Many young people who major in some field of professional psychology are interested in working for non-profit organizations. They may be somewhat anxious about pursuing this interest because salaries and benefits are lower than what they would receive in government or education, and certainly in the corporate arena. However, as I reflect back over the 16 years I spent in small non-profit organizations, I think there are three reasons someone should consider beginning their career at a place with 10-12 employees or less.
You will develop a wider array of skills
Because of my experience in small non-profit organizations, I have more skills than I likely would have developed had I started where I work now. Among other things, I can design and publish a web page, use an Adobe product to produce a flyer or newsletter, use Excel for a budget report, troubleshoot software and hardware problems on a computer, write a grant, prepare for an audit and manage an event. I mention these things because where I work now we have entire departments that do each of these. I would have learned maybe one or two, but not all of them. Even now, each of these comes in handy from time to time, and I am glad I have the know how.
You will become a big picture thinker and advance quicker
One of the dangers of working for a large organization is that you tend to get focused on your own department or division. Large organizations are complex and difficult to understand. In small organizations, almost everyone is involved in every operational aspect. If there is an event, for example, everyone pitches in, not just event services.
Non-profit organizations are also very generous with advancements and titles. While one might need 20 years of related experience and a graduate degree to be a director or senior manager in a large organization, five years of experience and a bachelor’s degree might get you the same title in a smaller organization. There are organizations with two or three employees who have a president and two vice-presidents. While the title may not mean much in reality, it does give you the “executive experience” claim for your resume.
However, be prepared for a change when you transition to a larger organization. It is not unusual to be senior manager at a small non-profit and program assistant at a larger one. Some people also have difficulty going from being the go-to leader to just one of a large team.
Working with few resources and supporting special causes at the grassroots level
When you work for a non-profit you learn how to make things happen with little or no resources. While this is seen primarily as a negative and stress producing reality, it also has positive benefits. Once you transition to a larger organization you will find that you can make “tight resources” go a lot further. You may also be the person appreciating all the resources you have at your disposal while the people around you are grumbling about what is available to them.
Working for a non-profit also gives you the experience of working at the grassroots level. You understand how to organize people in ways that are not always ideal to get things done. You also have the opportunity to support causes that may never get big or have national prominence. These causes and organizations have always had an important part to play in our country. Even if they are considered by most to be niche issues, you can play a part in benefiting those who care about the cause, or who are personally affected by the issue.
The reality is that most highly qualified people either avoid small non-profits, or stay for an average of two or three years. The stress of volunteer boards and committees, the extreme parcity of resources, and the sacrifice of salary and benefits is too much for most to take on or endure for any length of time. However, it is a career option that young people in particular should seriously consider.