Industry Overview: Non-Profit and Government

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Nonprofit organizations are businesses designed to make change, and not in the monetary sense. Granted 501(c)3, or tax-exempt, status by the government, these organizations focus on a wide variety of causes, including everything from the Africa Fund, which promotes human rights, education, and people-to-people exchanges with African countries, to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Many nonprofit interest groups are located in Washington, D.C., where they lobby government on behalf of their causes. Others have offices near state legislatures, where they lobby for the passage of legislation favorable to their causes.

Nonprofits derive their operating revenues from foundations, government grants, membership dues, and fees for services they provide. They typically attract people who are passionate about solving social problems; the big upside of working in this sector is that you can make a positive impact on behalf of your organization's cause; the downside is that most jobs in the nonprofit sector don't pay very well.

Nonprofits and charitable organizations are becoming much more entrepreneurial, learning lessons from the private sector about how to operate more efficiently and do more with less by adopting marketing techniques to enhance their fund-raising efforts, or even starting their own small businesses to help generate income to fund social programs.


Some 20 million people work for government-agencies and departments that on a federal, state, or local level handle issues as diverse as highway construction and the protection of wilderness areas, public health programs, subsidies to tobacco farmers, the space program, and fireworks displays on the Fourth of July. Governments collect taxes and use them to fund programs. That includes everything from a small-town government filling potholes on Main Street, to a big city providing police and firefighting services, to a state issuing drivers' licenses, to the federal government sending troops into combat or making Medicare payments to a long-term health-care facility for the elderly poor.

Federal and state legislators make laws, and city and county supervisors pass ordinances. Executive agencies-from the White House to the state house to city hall-issue regulations. Governments employ armies of civil servants, bureaucrats, lawyers, and specialists of all kinds to implement their policies and staff their programs. These include people who analyze policy and draft legislation for U.S. senators, people who issue building permits at town hall, and everyone in between.

It's important to note that while the federal government is gigantic-it employed nearly 2.7 million people in 2001-there are far more jobs available across the country at the state and local government level; in 2001, more than 18 million people were employed by state and local governments.

Even though most employees in this sector enjoy excellent benefits, there can be downsides to working in government. For one thing, the pay is often lower in these positions than in their private-sector equivalents. And in many government positions, jobs are politicized: Your priorities (and the culture of your workplace) can change with the election cycle, and the program you're working on or the representative you work for may not even be around next year.

Governments in the Red
With 2004 being a presidential election year, there's been plenty of talk about the financial trouble the federal government's having. But it's not just the federal government that's in dire financial straits-the bulk of the states are also having trouble maintaining government service levels and balancing their budgets. Indeed, the combined shortfall of state general funds has skyrocketed over the past few years.

One result, of course, is that governments of all kinds are cutting back on services they deem unnecessary. In your state, this might mean nosediving higher education budgets (and fewer job opportunities for professors at the state college). In your county, it might mean a tumbling budget for road repairs (and fewer county job opportunities for construction workers and engineers).

But it's not just government programs that have been hurt by governments' financial woes. Governments are the biggest funders of many, many nonprofits. Nearly a third of the average nonprofit's income comes from government contracts and grants. Meaning that, in many cases, nonprofit budgets are ailing as a result of government funding cuts.

Homeland Security
September 11, 2001, made clear the threat of terrorism to the United States. In response, the federal government gathered together a bunch of previously separate government entities, including the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, Customs, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to centralize their efforts to protect the United States, avoid redundancy, and allow different organizations to work together rather than at cross purposes. President Bush has made Homeland Security a priority for his administration, resulting in strong budgets in this sector. This means more career opportunities for you, the job seeker, if you're interested in intelligence gathering, analysis, or working for the Border Patrol, Customs, or other entities under the Homeland Security umbrella.

Meanwhile, over in the nonprofit arena, some are complaining that Homeland Security is eroding citizens' civil rights and stifling the dissenting voice of nonprofits that advocate policies opposed to federal government practices like IRS audits of liberal nonprofits and attempts to limit or eliminate federal funds for certain nonprofits.

Government Outsourcing
In recent years, "reinventing government" has been a catchphrase among policymakers. On the ground, this means that governments are increasingly outsourcing functions and services that were traditionally handled by government agencies to the private sector. For example, municipal governments traditionally provided garbage-removal services in many cities; these days, however, private trash companies often provide these services. The thinking is that the profit motive drives private enterprises to be more efficient than government entities, thus driving down the total cost of outsourced services to society. The reality is less clear, however. The cost of services to society can remain the same (or even increase) even when private enterprises are more efficient than the government service providers they replace, since private enterprises need to charge more for their services than they actually cost to make a profit.

More than 25 types of nonprofit organizations are recognized by the IRS, from the sacred (religious groups) to the obscure (black lung trusts). There are a number of ways to break down the nonprofit sector. For instance, nonprofits can be divided into those that focus on lobbying government on behalf of a cause (interest groups such as the National Rifle Association) and those that focus on providing services to society (e.g., museums or homes for pregnant teens).

Alongside the large national and international nonprofits are myriad locally based, smaller nonprofits. Like their bigger cousins, these break down by mission and include everything from community theater troupes to women's shelters to convalescent homes.

In addition, the nonprofit arena includes nonprofit charitable/philanthropic funds and foundations. These organizations have an endowment and/or solicit donations, which they use to fund grants to nonprofit organizations. There are several types of foundations. Community foundations raise funds from a variety of donors in community or region. Corporate foundations are established as separate entities by corporations to make charitable grants. Independent foundations usually consist of an endowment made by a single individual or family. Operating foundations focus on funding their own nonprofit programs.

The executive branch agencies comprise the largest group of federal government jobs, including the Social Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. There are also jobs available in agencies under the aegis of the judicial and legislative branches, such as in the Library of Congress or the Congressional Budget Office. There are two basic types of positions in the various government agencies: civil service positions and political appointments (also called Schedule C appointments).

Not all people with federal agency jobs are based in Washington, D.C. Think of all those postal employees out on the streets of America, braving rain, sleet, and snow; or the diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Cairo; or the park ranger in Yellowstone National Park. Think of the bureaucrats in federal office buildings in every major U.S. city, the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent on some isolated reservation in New Mexico, the civilian technician maintaining communications gear in the tropical heat of Guam, or the medical researcher culturing bacteria at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Congressional jobs, on the other hand, are more concentrated geographically. Most people who work for the legislative branch of the federal government are based in Washington, D.C. They are on the staffs of legislators or legislative agencies, such as the aforementioned Library of Congress. Representatives and senators also maintain staffs in their home districts and states. Every senator and representative hires a staff to assist with his or her job, and this is where many opportunities exist in Washington for young people, provided they have good educations and, usually, good connections.

Nongovernment Political Jobs
In addition to the job opportunities that exist within government, there are plenty of political opportunities that technically are not within government. For example, many people work at lobbying firms (including Patton Boggs and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld), nonprofit interest groups (e.g., the American Medical Association or the Teamsters Union), and think tanks (e.g., the Brookings Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute). Most of these organizations are located in Washington, D.C., and in various state capitals. Both the Democratic and the Republican parties have national committees as well as state and local offices where job seekers interested in working for a political party may find opportunities.

It can be hard getting a job in nonprofit or government. The hiring process is often lengthy, and the competition can be fierce. For example, one foundation executive director in California recently received 400 applications for a program manager position. Persistence pays off, though. If you're committed to a particular issue, don't hide it. Volunteering and interning are two very good ways to get in the door at a nonprofit. If you want a government internship, however, you'll most likely have to be a student. That said, a number of government agencies are increasing their hiring numbers, especially in the areas of security and foreign affairs, whereas nonprofits for the most part aren't. So you may find it less of an uphill battle to land a paying government job than even a nonpaying internship at a nonprofit.

Most government agencies have dedicated recruiters who attend college career fairs, industry conferences, and other job placement events. Recruiters tend to be regionally located and look for candidates who have the particular set of skills their area needs. One intelligence agency recruiter says that while many people like giving a resume to someone face to face, resumes submitted online or by mail go through the same process as those given to recruiters directly. So try your luck on agency websites. Government agencies will have recruiting "blitzes" too. Security agencies are recruiting year-round right now, while other agencies such as the GAO accept applications only at certain times of the year. Also, because a huge number of government employees will be retiring in the next 10 to 15 years, there's a lot of advancement potential.

Living Your Passion
"You get to be who you are, not just what you do," says one nonprofit insider. In other words, people working in this field find that they can fully live their values. Their work isn't so much work as it is a passion or a calling.

It's the People
You will be working with great people. "The people I work with are bright and committed," says one director of a nonprofit. A common sentiment voiced by all of the insiders, who welcome the opportunity to be surrounded by passionate, like-minded individuals.

I Wrote that Report!
Though government can work at a glacial pace, insiders say that one of the best things about working in the industry is knowing your work is having an impact. You may not see that impact right away, but all in due time . . .

You call THAT a Paycheck?
Low pay is typically the number-one gripe. If your heart is where the money is, then you may want to think twice about working for a nonprofit. Your passion for the cause you're working for has to more than compensate for the low paycheck for you to be happy in the nonprofit arena.

The Burnout
One nonprofit insider says that there's so much to do with so few resources. That, combined with the frenetic pace of people working so hard towards a particular goal, can make for a "hothouse" environment.

No Month-Long Trip to the Riviera
In government, you do get vacation time, of course, but it can be a few years before you move up to even 3 weeks off per year. But how would you pay for this trip, anyway? The familiar complaint: low salaries.

Nonprofits, government agencies, and legislators all typically hire interns. The pay is low and the responsibilities are generally pretty administrative. (Do you know your alphabet? Good, because you will be doing filing.) But an internship can give you experience, and access to bigwigs, that can help with your future. Salary range: nonpaying to $2,000 per month.

Program Assistant
Program assistants assist program directors and work on analyzing issues and implementing programs for nonprofit organizations. These jobs include a lot of routine office work, but can also include substantive tasks, and they are a great way to learn about issues and get to know decision makers. Salary range: $20,000 to $35,000.

Program Analyst
People in these positions work at government agencies, where they analyze proposed or existing programs for presentation to the legislature. The job requires a knowledge of budgetary process and a financial background. Salary range: $40,000 to $75,000.

Grant Writer
Nonprofits hire grant writers to write proposals to prospective funders, which can include the government or private foundations. The job requires the ability to synthesize information and write persuasively; don't look for work here if you've got problems with grammar. Salary range: $35,000 to $50,000.

Program Director
In larger nonprofits and a handful of small ones, a tier of midlevel management is needed. Duties include oversight and management of a specific program, often including hiring personnel, fund-raising, public relations, and all other administrative and management duties specific to the program area. The program director usually reports directly to the executive director. Salary range: $45,000 to $65,000.

Executive Director
The grand pooh-bah of the organization, the executive director is the equivalent of a CEO and reports directly to the board of directors. He or she is financially accountable for the organization, oversees all strategic planning and management, and may or may not be involved with other duties as well, including, depending on the size of the nonprofit, fund-raising and development, board development, hiring, media relations, program development, and just about anything else that needs to be done. Salary range: $75,000 and up.

Public Relations Manager or Press Secretary
Both nonprofits and legislative offices hire PR managers (also called press secretaries) to work with the media to try to shape public perception of an elected representative or nonprofit group. The position requires excellent communication skills and knowledge of how the media works. Salary range: $30,000 to $100,000.

Legislative Correspondent
Legislative correspondents (LCs) work in congressional offices, where their responsibilities consist almost solely of answering the many pieces of correspondence elected representatives receive each day. This entry-level position is a good place to start on Capitol Hill. Salary range: $20,000 to $25,000.

Legislative Assistant
One of the most common positions on Capitol Hill, this is a relatively midlevel position, which you can get after working as a staff assistant or legislative correspondent. Aides are responsible for finding out everything there is to know about a particular issue and then briefing other staff members. Aides often meet with interest groups and talk to constituents-it's definitely a "people" position. Salary range: $20,000 to $40,000.

Schedulers are the personal assistants of elected representatives. People in these positions wield real power. After all, they're the gatekeepers to elected representatives; if somebody wants to meet with a given rep, that person needs to go through his or her scheduler first. Salary range: $20,000 to $85,000.

For most civil service jobs in federal and state government agencies, it's all about the paperwork: The first step to landing an agency job is saying the right things on the proper application form. At the federal level, this is the OF-612. On it, you'll be required to list your KSAs-knowledge, skills, and abilities-as agencies look for carefully defined skill sets in their employees. It's a good idea to check out the many books or computer software packages designed to help with this application process.

Finding and landing your dream job in a nonprofit may take some effort on your part. Unlike the private sector, nonprofits are neither large enough, nor financially endowed enough, to come looking for you. There are often no formal recruiting structures set up. Rather, nonprofits rely on the energy and efforts of you, the job seeker. However, some informal but tried-and-true ways such as volunteering, networking, and interning will help you stand out.

As you conduct your job search, you'll want to keep the following in mind:

  • Many nonprofits hire future employees out of a circle of folks already working in their community-for another nonprofit or as a volunteer. So go to conferences, meet people, and get involved. Also, government HR agencies tend to be very rigid when it comes to the minimum requirements for a position. If you can get your resume in through someone you know, you can avoid the by-the-numbers screening process.
  • Spending a few months as an intern in a nonprofit (either paid or unpaid) is a great way to gain experience, see whether you like working for a nonprofit, and get your foot in the door. Especially if most of your work experience is in the private sector, doing a summer internship is a great trial run. There are hundreds of internships available in different branches of the government, the majority for students, including the Presidential Management Intern Program and the White House Fellows Program. Most of these are paid and last 3 to 4 months (though some are more like fellowships, which can last 1 to 2 years).
  • It's important to share the hiring organization or legislator's values. Nonprofits are typically cause-oriented organizations; legislators typically make their decisions based on where they stand on the political spectrum. Since nonprofits and legislative-staff positions generally don't pay as well as private-sector jobs, it's critical that you are knowledgeable and care about what you're getting into.
  • If you're applying for a job at a government agency, make sure your KSAs match the job description. It might just be worth it to take that night class in accounting, if that's what's required for that agency job you have your eye on. If you have considerable work experience, demonstrate hard-to-find knowledge or job skills. People who bring solid skills in finance or information technology to the table are very attractive candidates, since most people with these skills and knowledge gravitate to higher-paying private-sector jobs.