Myths About Working in the Non-Profit Sector

I believe there are many myths around about working in non-profits (the more current term is "public benefit organization"). Having worked both in corporate and in public benefit I'd like to dispel the common myths that I have encountered.

Myth 1. The type of work I do doesn't exist in a non-profit.

Reality: Probably not true. Of course it is impossible to say, but unless you are very highly specialized in an obscure field, you could find a comparable job, or one that uses your skill set in a public benefit organization. There are over 1.5 million public benefit organizations in the U.S. alone so there is sure to be a place where your skills are needed.

Myth 2. Public benefit organizations pay very low salaries or they only use volunteers, not paid staff.

Reality: The salary you receive working in a public benefit is comparable to the salary paid for a similar job in your geographic region in a for-profit entity. Remember, they are competing in the same labor pool so must pay a competitive rate to get good people. For example, an accountant working at an art museum would be paid a comparable salary to an accountant working in a similar sized business in that city. Often public benefits may pay a slightly lower salary but offer a more generous benefits package and more time off than one would get in a corporation. Many public benefits use volunteers for many functions, but almost always have some paid staff too.

Myth 3: Public benefit organizations have no resources and operate on shoe-string budgets.

Reality: With over 1.5 million organizations in the U.S. public benefit orgs' budgets run the gamut from single person start-ups to huge bureaucracies with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The economic downturn since 2008 in the U.S. has had an impact on budgets overall and few are rolling in excess cash, but there are many orgs with strong financials running in the black.

Myth 4: People who work in non-profits/public benefits couldn't "cut it" in the corporate world. They are not quite at the same caliber otherwise they would be working in a company, not at a non-profit.

Reality: Having been on staff at several public benefits, this one upsets me the most. The biggest difference between staff in a public benefit and a corporation is the level of commitment and caring amongst the staff. They are almost all there because they believe in the mission of the organization and want to serve their constituency. I have been honored to work with some of the most intelligent, creative, hard-working, well-educated people I know in my career at several non-profits. Generally, because budgets tend to be tight, there are no "slackers" in a non-profit. Everyone gives 110%.


Please refer to my resources page for more information about careers in the non-profit/public benefit sector.