Interview by: Moira Srago, Employment Specialist
We recently interviewed Kara Montermoso, HR and Operations Manager for Idealist.org, one of the best sites for finding and exploring careers in the nonprofit sector. Kara shared her top tips to help you get started in the field and we’ve outlined them in this post. If you want more information or would like to meet with Kara about opportunities, be sure to attend the Career Center’s upcoming Nonprofit and Public Service forum on March 14th (2-4pm Student Union Ballroom) ! There will be 30 organizations present to help you connect with your ideal non-profit position.
1. What should a student consider as they explore a career in the nonprofit sector?
No matter what sector you want to work in, know thyself! The nonprofit sector is vast. While the term “nonprofit” may at first conjure up images of animal shelters and soup kitchens (and we love those!), nonprofits also encompass many types of schools, research and policy institutions, foundations, as well as a host of organizations that address specific community needs.
Summary: The term “nonprofit” encompasses many different types of organizations! Assess your interests are as you explore!
2.What is unique about the nonprofit job search?
Kara:Nonprofit organizations are almost universally very mission-driven. They are passionate about their issue and the ways in which they choose to address that issue. So while finding a candidate with the appropriate skills and knowledge for a particular position are important, a candidate’s passion, energy and engagement with an organization’s mission is often also a point of consideration.
Finding an organization whose mission, structure and culture is a good fit will definitely have an impact on your sense of satisfaction. Nonprofits, just like any other industry, are not all alike. Smaller organizations can sometimes have a “start-up” type feel and you may be asked to wear many hats and chip in throughout the organization. Sometimes that may feel limiting due to a lack of resources. Larger, more established organizations may have a lot of brand recognition that opens up opportunities in terms of program reach, envisioning career paths or finding mentors, but they may also feel bureaucratic or hierarchical.
Summary: Know your values and that of the organization you want to work for…do they match?
3. How can students get their foot in the door?
Kara: Volunteer work and internships are often a great way to get your foot in the door. Not only will you gain some exposure into how a particular nonprofit may operate and its unique work culture, but we’ve also heard from hiring managers that if you are already engaged in the nonprofit sector, that can make your resume stand out.
It is also valuable to stay in the loop in a community of nonprofit professionals. Such groups provide local and national resources for those looking to get into the nonprofit sector as well as support for each others’ work once you are with an organization. Alumni groups and the Young Nonprofits Professionals Network can be good places to connect. Check out the local Bay Area group here.
Summary: Volunteer work, internships and professional networks are a great way to start your career!
4. What are the top things students can do to set themselves apart from other candidates?
Write a great cover letter. This does not mean that your cover letter has to be long, overly detailed or portray you in a glowing light. Great cover letters are succinct, highlight how one’s skills/knowledge will bring value or fill a need for the organization, and illustrate why you want to work for that particular organization (i.e. demonstrate passion for the issue).
Do your homework. Show up at an interview knowing that organization’s main areas of focus and their related programs. Have some knowledge about how their mission relates to current events. Be prepared to talk about your past work experiences and provide examples of successes and challenges. Hiring managers will want to know that you are serious about the organization’s mission and they also want to know how you work on your own and with others.
Ask questions. An interview is an opportunity for an organization to find out if you are a good fit for them, and it’s also a chance for you to see if they are a good fit for you.
Depending on the position it may be appropriate to come in with an idea or two that you might want the organization to consider. You could say something like, “I was wondering if you’ve ever thought about _________ as an outreach strategy as that might _________.” This may be another way to demonstrate that you are taking the organization and their mission seriously.
Say thank you. Politeness can go long way. I wouldn’t say that a thank you note/email will make or break your chances of being hired, but it can’t hurt.
Additional resources: Idealist has two great (and free!) resources for first time job seekers and sector switchers. These resources cover everything from self-assessment, research strategies, resume/cover letter writing to salary negotiation in the non-profit world. Also be sure to check out their Career Guide.
About Kara Montermoso HR & Operations Manager
Action Without Borders/Idealist.org