On Becoming a Leader
January 30, 2017

How Students Can Prepare for a Nonprofit Career

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle

On Becoming a Leader is an advice column in which Allison Fine, an author, consultant, and expert on nonprofit management, answers your questions about nonprofit careers and leadership. Have a question? Ask Ms. Fine using this form.

Q. I work with college-age students interested in careers with social impact. Do you have any advice about how students can best prepare for working in nonprofits right out of college? Thank you.
— Michelle in Massachusetts

A. Thanks for this important question, Michelle. My very first On Becoming a Leader column (“My Boss Doesn’t Listen to Me”) answered a young woman’s call for help navigating her way within a very traditional nonprofit organization. She thought that having passion and idealism were the only ingredients she needed for organizational success. And then she experienced the turf wars, risk aversion, and bureaucracy of her organization.

Her story leads to your question: How can we best prepare young people to succeed in nonprofits? Here are a few suggestions:   

Find a semester-long internship managing a project at a nonprofit. Ideally, this work would include helping to manage a project from idea to implementation. Perhaps it is a fundraising event or organizing volunteers or helping the organization engage in an online conversation with supporters about an important issue. Episodic volunteering is good for the soul (and the community), but a longer-term commitment to an organization is a better way to get a feel for the actual work it does.

Ask for informational interviews with alumni. Many alums are looking to give back to help current students. Pairing students up for call(s) with individual alumni working at nonprofits would be a great networking opportunity for students and a chance for them to learn more about nonprofit careers.

Read about nonprofit work. Students should absolutely have a subscription to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which also has a jobs section. They should also read The Nonprofit Quarterly’s blog and the Idealist career blog.

Join groups of like-minded students. A great group is Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, which has chapters around the country. Through YNPN, young nonprofit professionals (and those who hope to be) can learn more about working in the field, meet other young professionals, and hear about job openings.

Learn to Listen

Those are some concrete steps students can take. But I’d like to add one more thing that anyone preparing for a career in nonprofits should work on: developing good “active listening” skills.  Active listening is “a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust,” according to Richard Salem, a renowned community mediator.

Active listening helps reverse the traditional style of leadership that values speaking over listening. Speaking is commonly considered a strength and listening a weakness. That is why people so often talk over each other in meetings and even in social settings. Active listening is a good antidote to the common problem of assuming you know how others feel, which often leads nonprofits to miss the mark.

Learning that skill can turn communications from opportunities to broadcast into constructive conversations so people inside and outside of organizations can help think through difficult problems and create solutions together.

It is easy to assume that people are just born good listeners or come from a family of listeners. And yes, that helps, but active listening also needs to be taught and strengthened. The Skills You Need website has some good tips for getting started as an active listener.

Michelle, I hope your students will take advantage of opportunities on campus and online to learn more about the work of nonprofits and about nonprofit careers, and I hope they will think about the importance of listening.