to apply for this scholarship, provided they commit to volunteering 10 hours per week during the academic year and 280 hours during the summer.

Comcast Leaders & Achievers Scholarship

Amount: $1,000

High school seniors are eligible to apply for this community service award if they live in an area serviced by Comcast and are nominated by their principal or guidance counselor.

Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes

Amount: $2,000

Students between the ages of 8-18 are eligible for the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes award if they have worked on or completed an inspiring community service project within the previous 12 months. Open to both U.S. and Canadian students.

Prudential Spirit of Community Awards

Amount: $1,000 for state winners, $5,000 for national winners.

Available to students in grades 5-12, the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards scholarship is given to those who have demonstrated significant community service leadership.

The Samuel Huntington Public Service Award

Amount: $15,000

Overseen by National Grid, the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award stipend is given to a graduating senior who wants to spend one year engaged in public service anywhere in the world.

Young Women in Public Affairs Award

Amount: Up to $4,000

Presented by Zonta International, the Young Women in Public Affairs scholarships are given to women aged 16-19 who can demonstrate a commitment to public service, community development and volunteerism.

Brower Youth Awards

Amount: $3,000

Available to students aged 13 to 22 who have demonstrated leadership as an environmental activist, either during their high school or college careers. In addition to the Brower Youth Awards scholarship, students are flown to San Francisco for one week to discuss their work.

Live Out Loud! Scholarship

Amount: $10,000

This annual award is made to LGBTQ college students who are able to demonstrate past and current commitment to community service, leadership and academic achievement. Three scholarships are awarded each year.

Jesse Brown Memorial Youth Scholarship

Amount: $20,000

Students who have racked up at least 100 hours volunteering with veterans or at the Veterans Administration – and can demonstrate an ongoing passion for serving this community – are eligible for both the Jesse Brown Memorial Youth Scholarship and a trip to the Disabled American Veterans' National Convention.

College Degrees & Non-Profit Careers

Careers within the nonprofit sector can be as varied as those in for-profit sectors, providing many opportunities to make a difference in local, national and even international communities. When deciding on a major that will complement nonprofit work, students should take time to research some of the more common roles to get a sense of what employers are looking for.

Here are a few in-demand roles to help guide students in their path to finding the perfect job:

Development Director

What do they do?

These professionals are high-level employees who mainly focus on strategic planning for development and fundraising within their companies. While fundraising managers are often on the ground soliciting donations, development directors can be found creating annual fundraising programs, identifying large donors, courting corporate donors and ensuring all financial reporting – to both donors and the government – is done in a timely and accurate manner. They also typically oversee a number of employees and volunteers who help carry out their strategic goals.

What degree do you need?

A bachelor's degree in business, finance, communications, public relations or social entrepreneurship is typically required.

How much do they make?

Median annual salary: $61,490, or $20.94 per hour.

Finance Operator

What do they do?

Similar to financial operators and managers in for-profit roles, those working in the nonprofit sector are responsible for ensuring all aspects of financial management are carried out responsibly and efficiently. Tasks vary by organization but often include managing financial reporting systems, ensuring regulatory compliance, overseeing and updating financial reporting systems and making sure all transactions are done correctly. Depending on the size of the company, they frequently oversee accounting roles, ensuring thorough records are kept and budgets are maintained.

What degree do you need?

Some of the degrees requirements you might see include business administration, finance or accounting. Depending on the size of the organization and/or your previous experience, a master's degree may also be required.

How much do they make?

Median annual salary: $75,234, or $25.48 per hour.


What do they do?

Fundraisers are in charge of bringing money into their organizations to ensure they can continue functioning properly. Fundraising plans vary greatly amongst organizations, but these professionals typically work with individuals, groups and corporations to elicit donations. They also work to organize events where many prospective donors can be brought together and see first-hand how their donations are being used to elevate their communities.

A few other responsibilities include maintaining donor databases, keeping track of donations, courting new donors, evaluating previous fundraising attempts and training others to fundraise.

What degree do you need?

Common degrees for fundraisers include business, finance, communications, public relations, journalism or English.

How much do they make?

2016 median annual salary: $54,130, or $26.02 per hour. The highest 10 percent of earners made $91,530.

Grant Writer

What do they do?

Like fundraisers, grant writers are in the business of raising money for their organizations. While fundraisers tend to hold public events or speak with specific donors in-person, grant writers appeal to organizations and foundations that have earmarked funds for supporting nonprofit endeavors.

After finding grants that match the mission and function of their organization, grant writers create proposals that provide details such as organizational history, program data and any other supporting documents that are needed. These professionals may work for individual nonprofits or on a freelance basis.

What degree do you need?

There is no formalized degree path for grant writers, but the most common paths include social entrepreneurship, finance, communications, business or English.

How much do they make?

2017 annual median salary: $45,375, or $24.32 per hour.

Program Manager

What do they do?

Like for-profit program managers, the range of roles available to these professionals runs the gamut. Individuals may work in management positions for programs ranging from afterschool and foster care to diabetes services and homeless shelters. In addition to developing programmatic initiatives, they typically manage their program's budget, report on progress, recruit volunteers and provide end-of-year data. They may also oversee social media and marketing campaigns for the program.

What degree do you need?

Common degrees for program managers include social work, business, social entrepreneurship, organizational management, communications or marketing.

How much do they make?

2017 annual median salary: $48,973, or $18.77 per hour.

Volunteer Coordinator

What do they do?

Volunteer coordinators recruit, manage and train volunteers to help carry out the mission of their organization in a variety of ways. While volunteer coordinators at museums may train docents to give guided tours of exhibitions, those at food pantries teach volunteers to sort food, create food boxes and distribute them to the community.

They also manage volunteer shifts, recruit new volunteers and motivate those under them to see the value in the time they pledge to the organization. They may organize an annual volunteer appreciation event as well.

What degree do you need?

Some of the degree requirements you may see in a volunteer coordinator job posting include social studies, human resources, business administration or public relations.

How much do they make?

2017 annual median annual salary: $36,332, or $15.61 per hour.

Tips for Landing a Non-Profit Job

Competition for nonprofit jobs is often stiff, and recent graduates must stand out from both first-time job seekers and more seasoned professionals to land their dream job. Below, Dr. Froswa' Booker-Drew shares her best tips for breaking into the nonprofit sector.

  • Find a mentor “The best advice I can give is to build your network and identify mentors. Mentors are critical in providing advice as well as access to their network, which can help you identify a job.”
  • Develop a network “Join professional networks in your community, as this will help you meet others already working in nonprofits and may even lead to you finding out about jobs before they are posted.”
  • Volunteer “Volunteering is a great way to gain insight, as well as build experience that prospective employers will find appealing on a job application.”
  • Be open to the path “There is a possibility you may not obtain a position based on the degree you receive in college. There are times when you have to complete mundane tasks and roles that are not very glamorous. Remember that experience is what you are trying to gain.”
  • Do your research “Learn more about the organization so that you are aware of their history, their work in the community and individuals who are involved that might be able to help you land a position.”

Volunteer Programs that Can Lead to Jobs

  • AmeriCorps Type of experience gained In addition to all AmeriCorps members receiving Disaster Relief certification and CPR/First Aid training via the Red Cross, participants gain skills in leadership, conflict management, financial management, team building, processes, decision-making and community development. Type of careers it can lead to AmeriCorps projects run the gamut in terms of focus areas, including disaster services, economic opportunities, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures, and veterans and military families. Graduates of this program truly have innumerable options for future work, as they'll gain skills across the spectrum to help them in their careers.
  • Peace Corps Type of experience gained Lasting two years and taking place in some of the most remote corners of the globe, the Peace Corps were designed to help students gain skills in international development, responsibility, professionalism, ingenuity, respect of different cultures, project management and many others which are often learned on the fly. Type of careers it can lead to Former Peace Corps members can be found in every field of work imaginable, including nonprofit leadership, academia, research, public service, international affairs, economic development, agriculture, environmental protection, medicine and healthcare, and youth development.
  • Teach for America Type of experience gained A national nonprofit that recruits college graduates from top schools in America for a two-year teaching stint, corps members gain all the skills associated with teaching while also building a resume filled with examples of leadership, public service, perseverance, long-term commitment, organization, interpersonal skills and respect for diversity. Type of careers it can lead to While teaching is the obvious career path for graduates of this organization, alumni have gone on to a wide variety of jobs after completing work at public and charter schools throughout the country. A sampling of current alumni roles include directors of nonprofits, law students, school directors, instructional coaches and business strategy consultants.

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