10 Myths About Non-Profit Work

Smart non-profits strive to pay competitive salaries.

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Alison Green
Myths about working in the non-profit sector abound. The reality is often quite different. Here are the 10 biggest myths about non-profit work, debunked:

1. Myth: Non-profits are laid back, less professional, and less rigorous.

Fact: There are certainly nonprofits that fit this stereotype, but there are for-profit businesses that do too! Many non-profits are fast-paced, demanding, and disciplined; in fact, there’s a growing movement in that direction.

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2. Myth: Non-profits are mainly staffed by volunteers.

Fact: Most non-profits are staffed by paid professional staff. Some organizations also employ volunteers in addition to their paid staff, but many don’t use volunteer help at all, preferring instead the accountability of paid full-timers.

3. Myth: Caring about money is frowned upon.

Fact: It’s the organization itself that isn’t making a profit, not the employees. It’s understood that employees in any sector care about their own salaries. And while non-profits generally pay less than their for-profit counterparts, salaries in the sector vary widely, and smart non-profits strive to pay competitive salaries and benefits so that they can hire strong talent.

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4. Myth: Passion is an important qualification for a non-profit job.

Fact: Passion is nice, but it’s not a must-have trait; skills, experience, and a track record of strong results are more important. While many nonprofit workers are passionate about their organization’s mission, you’ll also find workers who aren’t quite as evangelical but work where they do because it’s a strong professional fit.

5. Myth: Non-profits are staffed by sunny, caring earth-mother types.

Fact: Many people at nonprofits are there because they want to make a difference in the world … but they’re still just as likely to have egos or difficult personalities as in any other sector. (Making an impact on the world does feel good though!)

6. Myth: Non-profits are run by consensus and have non-hierarchical structures.

Fact: Most non-profits have clear lines of authority and decision-makers, just like in for-profits. (And those that don’t generally don’t thrive.)

7. Myth: Non-profits aren’t well-managed.

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Fact: There are certainly plenty of poorly managed non-profits, just like there are plenty of poorly managed for-profit businesses. Organizations in any sector that are founded by people with good intentions but no management expertise often suffer from fuzzy goals and ineffective management. But among non-profits, there’s a growing trend toward accountability and efficiency.

8. Myth: Non-profits will hire whoever they can find.

Fact: Many non-profit jobs are extremely competitive, with hundreds of applicants per slot.

9. Myth: Non-profit employees have better work-life balance.

Fact: There are some non-profits that promote work-life balance for their employees, just like there are some for-profits that do. But there are also non-profits where long hours are the norm—particularly since what’s at stake can be so important.

10. Myth: Non-profit work is centered around service work in communities.

Fact: While youth centers and soup kitchens might be the first type of non-profits that come to mind, there are also all kinds of others, such as advocacy groups, which work for social change; trade associations, which offer membership activities for a particular industry (from research and training to lobbying); and religious institutions, like churches and temples. And non-profits hire people to do all the same jobs as for-profit businesses do: They need people to do the accounting, the web design, the management, editing, database work, lobbying—all the same jobs you’re used to seeing.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.