guiding the career in public relations

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Should You Consider Non-Profits?

January 15th, 2010 · 7 Comments

  Tom Nicholson 

When starting my career I was told to avoid working for a not-for-profit organization.  “Once there you will never escape the non-profit world and the experience doesn’t count in corporate America.”  That strong caution may have been appropriate at one time, but may be far too harsh today.

One of the best organizations I have worked with is the non-profit Arthur W. Page Society.  The experience of working with the top corporate communication professionals in the world, managing the budget, staff and programs has expanded my view of what’s possible on limited budgets.  When I joined three years ago the Society had negative cash flow for the previous four years.  It was producing two major meetings a year, plus regional meetings, teleconferences and publishing a member directory.  Its strongest asset was its membership base, comprised of more than 300 of the top communicators in the world.

With the active participation of more than 100 members, we were able to grow the Society’s programs, publications and value proposition.  Working with committee and task force chairs to create new ideas,  bring them to life and see them funded has been both exciting and gratifying.  In the last three years, we’ve had the opportunity to make our events bigger and more successful, have published two white papers, launched a new program to develop future leaders in the profession, started a public blog, created a private social networking site, improved our web site, streamlined our operations and systems, improved a monthly web newsletter and converted our directory to a more up to date on-line version.   Cash flow and net income is also now positive.

Many of these activities are exactly the kinds of things a corporate communication department or an agency would do and I had the benefit of the thinking of some of the best in the business as we revamped and improved the Society,

Our communication director, Anuneha Mewawalla, has also gained invaluable experience managing many of these new initiatives and writing many of the Society communications.  Her experience at the non-profit Page Society directly parallels the experience of my former colleagues in corporate communication roles.  And the variety of projects she is involved with is likely much broader than a corporate position and on par with agency peers.

While the non-profit world has a reputation for low pay, that too is changing.  The right talent can make a big difference to a non-profit organization and many are willing to recruit and pay for talented people.  The experience can be invaluable and the exposure to a wide variety of corporations and agencies provides a perspective that is hard to match when working for a corporate entity.

Volunteers, like the committee and task force members at the Page Society, are not only making a big difference in the success of the organization through their active participation, they are also sharing their expertise and perspective with staff members.  It’s that kind of information exchange that helps to make a non-profit experience even more valuable for hard-working staff members.
Most non-profits welcome the help of additional volunteers.  It can be a good way to network and broaden your own perspective.  It also can bring the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping to advance a cause you believe in.

Whether as a volunteer or an employee, non-profits may be worth a serious look. 

(Tom Nicholson is Executive Director of the Arthur W. Page Society, the association of senior PR professionals.  Peviously, Tom has worked in corporations and agencies).

Tags: Advice from a Pro · Careers

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dan Henkel, APR // Jan 19, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Thanks for a thoughtful commentary, Tom. I echo the notion that NFP work can bring challenges, rewards and career growth comparable to the corporate sector. Non-profit orgs cover the gamut from one- or two-person shops to large, global enterprises, and the experience of communicating for them spans a similar range. A fundamental difference–key for some of us–is that non-profits tend to fuel a sense of mission. Nothing wrong with making a buck, but there’s a special satisfaction to know you’re helping supply basic human needs, improve education, or promote medical research.

    Though I’ve worked in many settings and sectors, my current position is the challenge of a lifetime: major media call daily, and we’re advocating on issues such as concussion in youth sports and preventive health care through healthy lifestyles. Plenty of strategic opportunities, a few heart-pounding moments, and a sense of helping improve the public health.
    Thanks for highlighting some of the joys of communicating on behalf of NFPs. Keep fighting the good fight!

  • 2 Mary Lynn Carver // Jan 19, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Great article. Having recently moved into the non-profit world after 20 years in agencies, start-ups and fortune 50 pharmaceuticals, I agree completely with the sentiment of the article with two caveats. There is greater varriability between non-profits than there are between public companies–so do a lot of research to find a good match for your experience. Second, moving into non-profits from corporate is still easier than moving from non-profits to the corporate world. No amount of non-profit experience will prepare you for financial results communication, annual shareholder meetings, large scale restructuring and labor negotiations, or global communication challenges.

  • 3 Luke // Jan 19, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    I wish I could know from Mary Lynn what advice she’d give to someone wanting to go from non-profit to corp. Why is it so hard? Does the corp world view non-profit pr as being not as sophisticated or “serious” as corp world?

  • 4 Howard Brodwin // Jan 19, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Great commentary Tom – I totally agree.
    I’ve also suggested to many young PR and communication professionals and recent grads to get involved with NPO’s as a volunteer to gain experience and build their network. As we all know, marketing and PR are some of the areas where many NPO’s are lacking in expertise or good contacts.

    If you’re a music fan, go find a music non-profit. Like movies or theatre? There are plenty of arts’ non-profits. Have a passion for kids? Live a “green” lifestyle? Feel a connection with Seniors thanks to a grandparent? The opportunities are endless, as there are NPO’s for every cause. Let’s encourage more young people to get involved and the conversation about for-profit vs. non-profit jobs will start to dissipate.

  • 5 Ashleigh Laabs // Jan 20, 2010 at 7:01 am

    What a great post. I currently work at a nonprofit foundation and appreciate your outlook on the nonprofit industry. I enjoy what I do and actually feel have learned so much from this experience. I worked in corporate before coming in to the foundation. I am able to have different outlooks on issues and projects because of both experiences.

  • 6 Mary Lynn Carver // Jan 30, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    Howard & Luke: There are significant differences between corporate and NPO communications experiences, just as there are significant differences between agency experience and corporate…For the greatest versitility, try and get all three! Luke, you asked why it is so hard to move from NPO to corporate–it depends on what NPO you were at and what kind of experience you gained there, and then what corp you are trying to go to. In general–NPO’s have smaller budgets than corp so you are not going to get the same kind of exposure to some higher budget activities, you will also get no experience doing finacial results PR, or dealing with SEC communication regulations–core understanding required for any corop. PR exec. From a crisis communication standpoint–the larger the company, the greater the likelihood for multiple and significant issues that you will learn through; agency management is another key element–many NPO PR staff have never managed a PR agency–that is something that is a requiremtent for mid level PR jobs on the corp side. From an entry level standpoint, PR agency work is an ideal training ground–you see and do a lot in a short period of time, on several different accounts. NPO’s can also be a great foot in the door–I just wouldn’t stay there long, if your ultimate goal is corp or agency work.

  • 7 Jenna Brossman // Mar 25, 2010 at 10:50 am

    This article was encouraging to read. I recently graduated from SDSU with my degree in PR and I’ve wanted to work for a not-for-profit organization. This piece helped to quell the fears I’ve had over starting off at a non-profit.

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