Jason Riggs thinks his involvement with nonprofit organizations must be hereditary. "My family has always been community oriented," he notes with pride. "My father is a minister and my mother is a teacher. I work with the STOP AIDS Project in San Francisco, so
you can see that fervor for advocacy was part of my upbringing that continued. It's an important part of my life."
After earning a bachelor's degree in sociology with an emphasis on political theory, he was ready to make his mark in the nonprofit field. Although he has never worked in the for-profit sector, he knows there is a complementary position in that arena and crossing over is doable.
"For example, I do communications and public relations, but people with a marketing and communications background can do the same work in the for-profit sector. The main difference is the amount of resources available."
Riggs explains that for-profits typically have large budgets to get the message out, whereas large budgets are usually the exception in the nonprofit sector.
"It's both a blessing and a curse. You have to think very creatively and develop programs or services that have never been tried. In addition, there is not the same level of bureaucracy, and that's great."
If you feel stifled in your on-the-job creativity, then nonprofit work might be a way of breaking new ground. Because you may be the only one in your department, you often have autonomy. You can learn to be a jack-of-all-trades, according to Riggs.
If you are looking for a long-term stable career in nonprofits, align yourself with fundraising, development and program services, he advises, because those areas continue through lean times. They are the core areas that will always be in demand.
On the downside, Riggs admits salaries with nonprofits are not as a high as those to be found in for-profit companies. But he has an insider tip that may lead you to the more lucrative positions.
"Local and regional environmental issues in California tend to be hot areas in which funding rolls in," he offers. "So begin your search with those groups instead of the national organizations."
Love the Work or the Cause
There are two ways people look at their jobs, Riggs believes. They either love what they do functionally or love working in support of certain things, such as wildlife, fitness, theater, seniors and education. The really lucky ones manage to do both.
The best way to get acquainted with the workings of a nonprofit agency is to volunteer. Payoffs are great, he says. You are more connected to the community and you meet people who care about the same issues.
"But don't volunteer too much or you won't get hired," he cautions. "I guess it's the adage about not buying the cow because you can get the milk for free."
Once you've decided where you think you want to work, your next stop should be the library or the Internet to do some research. Find out what the organization does, the turnover rate, its stability and who does the funding, Riggs advises. If you notice that the annual budget fluctuates, ask why. Set up a meeting with the principals even if the agency does not have a current opening. Sometimes they will create a position if you point out a need you can fill.
Most importantly, don't burn any bridges. The nonprofit community is small and everyone knows about all the others' "dirty laundry."
"The best part about working with nonprofits is looking back on your career and knowing you have made an impact on people's lives," Riggs concludes. "You can take that to the bank."
Another organization making a difference in people's lives is Jewish Family Services, which offers dozens of programs, including employment services, financial assistance, counseling, support for seniors and more.
"Most of us have worked for traditional businesses, and I'll admit there are differences," remarks Sacramento's executive director Judy Turtletaub. "The primary difference is with nonprofit work there is a continuous effort to raise money and ask for support. It's not just selling to the customer."
The most important criterion for this sort of career, she believes, is a passion for helping a spectrum of the community - from the homeless to the children. Useful skills might include social work, administration or accounting, or any other function beneficial to business in general.
"The best part of my job is helping those who have become isolated," notes Turtletaub. "They have lost touch with family and friends because they are elderly or disabled. Most times we are able to set them on a safe and comfortable course and that is very satisfying."
JFS has agencies in many California communities. For the nearest location, check the telephone directory or go online to ajfca.org/dir.html.
A Degree of Caring
Like many in the field, Peter LeDoux, executive director of Sacramento's Association for the Retarded, fell into his position from his associations with other nonprofit organizations.
"I received a master's degree in public administration, then worked for a city and county agency on aging issues," he relates. "I met a lot of people, which led to a job with para-transit and eventually to my present position."
More colleges are offering degrees in nonprofit administration, which is indicative of the importance of this work, according to LeDoux.
He advises those interested in working in the nonprofit sector to decide which organization's mission touches them personally and develop a passion for that cause.
"There are many marvelous opportunities in nonprofit work for people who find their work satisfying and are able to reap the psychic rewards," says LeDoux. "Nobody gets rich, but it's challenging to find the funds to keep the staff retained and happy.
"And when all the pieces fall into place and you get it right, you are able to provide services and affect people's lives."
For more information on career options with nonprofits, check these websites and organizations:
- Craigslist.org - Especially effective for the Bay Area. Click on 'Nonprofit Sector' under 'Jobs' for a wide-ranging list of choices.
- Idealist.org - A website by Action Without Borders, with links to more than 36,000 nonprofits and a career center featuring job listings and a schedule of job fairs.
- Jewish Family Services - Sacramento: (916) 484 4400; jfssac.org
- NonprofitCareers.org - A brand new career site created by the Society for Nonprofit Organizations (snpo.org) a membership organization of the nonprofit sector. Click on 'View Jobs' to browse listings.
- NonprofitJobs.org - Job listings and links to other resources. Jobseekers can create an online profile to help match their criteria to current openings.
- OpportunityNocs.org - Nonprofit job listings for administrative, staff and professional positions. Offers resume posting, job searches by state, and articles with tips on job hunting. The original print edition of Opportunity NOCs (Nonprofit Organization Classifieds) was started by The Management Center in 1986 as a way to connect nonprofit employers and jobseekers in the SF Bay Area.
- Philanthrophy.com - Home of the Chronicle of Philanthrophy, electronic newspaper of the nonprofit world. Click on 'Jobs' to search for open positions.
- PNNonline.org - A wealth of news, information and resources related to the nonprofit industry. Click on 'Career Center' for a list of current openings and online application form.
- Sacramento Association for the Retarded - (916) 568-2088; sacramentoar.org
- STOP AIDS Project - (415) 575-0150; stopaids.org