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How to Work for a Nonprofit and Still Pay Off Your Student Loans

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People seeking jobs wait in a line at an job fair in Queens, New York.Photograph by Stan Honda — AFP/Getty Images

Dear Annie: I’ll be graduating in a few weeks, and I’m trying to figure out my next move, which I hope will be getting a job at a nonprofit. There’s no one on campus to talk to about this, since nonprofits don’t send recruiters here and our career center doesn’t have much information on them. I’m thinking of possibly either working with at-risk teens or doing some related type of community outreach. I’ve got several years of volunteer experience, going back to tutoring in 8th grade, and I know it sounds corny, but I love making a real difference in people’s lives. My only real worry is that I have a lot of student debt, so I need to earn a pretty good salary. Is it totally unrealistic to aim for both? — Becky in Baltimore

Dear B.B.: No, not unrealistic at all, particularly if you’re planning to stay in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area after you graduate (but more about that in a minute). More than half (57%) of 501(c)s are adding new jobs this year, according to the latest annual survey of 443 of them, by human resources firm Nonprofit HR and data analytics nonprofit GuideStar. By contrast, 36% of for-profit companies are now hiring, according to job site CareerBuilder.

Lots of nonprofits recruit from among their volunteers, so your years of unpaid work are really valuable. “You’ve actually started developing a career path already,” says Lisa Brown Morton, Nonprofit HR’s CEO, adding that what tax-exempt employers want is “not that different from what for-profit companies look for, including a genuine interest in their work, and some knowledge of the issues they’re facing.”

Moreover, the kind of work you want to do happens to be in demand. “Education and community outreach” is among the top three recruiting categories this year, according to the Nonprofit HR survey, with 40% of organizations planning to add staff. (The other two, at 44% and 42% respectively, are direct services and fundraising.)

Earning a salary you can live on, while still making student loan payments, is not impossible, either. “This idea people have that a nonprofit job means you’ll have to live in your parents’ basement is not accurate,” Brown Morton says. “You can find pay that’s competitive with average salaries for the same type of job in a for-profit company.” The key is to focus your job search on two things: The size of the nonprofit, and the size of the metropolitan area where it operates.

A bit of context: Most nonprofits in the U.S. are small, with 20 or fewer employees and total operating budgets under $5 million. A job with one of them is not unlike working at a for-profit start-up. “Everyone has to pitch in and help out with a variety of different things,” Brown Morton says. “So you get experiences you probably would not have in a big corporate environment, where people are usually hired to do just one thing.” Salaries tend to be more modest, too.

By contrast, large tax-exempt organizations, which Nonprofit HR defines as having budgets of $15 million or above (sometimes way above), have to compete for talent with big, stable for-profit entities, notes Brown Morton. “So they have to pay competitively,” she says. That’s especially true in major cities, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago—and Baltimore, close enough to Washington, D.C., that the competition includes government jobs too.

“We can’t run a help-wanted ad that says, ‘Seeking first-rate programmers willing to work for 25% below market salaries,’” notes Chuck McLean, head of research at GuideStar. A non-profit data analytics firm that maintains a database of statistics on 1.8 million nonprofits, and crunches numbers for Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, and many other tax-exempts, GuideStar has to compete for talent in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and a part of Virginia that is packed with defense contractors.

“Apply to large organizations in locations where private-sector competition keeps nonprofit salaries in line with the overall job market,” McLean suggests. “You do not have to take a vow of poverty.”

One more thought: McLean points out that almost one-third (29%) of tax-exempts in the Nonprofit HR study say one of their biggest staffing challenges is retaining employees under age 30. “There has been a lot of discussion about different financial incentives, like retention bonuses and tuition assistance, to help with that,” he says. “In interviews, when the topic of money comes up, mention your concern about your student debt and see what they say.” In this as in so much else, it never hurts to ask.

Talkback: Have you ever thought about working for a nonprofit? Was compensation a factor in your decision? Leave a comment below.

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