Career Clusters

Working for a Cause

Lightbulb Drawing in front of a white board brainstorm

From all the headlines these days, it seems like everyone has a cause—a significant area of passion, interest, or concern. And whether your concerns center on children, education, social justice, animal welfare, housing/homelessness, the environmentcrime and violence/abuse, etc., you’re probably aware that there are nonprofits or advocacy groups that work on behalf of your cause. Perhaps you have even donated to these groups to support the work they’re doing.

But it might not have occurred to you to seek employment with one of these groups. If nonprofit and advocacy work sounds interesting, you should know that the way to get employed is usually not the same as applying to work in a business setting. 

Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

  • Advocacy and nonprofit groups place a premium on commitment to the cause. You should seek out groups that closely align with your personal values. Be sure you know and support the vision and mission of the organization before you apply to work there. The political nature of the group might not be apparent at first so check that out. Some groups are focused on the cause, not the politics, while others are more closely aligned with a political philosophy.
  • The spectrum for advocacy runs wide and can include anti-defamation organizations, legal defense groups, lobbying organizations, watchdog groups, etc. Traditional nonprofit organizations that provide direct client services or funding for causes often have a lobbying or advocacy division that provides legal or political representation. (Although not the subject of this posting, for-profit companies often employ advocates to promote the company’s or industry’s interests. For example, the Fossil Fuel Lobby is composed of the key oil, gas, coal and electric companies.)
  • Nonprofit/advocacy work can be highly meaningful, providing you with a sense of accomplishment and purpose in your work. That said, the work is often hard, and you can be immersed in an environment that might be controversial, invite criticism from others with a different point-of-view, or otherwise drain your energy at times. Confrontation may be part of the job. You will want to monitor your level of energy and commitment so that you don’t burn out. If you find the “front-line” work with clients or events like protests too overwhelming, you can seek an internal position within the organization. You’re still supporting the cause but you are no longer confronted with the public on a regular basis. (Or, it might be time to find work that involves a little less passion.) 
  • Nonprofit/Advocacy groups often are minimally staffed, which can provide great experience particularly for recent graduates just entering the working world. You will be asked to do a lot of different jobs and you’ll be able to quickly learn what aspects of your role you prefer. This can help you make future career decisions in addition to whether to pursue a graduate or professional degree. And the broad experience you acquire will look impressive on your resume or graduate school application.
  • Unlike traditional business occupations, the most common entry-point for employment in nonprofit/advocacy is volunteering. While nonprofit and advocacy groups do advertise on or other employment sites (as well as their own websites), they often hire and promote from within. Your chances of being hired improve greatly if you can show a track record of volunteering or working with that organization or similar nonprofit/advocacy organizations. 
  • Nonprofit/advocacy groups hire for a variety of skills/talents. Because of the political and legal ramifications of their cause, many groups are constantly seeking attorneys and mediators. Traditional job titles like “accountant” or “marketing director” can also be found in nonprofit/advocacy agencies. In fact, a quick search of advocacy jobs revealed a wide spectrum of job titles including:  Domestic Abuse Victim Advocate, Chief Advocacy Officer, Foreign Policy and Diplomacy Service Officer, Housing Advocate, Political Advocacy, Campus Ambassador, Service Coordinator, Policy and Communications Adviser, etc.
  • You can start your job search by connecting with any social media outlets for the organization. Many groups are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., so follow their posts and leave positive comments about their work, or share their posts with your followers. Pay attention to local rallies, events, or other activities you can participate in, or better yet, volunteer for. You will quickly get to know the other volunteers and leaders in the organization. This will allow you to information interview and get the inside scoop. The relationships you build are key: particularly in the nonprofit/advocacy area where it’s all about who you know and who knows you. So get known for your hard work and commitment to the cause.
  • Make sure your resume includes your volunteer or nonprofit experience. If your background is predominantly business-related, be sure to explain in your cover letter how you became interested in the organization and their cause as well as how your skills are transferable to the organization.
  • Nonprofit does not mean unpaid. Financial compensation for advocacy work varies greatly depending on the size and budget of the organization and the position title. Many individuals are volunteers and therefore earn no money. Often the pay for the immediate entry jobs can be modest (even for titles like attorney), but if the agency is large enough and promotes from within, you can rise in the organization and ultimately claim a higher salary. But it is important to note that you will likely not be compensated as well as a similar position at a for-profit business.

In my next post I list a variety of nonprofit/advocacy groups to help you decide where you might way to apply your talents and interests.

©2019 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. 

About the AuthorKatharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Evans Family Executive Director of the Career Center at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career.

This article was originally posted to the Psychology Today website on Sep 13, 2019. The author has given the Boston College Career Center full permission to re-post this article.

In Print: You Majored in What?: Designing Your Path from College to Career

%d bloggers like this: