Surgeon Christos Christou meets with a patient at Doctors Without Borders clinic in South Sudan. Image credit: MSF.
Working at nonprofits is widely seen as one of the best options for making a difference with your career.
According to a list put out by salary website PayScale, nonprofit executive director is the fifth-best job for people who want to make a positive change in the world, and 95% of nonprofit leaders say they are confident their work makes the world a better place.
Many nonprofits are also more short of funding than people, so working there doesn’t even do much to help the organisation. Indeed, 80,000 Hours is well-known for the argument that it can be more effective to earn to give than to work at a nonprofit.
What’s more, if you’re early in your career, working at nonprofits can cut down your options and career capital. Nonprofits are mostly small and have a shoestring budget, which means there’s often little room for training or career development compared to organisations in the for-profit sector. This makes it harder to move from nonprofits into other sectors, than if you start your career elsewhere.
This sounds pretty damning, but despite this, we think nonprofit careers are worth considering. Although many jobs in nonprofits don’t have much impact, if you pick the right organisation, we think it can be one of the highest-impact things you can do with your life, and great for career capital too.
In this career review, we’ll explain how to find and enter a high-impact nonprofit job.1
Working at effective nonprofits lets you have a big impact, whilst doing rewarding, meaningful work. But it’s crucial that you pick the right nonprofits — look for organisations working on urgent global problems, that are well-run and are short of staff. You should especially consider this option if you’ve already built up skills by working in the private sector or through graduate study.
• Potential for large direct impact
• Build connections and expertise in high priority problem areas
• Significant influence and responsibility early in your career
• Rewarding and meaningful work
• Less formal training than in large for-profit companies
• Salaries ~10-30% lower than in equivalent roles in private sector
• Less clearly defined job roles in smaller non-profits
Want to work at an effective nonprofit? We want to help. We’ve helped dozens of people compare their options, formulate their plans, and put them in touch with mentors. If you want to work at one of our recommended organisations, apply for our free coaching service:
We think the following criteria are key to separating high-impact jobs from the rest. If you stick to organisations like this, you can avoid the pitfalls listed in the introduction.
The nonprofit works on an urgent global problem, by which we mean a problem that’s large in scale, neglected and solvable. As we’ve argued, some problem areas are hundreds of times more effective to work on than others, so picking a nonprofit working in a high priority area is hugely important.
It implements a promising programme, by which we mean one of the following:
It has a scalable model. Imagine two nonprofits implement programmes with the same cost-effectiveness, but one of them has a credible plan to scale its programme ten-fold in the next five years, while the other expects to be the same size in five years. Clearly, it’s better to work at the nonprofit with a scalable model — your work will contribute to a bigger impact in the long-run.
It’s well-run, with top-quality staff. Great teams can execute programmes more efficiently, are more likely to switch to more effective programmes over time, and can grow the organisation so it has more impact. The quality of the team is therefore a multiplier of the previous two factors – how promising the programme is, and the potential for growth. (You’ll also learn more from working with a great team, and build a better network, both of which put you in a better position to make a difference in the future.)
A major bottleneck for the organisation is hiring extra staff. Some nonprofits are far more short of funding than motivated workers. If you work at an organisation like this, not only will you have little impact, it’ll be hard to earn a living too. Instead, it would be better to support the organisation by earning to give. However some nonprofits are well-funded, but are bottlenecked by being able to hire extra staff. If you work at these nonprofits, you’ll have more impact.
You have great personal fit for a position at the nonprofit. Even if the organisation is constrained by being able to hire extra staff, it might not need your particular skills. The key is to find an organisation which has a need for what you can offer, in a role where you have the chance to excel (“personal fit”). As we’ve suggested, if you find a role where you have great personal fit, you could easily achieve ten times as much.
To sum up, if a well-run nonprofit implements a promising programme in an urgent problem area, it’s likely to be a high-impact organisation. If it’s also bottlenecked by talent and you have good personal fit for a particular role, then you working there is likely to be very high impact.
A nonprofit doesn’t have to meet all of these criteria, but it should do well on the balance of factors.
So which nonprofits do well on these criteria? We list the organisations we recommend on our job board, under the list of job openings (scroll down to see the list):
Some people worry that since lots of talented people want to work at nonprofits, if you don’t take a job, someone else who’s capable will do it, so you won’t have much impact.
This is sometimes true, but there are many situations in which you can still have a large impact:
If you have unusually good personal fit for a role, you’ll have far more output than the person who would replace you.
If it’s a specialised role that would take a long time to hire for, but you already have the right skills and can start right away, then your position would have remained unfilled for a long time.
If a nonprofit has a major funder who is willing to provide funds to hire anyone who meets a certain standard (“threshold hiring”), then by taking the job you’re increasing the number of employees at the nonprofit.
Even if someone equally competent would have filled the position if you didn’t take it, by taking the job you free up that person to work somewhere else that’s high-impact. For example, if you take a job at a nonprofit that campaigns against factory farming, the person who would have replaced you will now probably go and take a job doing something else that helps animals. We call this the “spillover” benefit of taking the job.
We cover these points in more depth in our review of working at effective altruist organisations, and in an upcoming article. But the bottom line is that if you’re a good fit for a nonprofit that’s bottlenecked by hiring, you’re not easily replaceable.
However, sometimes you might be able to have even more impact if you earn to give and donate to the nonprofit, instead of working there yourself. We address the question of when it’s higher impact to earn to give in a later section – the answer depends on your specific situation.
How good is the career capital?
For the most part, we discourage people from working at nonprofits at the start of their career, because top private sector jobs, like consulting, tend to offer more flexible career capital — the skills, connections and credentials that put you in a better position to make a difference in the future.
This is because top private sector jobs let you build connections with talented colleagues who go into a wide range of sectors, give you widely recognised credentials, and often give you better training than nonprofits. It’s also more common to go from the corporate sector into nonprofits than the other way around, so if you’re considering both, it can be better to work in the corporate sector first.
When we asked leaders of international development nonprofits whether they’d advise graduates to work at nonprofits straight out of university, the majority recommended first building skills at highly selective private sector organisations.
Having said that, some nonprofit jobs can be as good for career capital as top private sector jobs, especially if you care about social impact. In particular:
If a nonprofit works in an important problem area, the connections you build will be especially valuable for your future impact. A strong network in, say, nuclear security, helps you get related jobs in the future, puts you in a position to influence other people working in the area, and helps you spot opportunities for new types of organisations, collaborations and projects. This is much more useful for your future impact than just knowing people who work in finance, management consulting or accounting. Being surrounded by people who care about social impact also helps maintain (or even raise) your levels of altruistic motivation.
If a nonprofit is well-run and has great managers, then you’ll get good training and mentorship.
If a nonprofit is growing, you’ll often get more responsibility as it grows. This lets you learn more, and you can get impressive achievements due to having higher levels of responsibility.
Some nonprofits are already well known and seen as impressive places to work at, for example Khan Academy, or GiveDirectly.
As always, if you have great personal fit for a role, you’ll get more impressive achievements and build more valuable connections.
So if you find the right job, at the right nonprofit, you can build as much career capital as you would in many top corporate positions.
If you’ve chosen an organisation that you believe is high-impact and where you have good personal fit for the role, you’ll probably be pretty satisfied. If you’re working with a good team, and mentored by a good boss, you’ll also likely have autonomy, frequent feedback, and good social support at work.
For this reason, our impression is that many of the people who work at effective nonprofits are highly motivated and satisfied, despite having lower salaries. There is also suggestive evidence of this from survey data. For example, a survey conducted by the Brookings Institution2 found that a greater proportion of nonprofit employees said they were very satisfied with their jobs, than those in the private sector or in government:
Private Sector Employees
Say that they are very satisfied with their jobs overall
Strongly disagree that their work is boring
What are the main drawbacks of working at nonprofits?
If you want to earn as much money as you can, the nonprofit sector isn’t the place to do it. Many people end up with a salary that’s less than half of what they could earn in the highest paying jobs.
But average differences between nonprofits and the private sector are less than you might think. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey, workers in the private sector on average only earn 13-22% more than those working in the same occupations in the nonprofit sector.3
The exception is office and administrative support roles, which earn roughly the same in both sectors.
You can see the average salaries for 236 different nonprofit positions in this report.
We think that these salaries are roughly what you need to be happy, but compared with jobs in the private sector, it is harder to build up a savings buffer to withstand financial difficulties, and to make career transitions which require retraining. It can also be more difficult for people with children.
Less clearly defined job roles in smaller nonprofits
If you thrive on clear deliverables, discernable targets and organisational clarity, then working at smaller nonprofits may not be for you. Smaller nonprofits try to fulfill their missions with limited staffing and resources, which means they often have less clearly defined job roles and a loose management structure, which can be stressful and demotivating for some. However this is less of an issue at more established and better funded nonprofits.
What roles are there?
Nonprofits need a wide range of skills, but some of the most common roles include:
Programme delivery – implementing a nonprofit’s programmes, for example making unconditional cash transfers, or delivering anti-malarial bednets. Activities include managing and coordinating teams, developing new partnerships with implementing organisations, with donors and subject-matter experts, ensuring quality of delivery, and expanding programmes into new geographic regions. Programme managers (sometimes called programme directors) lead on programme delivery. They are often supported by project managers, programme assistants and volunteer coordinators. For more concrete details of what these roles involve, see for example this job description of Program Director at No Lean Season.
Monitoring and evaluation – measuring programme costs and outcomes, and producing reports for staff and donors. Depending on the programme, this can require specialists such as epidemiologists or health economists.
Fundraising – activities include writing grant applications to governments and foundations, finding new donor leads, running fundraising events, and developing the overall funding model for the nonprofit. A common job title is “Director of Development.” In smaller nonprofits this role may be done by the CEO.
Communications and marketing – activities include writing content for social media, managing online ad campaigns, writing newsletters, optimising website conversion rates, speaking to the press, giving talks at events.
Operations – includes finance, accounting and HR roles. Activities include setting up accounting software, managing a bookkeeper, filing annual accounts, getting visas for staff, ensuring all legal compliance is done, deciding which healthcare plan to get.
Web development and web design – for example building and maintaining websites; creating images and graphics such as logos, icons, illustrations and charts.
Administrators and assistants – wide ranging activities including managing schedules of senior staff, accepting visitors, organising office social events, purchasing office food supplies.
How to pick the right organisation
As we’ve seen, choosing the right organisations is essential. Here are some steps to work through:
2. Find the best nonprofits working on those problems. See our profiles of different problem areas to get ideas. In particular look for organisations that:
Work on a promising programme
Have the potential to grow much larger
Are well run, with a great team.
It’s hard to find an organisation that has it all. Rather, look for organisations that do well on the balance of the factors.
3. Find organisations that have a pressing need for your contribution. In particular, look for organisations that are (i) bottlenecked by hiring extra staff and (ii) are hiring for roles that you have a great personal fit for. To find organisations that are bottlenecked by hiring, look for organisations that:
Have a good explanation of why they need more staff, and why hiring for their positions is difficult.
Find it easy to fundraise.
Have positions that haven’t filled for a long time.
We explain how to assess your personal fit for specific roles below.
If you already work at a nonprofit, how can you have more impact?
But if you don’t work at an effective nonprofit, what are your options?
It’s not usually possible to change what problem area a nonprofit works on (for example a switch from climate change to women’s rights). But if you have some influence, you might be able to advocate to:
Develop better plans for scaling programmes with strong evidence of effectiveness. You can get ideas for funding models which could let your nonprofit grow in this Stanford Social Innovation Review article. However, scaling programmes without evidence of effectiveness is a waste of resources, and can easily be harmful, so make sure there’s enough evidence of impact before advocating for growth.
If the nonprofit is working on a moderately pressing area, and you’re an unusually good fit for the organisation, then improving the nonprofit from the inside could be your top option.
One thing to bear in mind is that some opportunities to improve the organisation are probably dramatically more effective than others, so choose your battles carefully. On how to best advocate for change, two of the best books we’ve read are Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, and Originals by Adam Grant. Both are written by psychology professors who aim to sum up the relevant research in practical terms.
However, given that some problem areas are hundreds of times more effective to work on than others, the choice of area will often outweigh the other factors, so in the long-run it may be higher-impact to switch organisation (provided your personal fit is not dramatically worse).
Who is best suited to this path?
The specific qualifications and experience required to work at a nonprofit vary a lot depending on the organisation and role, so you have to check for each job. You can see the requirements for some nonprofit jobs on our job board.
One thing to bear in mind when looking at job adverts is that stated “requirements” are often just wishlists – you often don’t need to meet all of them in order to land the job.
One generalisation is that nonprofits usually look for (i) knowledge of the problem area gained through volunteering or work experience, and (ii) relevant skills for the role, gained through work experience or graduate study.
What is it like day to day?
A lot depends on the specific role, but some common features are:
A wider range of responsibilities than in large private sector companies, or in big government departments. This means that you have to become good at a several different skill sets, which would be covered by individual specialists in larger organisations. You also have to keep track of many competing demands and prioritise between them. Some illustrative quotes:
“We’re still in start-up mode and are flying the plane while building it. It’s been invigorating and exciting, but it will be nice when we are more fully staffed and are able to settle into our roles more.” — Employee at the Good Food Institute4.
”It’s not uncommon for me to substitute for the receptionist, help out with data entry, or even work as a busboy at organization fundraisers. If there’s something you don’t know, you’ll be expected to learn it and fast.” — Nonprofit case worker5.
Less employee oversight and guidance than in large private sector companies or in government. For example, there often aren’t existing processes and guidelines for the tasks that you’re doing, so you have to develop your own processes.
The pace of work tends to be slower than in the private sector, but faster than in government.
Hours tend to be shorter than in the private sector, but longer than in government.
You can read more about what it’s like in these ‘day in the life’ profiles:
How can you test your potential to succeed in this option?
As we’ve argued elsewhere, it can be hard to assess your fit ahead of time. Instead, try to get as close as possible to doing the work itself. Here’s a series of steps you can take, roughly in order of how much time they take:
Read what’s available online about the organisations and the roles you’re interested in. Try to find out what roles the organisations are hiring for, what the work involves and what programmes the organisations run.
Talk to people working at the organisations: ask them what kind of people tend to do really well and try to build up a vivid picture of the day-to-day reality of working there. We’ve put together a list of email scripts you can use when asking for introductions and small favours from people you don’t know.
Do a short project for the organisation as a volunteer, freelancer, or as an intern. If that’s not possible, try doing a project with another organisation in the same problem area. This will both test your personal fit, help you build connections, and let you demonstrate your fit to the organisation.
Common situations and alternatives
When is it higher-impact to earn to give?
We recommend that you ask the nonprofits you’re considering working at whether they’d prefer you to (i) earn to give and donate to them, or (ii) work for them directly. If they’d prefer you to earn to give, then you should probably do that, and donate to wherever you think is highest impact (which may be a different organisation).
If they’d prefer you to work for them, that suggests it’s higher impact than earning to give – but you also need to consider the following factors:
If you would donate somewhere that’s several times more cost-effective, then earning to give could still be higher impact than working for the nonprofit.
If you’re very uncertain about which problem areas are best to work on, and you expect to change your views in the future, then earning to give could be higher impact because of the greater flexibility it gives you (it’s easier to switch donations than to switch jobs).
If you’d get better career capital in the earning to give option, your long run impact could be higher if you earn to give instead of working for the nonprofit.
When is it better to build career capital in the private sector?
As we’ve suggested above, if a nonprofit is well run, is growing, and has a great team and management, then it could be competitive with the private sector for building skills. If it also works on a high priority problem area, you’ll likely build more valuable connections than you would in the private sector.
However, the decision often turns on the specifics of the roles you’re considering, and we recommend that you run through our checklist for comparing the career capital of specific jobs you’re choosing between.
When making the comparison, don’t forget to factor in your degree of personal fit for each option, since it determines how much you’ll be able to take advantage of opportunities to build career capital in a role. For example, if you’re a poor fit for consulting, it’ll be hard to get impressive achievements, gain responsibility, and to build valuable connections. You could be better off working at a nonprofit that you’re a good fit for, even if it offers less formal training.
In addition to making a direct comparison of the career capital of your options, you should also consider the following two factors:
How certain are you about which problem areas are best to work on, and how much do you expect your views to change in the future? The more you’re certain, the more that favors working at a nonprofit and building expertise in a specific problem area. If you’re very unsure, the more that favours the private sector, because it keeps your options more open, and it’s easier to save money for making career transitions.
How much career capital do you already have? The more skills and connections you’ve already built, the less weight you should give to career capital, and the more you should favour working at nonprofits.
How useful is graduate study for the role and problem area you want to work in? In some areas, for example biosecurity, graduate studies in public health or synthetic biology are useful. But in other areas and roles graduate studies don’t help you very much.
How uncertain are you about which problem areas are best to work on, and how much do you expect your views to change in the future? The more you’re uncertain, the more that favours doing graduate study in a subject that prepares you for a wide range of roles, such as economics, maths or statistics. The more you’re certain about which problem area to work on, and if graduate study isn’t particularly helpful for working in the area, the more that favors working at a nonprofit.
Your relative degree of personal fit. For example, if you could work at one of the best nonprofits working in a particular area, but could only get into a mid-ranked PhD program, that favours working at the nonprofit.
How to get a job
If you already meet the entry requirements, then look at some options on our job board:
However note that many positions aren’t openly advertised and positions get created for people who are a good fit for organisations. Also bear in mind that our list is far from exhaustive. You can get more ideas for places to work in our wiki.
If you’re not in a position to get a job right now, then find out how to best prepare over the next year or two. This varies hugely depending on the organisation, so we recommend that you:
Ask people at the organisation: “What’s the best thing I could do in the next two years to get a job here?”
Find out what current employees did prior to getting a job at the nonprofit. If you have an unusual background, then look for people with unusual backgrounds who work there (or at related nonprofits) and find out what they did differently.
Having said that, here are some steps that seem generally useful for many different organisations and roles:
Do a relevant side-project with a related organisation as a volunteer, freelancer or intern, for example organising an event or a fundraiser, or doing a research project.
Work at a related organisation. Just make sure you check whether transitions from the organisation into your target organisation are actually common. Sometimes working at a “second tier” organisation can make it harder to get into the top tier.
Do relevant graduate study. This can sometimes help, and also gives you more time to demonstrate your interest in the area. (Just remember that we usually advise not going directly from undergraduate to graduate study if possible.)
Some interviews with people working at effective nonprofits
Want to work at an effective nonprofit? We want to help.
We’ve helped dozens of people compare their options, formulate their plans, and put them in touch with mentors. If you want to work at one of our recommended organisations, apply for our free coaching service: