Best Degrees for Non-profit Work

By ACO Staff

Published on September 21, 2021

Best Degrees for Non-profit Work

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What Degrees do Nonprofit Organizations Look For

The desire to address challenging problems at local, state, national and international levels is felt by all ages and professions. From pursuing a nonprofit management degree to volunteering one’s professional skills, the ways to have an impact are as varied as the problems. Use this guide to find out how to combine a passion for making a difference while using one’s specialized career knowledge.

Linking College Degrees to Nonprofit Careers

From administrative assistant to staff attorney to environmental policy analyst, nonprofit organizations (NPOs) require skilled employees and volunteers to succeed in their mission. The following section connects degrees that often lead to volunteer and employment opportunities.

Arts and Culture

Example DegreesVolunteer OpportunitiesNonprofit Careers
ArtDepending on specialization, art degrees cover everything from graphic and logo design to advanced painting techniques and art theory. Like private businesses, nonprofits need art degree graduates to convey their organization’s message to the public through visual media.Information services at art museum; school docent at a museum; curatorial volunteer at a museum; special events volunteer coordinatorProduction ManagerDirector of Visual ArtsVideo and Design InstructorExhibition SpecialistGallery AssistantPhotography Curator
Education

Example DegreesVolunteer OpportunitiesNonprofit Careers
EducationEducation programs help students understand how children learn, and introduce them to the latest methodologies and techniques. These skill sets can be broadly applied in a range of nonprofit settings.Tutor students via writing workshops; participate in after-school youth clubs; plan activities at pre-school center; organize cultural events in the local communityPreschool TeacherEducation Program LeaderDirector of Adult EducationEducation Outreach Coordinator
Environmental
Example DegreesVolunteer OpportunitiesNonprofit Careers
Environmental ScienceEnvironmental science introduces students to the intersection of human society and nature by instilling an understanding of natural resource conservation, biodiversity and sustainable development.Assist with protecting and researching endangered species; work on rainforest conservation projects; help provide sustainable clean water to developing countries; serve as a citizen scientist for environmental organization; participate in local park clean-upsEnvironmental Projects ManagerEnvironmental Policy AnalystPark RangerEcology Camp SupervisorCommunications Manager
Health Services
Example DegreesVolunteer OpportunitiesNonprofit Careers
Healthcare AdministrationHealthcare administration graduates learn about healthcare systems, operations, budgeting, and patient care. These skill sets lend themselves to becoming effective strategic planners and managers.Assist with patient admission and care coordination; manage patient referrals and services; organize patient recordsAdministrative DirectorProviders Relations SpecialistBudget and Grants SpecialistClinical Human Resources ManagerStrategic Partnerships Coordinator
Medical AssistingMedical assisting programs provide students with instruction in medical office operations, patient care and healthcare systems.Offer administrative support in a health clinic; provide preventative health screening services in a women’s shelter; work in community health outreach with a local public health nonprofitMedical AssistantHealth Records CoordinatorStudent Needs Assistant
NursingNursing programs focus on providing effective, empathetic care to individuals across the lifespan — a program of study that generates professionals with a diverse and dynamic skill set.Provide care in nursing homes; offer nursing assistance to local schools; staff summer camps as a nursing coordinator; work with families in hospice careRegistered NurseNursing ManagerNursing Care CoordinatorNursing SupervisorCharge Nurse
NutritionNutrition majors become experts in diet and food. Working with all ages, they assess dietary needs, help education the public, and motivate personal clients to live healthier lifestyles. Many nonprofits today have a public health or nutritional focus.Work with children as a nutrition educator; host wellness and nutrition education classes; establish a community garden; volunteer with a homeless feeding programNutrition Education Program SpecialistNutrition Program ManagerCommunity Nutrition EducatorChild Nutrition Outreach Coordinator
Physical TherapyFrom alleviating back pain to teaching a patient to walk again, physical therapy graduates work with people who have medical problems that limit their ability to move.Coordinate PT activities at local walk-in clinic; launch weekend PT program in a nursing home; support recreational therapy and education with public health departments; develop PT education materials for health fairsRehabilitation DirectorPhysical TherapistPhysical Therapist AssistantDevelopment SpecialistRecreation Therapy Aide
PsychologyPsychology teaches students about the core principles of human thinking and behavior. This understanding helps graduates understand patient needs and how to counsel them.Provide counseling to families displaced by a disaster through the American Red Cross; donate counseling time to veterans through Give an Hour; serve as a volunteer counselor at a walk-in clinicPsychology AssistantCounselorMarriage Family TherapistPsychologistClinical Psychology ConsultantSchool Mental Health Coordinator
Public HealthFocused on the greater good, public health degrees prepare students to help eradicate diseases, provide clean drinking water, and increase life expectancy. Whether the work is done at a local, national, or international level, students are able to choose an issue they want to see resolved.Conduct health education programs in developing countries; prepare volunteers for disaster relief through the Medical Corps; conduct research into diseases for a global health organizationDisaster SpecialistCase Management CoordinatorCommunity Health Promotion SpecialistPublic Affairs SpecialistCommunications Coordinator for Health and Policy
RN to MSNRN to MSN degrees strengthen nurses through management training and advanced patient care practice, allowing them to develop further skills and become leaders.Provide nursing care on a Mercy Ship; offer medical assistance through Doctors Without Borders; volunteer in a local clinic in an underserved communityNurse PractitionerInfection Control SpecialistMental Health ClinicianFamily Nurse Practitioner
International Relations and Development
Example DegreesVolunteer OpportunitiesNonprofit Careers
Business ManagementThis degree focus on strategy, fiscal controls, reporting, organizational management, and human resources. Graduates are equipped with the skills help organizations achieve long-term success.Manage volunteer recruitment at a nonprofit; serve as a business development advisor; train staff in fundraising; coordinate business partnership campaignsBusiness Technology AnalystProgram ManagerBusiness and Marketing Development CoordinatorProgram Operations DirectorRelationship Management Coordinator
CommunicationsDegrees in the field help graduates learn how to leverage verbal and written communication to mobilize action and achieve collective goals in the public or private sector.Coordinate media relationships and activities; create digital and social media strategy for a nonprofit; participate in donor management; create materials for fundraising campaignCommunications ManagerMarketing and Communications SpecialistCommunity Engagement CoordinatorOrganizational Communications Assistant
FinanceFinance programs equip graduates to enhance an organization’s fiscal operation with financial management knowledge and skills.Serve as finance committee member on a nonprofit board; provide bookkeeping and payroll assistance; volunteer to manage finances, employee expenses and organizational processes for a small nonprofitFinance ManagerSenior Financial CounselorControllerFinance ConsultantAccountantFinancial AnalystFinance Clerk
MBAAn MBA degree sharpens students’ analytical and management skills and prepares them to assume leadership roles by building their knowledge of how business, human resources, organizational processes, and systems operations intersect.Provide financial counsel to board members and executive nonprofit directors; assist with business planning and development; help execute fundraising strategiesNonprofit DirectorDirector of Relationship ManagementChief Financial OfficerDirector of FinanceSenior Project Manager
Social and Legal
Example DegreesVolunteer OpportunitiesNonprofit Careers
Criminal JusticeThis degree teaches students the fundamentals of working with and supporting others in criminal, legal and social programs, including community organizing groups, advocacy associations, legal service providers, and protective agencies.Assist with policy creation as a criminal justice research manager; research social justice issues as a research assistant; help plan community forums on crime prevention.Social Justice Initiative ManagerHomeless Service WorkerInvestigatorJustice Program AssociateYouth Development Specialist
LegalA law degree equips graduates with specialized legal knowledge they can use to serve organizations in critical public and social service areas.Provide pro-bono legal services to community nonprofit; coordinate legal services for social services agency; offer research and legal advice to human rights organization; assist victims of domestic violence through legal representationCommunity Development AttorneyStaff AttorneyLegal and Policy DirectorDeputy DirectorJustice Program ManagerLegal Advocate
ParalegalParalegals possess an understanding of the law and the legal system. They leverage their excellent research, communication and writing skills to benefit nonprofit organizations.Connect community members to legal services; coordinate research and records requests; identify social justice stakeholders; serve as a paralegal with human rights organizationCivil Rights ParalegalEnvironmental Law Legal AssistantProgram AssistantLegal SecretaryCommunity Outreach Coordinator
Social WorkSocial work degrees help prepare students for clinical or direct service. Clinical social workers often provide therapeutic services to patients while direct social workers typically work with agencies to connect people to services.Offer social work services to youth in an after-school program; coordinate social work programs within a mental health nonprofit; assist children transitioning to permanent homes in a foster care organizationSocial WorkerSocial Worker CoordinatorClinical Social Work SupervisorCase Manager
Like their governmental, private and public sector counterparts, nonprofit organizations are filled with talented employees with significant ambitions. The following section highlights what it’s like to work at a nonprofit, questions to ask when considering a nonprofit career, and the differences between the private and nonprofit sectors.

Key Attributes of a Nonprofit Organization

Nonprofits are organizations with a purpose other than turning a massive profit. While sensible financial management is still an objective, nonprofits dedicate the majority of their time and energy to furthering the public good. These organizations are typically exempt from federal income tax, using surplus revenues to further its mission rather than distributing revenues to shareholders as profit.

5 other things to know about nonprofits include:

  1. 501(c)(3)
    The term 501(c)(3) refers to tax-exempt, charitable organizations that have been recognized and approved by the Internal Revenue Service. Charitable organizations typically have purposes that fall into categories benefiting the public good.
  2. Types of nonprofits
    The Internal Revenue Service recognizes a variety of nonprofit organizations, not just 501(c)(3) groups. Examples include private foundations, social clubs, veteran’s organizations, and business leagues.
  3. Charities
    Charity is a broad term many use when referring to nonprofit organizations. However, not all nonprofits are charities. A charity holds legal 501(c)(3) recognition from the IRS.
  4. Private foundations
    By definition, all organizations that qualify for 501(c)(3) recognition are considered private foundations until they meet the IRS’ public charity public support requirements. Private foundations are nonprofit organizations funded by a single source, such as a family donor, that conduct a range of charitable, religious or educational activities.
  5. Not-for-Profit
    Nonprofit and not-for-profit are terms often used interchangeably, but not-for-profit should typically only be used when referring to an activity, such as a recreation or sport. The term nonprofit denotes an organization focused on larger social or public issues.

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Nonprofits vs. The Private Sector

Unlike many private companies, service—not profit—is the motivating force of nonprofit organizations. Although their goals may be different, both types share similar roles and departments, including human resources, marketing, administration, communication, IT, and management. For individuals interested in nonprofit work, it is important to note the central differences between nonprofit and for-profit career fields.

Asked to do more with less
Nonprofits may not be equipped with the latest iterations of technology, the largest budgets or the biggest teams – but they still need to accomplish their missions. Employees may also face red-tape or a slower approval timeline from an executive board or committee, which is comprised of volunteer members.
Most roles include a fundraising focus
Unlike a private sector worker, nonprofit employees rely on public or outside funding to keep paychecks moving into their bank accounts. Nearly every nonprofit employee will be involved with fundraising on some level including grant writing, special events or donation drives.
Less defined roles
Although the job title may say “Director of Development,” an individual in that role probably wears an additional hat or three. Because of limited staffing and resources, nonprofit employees must broaden their skill sets and occupy multiple roles simultaneously.
Challenging work environment
Unlike their 8-5 counterparts, nonprofit employees may be expected to contribute longer hours to achieve the organization’s mission. From working a fundraising event to staying an additional hour at a community park clean-up, nonprofit employees encounter a more fluid work environment.

Working for a Nonprofit: What to Know

The nonprofit arena is appealing to many individuals, ranging from private sector employees seeking a career change to recent graduates looking to make a difference. While nonprofit work can fulfill one’s altruistic desires, there are several things to consider before joining the ranks of NPOs.

[tabs][tab-item title="The Role"]

While some people have a strong desire to serve their communities or dedicate their skills to a cause, they may not know what roles are available. Many nonprofits function with the same job titles as private sector companies, ranging from accountants to IT specialists. With a diverse range of missions, candidates should consider how their academic background, professional experience and personal interests translate to a specific nonprofit organization or cause.

[/tab-item][tab-item title="Earning Potential "]

While nonprofit jobs may land on the lower side of the salary spectrum, the tradeoff is satisfying work and making a difference in the world. For those weighing their salary options, the Non Profit Times produces an annual salary report that provides in-depth insight into the salaries of nonprofit workers.

[/tab-item][tab-item title="Motivation"]

Before taking a nonprofit role, individuals should understand their motivation to work at the chosen organization. Because nonprofits require much dedication from their employees, those who aren’t devoted to the mission may look to find something else quickly.

[/tab-item][tab-item title="Academic Path"]

While many degrees are useful at a nonprofit, degrees in business administration, nonprofit management, social work, and public administration may hold special value. Prospective nonprofit workers may also want to consider finishing nonprofit certification training, available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

[/tab-item][tab-item title="Expectations"]

Succeeding in the nonprofit world requires setting appropriate expectations. Due to budget restrictions, a nonprofit may not have access to the latest technologies, high paying salaries or administrative staff. Those new to the world of nonprofits also need to familiarize themselves with how boards of directors and committees function.,

[/tab-item][tab-item title="Career Responsibilities"]

A major benefit for nonprofit employees is the opportunity to venture outside of their job description. Some nonprofits have smaller staffs, allowing everyone to wear multiple hats. This gives everyone – ranging from the receptionist to the executive director – the opportunity expand their knowledge and skill sets.

[/tab-item][tab-item title="Intangibles"]

While private companies and nonprofit organizations possess many similarities, going to work for an NPO for the first time may feel like venturing into the unknown. No day is like the day before and workers should enjoy a certain level of fluidity, be able to juggle competing demands, maintain an organized and practical approach to problem solving, and readily embrace the challenge of working with limited resources.

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Becoming a Skills-Based Volunteer

Because nonprofits often work with limited resources, volunteers play an integral role in the success of countless organizations. From baby boomers to corporate employees to millennials, these volunteers help an organization make an impact with their knowledge and skillset. This is also known as skills-based volunteering.

Skills-based volunteering (SBV) is an emerging field that matches the skills of corporate professionals with the needs of nonprofit organizations. The process stands to benefit NPOs as they gain the expertise of professionals they may not be able to afford otherwise. According to research from Independent Sector, the value of a skilled volunteer can reach hundreds of dollars per hour.

SBV covers a range of professional areas, from legal services to strategic consulting, mental health counseling to project management. Through their efforts, SBV volunteers help nonprofits develop and enhance their infrastructure, increase capacity and achieve more with less. Example efforts include program development, staff training, marketing, and fundraising. The SBV movement continues to gain momentum throughout the country, with corporate employers launching new SBV partnership opportunities for their skilled professionals. SBV groups, such as the Taproot Foundation, connects professionals in major cities to skills-based volunteering opportunities.

The potential is great for skills-based volunteers to make an impact on the lives of veterans, improve the economy and environment, and help when disaster strikes. Read the section below to learn about available opportunities for each cause.

Veterans and Military Families Fundraising Volunteer, Veterans in Television Assist with RFPs for grants; develop and organize fundraisers Mental Health Volunteer, Give an Hour Provide mental health counseling services to military men and women, and their families
Disaster Preparedness Disaster Resiliency for Vulnerable Populations Fellow, AmeriCorps Strengthen organizational capacity through community partnerships; secure financial resources; manage disaster volunteers Disaster Information Technology Volunteer, Legion of Frontiersmen in the United States Manage technical processes of virtual emergency operations center; develop online disaster information management system
Economic Opportunity VITA Volunteer, Commission on Economic Opportunity Work with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program to schedule appointments; help low-income families receive help with local, state and federal income taxes at no cost Tax Site Volunteer, Center on Economic Progress Work with low-income families on financial counseling; provide assistance to file state, local and federal income taxes
Youth and Education Tutor, StreetSquash Newark Mentor and tutor students in grades 6 – 9 during and after school sessions in English, history, science, and math Mentor, Families Center Serve as a mentor in the Just Buddies Program; participate in fun activities for children between the ages of six and 16 who are experiencing parental absence
Civil and Human Rights Transcriber, Strength in Union Transcribe video interviews to be used in an educational documentary telling the history of the American Labor Movement Executive Assistant, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Washington) Manage daily office operations; assist with donation processing; provide event planning services
Nonprofit Capacity Executive Advisor, Executive Service Corps Provide support, advice and mentorship to nonprofit executives Project Leader, Compass Develop scope of capacity project; work with nonprofit clients
Social Entrepreneurship Social Volunteer, Village Volunteer Travel abroad and teach finance and business development to local communities Management Volunteer, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance Offer technical assistance and program management to foreign non-government organizations, financial institutions and agribusinesses

Resources

Skill-based volunteering remains a developing concept, but it is rapidly being embraced by employers, corporate professionals and nonprofits alike. Below is a list of organizations and resources that connect interested individuals to SBV opportunities.

AllForGood
AllForGood is an online search engine from Points of Light, offering a searchable database of skilled volunteering projects throughout the country.

CampusInternships
From summer internships to part and full-time jobs, CampusInternships is the place for those looking to gain experience in the field of their choice.

Catchafire
Catchafire is an online portal of volunteer projects that allows nonprofits to find skilled-based volunteers directly and for SBV individuals to locate a project in their local area.

Catholic Volunteer Network
CVN is a nonprofit membership network consisting of 215 organizations that matches interested volunteers to opportunities in domestic and international locales.

Common Impact
Common Impact is a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers to nonprofit opportunities in the Boston region, especially in areas of human resources, marketing, technology and financial management.

Executive Service Corps
Executive Service Corps helps nonprofits with capacity building through a national network of volunteers and supporters offering consulting and coaching services.

Give an Hour
Give an Hour is a nonprofit organization seeking trained and skilled professionals to provide mental health counseling and support to military servicemen and their families.

Global Volunteer Network
GVN brings together volunteers and organizations working toward the public good in local communities throughout the world.

HandsOn Network
As one of the country’s largest networks of local volunteer centers, HandsOn engages skilled volunteers across thousands of projects.

HandsOn Suburban Chicago
HandsOn Suburban Chicago recruits volunteers through an online volunteer matching database to more than 200 nonprofits in 44 communities throughout Chicago.

HandsOn Tech
HandsOn Tech is a specialized program allowing technology professionals to lend their expertise as presenters, trainers and consultants to nonprofits in need.

Jericho Road Project
The Jericho Road Project brings together skilled professionals and volunteer opportunities at nonprofits in various service areas throughout Massachusetts.

Moving Worlds
This website connects skilled professionals who want to travel with social impact organizations serving communities across the globe.

Network for Good
An online resource, NfG includes a search tool allowing skill-based volunteers to find volunteer programs matched to their personal interests, expertise and location.

Points of Light
Points of Light offers the HandsOn Network which connects volunteers to SBV opportunities in one of its more than 250 volunteering centers throughout the country.

Pro Bono Partnership
Pro Bono Partnership offers free legal services to nonprofit organizations in the Northeast, helping organizations develop their capacity to better serve local communities.

ProBono
ProBono is an online resource for lawyers seeking to provide pro-bono legal services in the United States and abroad.

Raise5
Raise5 is a crowd-funded take on skilled-based volunteering, allowing professionals to sell their services and donate the proceeds to a charity of the user’s choice.

ReServe
ReServe matches professionals aged 55 and above to volunteering opportunities with nonprofits in need of skilled expertise.

Skilled Volunteers for Israel
SVI offers a network that facilitates skilled volunteering opportunities for individuals interested in supporting Israeli nonprofits.

Taproot Foundation
This foundation engages professionals in volunteer/pro bono service in five metropolitan areas via three core programs: service grants, advocacy and advisory services.

Volunteer Connect
VC recruits skill-based volunteers and links their interests to the needs of nonprofit organizations working in central Oregon.

Volunteer Match
Hosting a database of volunteer opportunities, VM connects prospective volunteers to positions in areas ranging from disaster preparation to homelessness.

Volunteer New York!
This organization solicits skilled-based volunteers and matches them to opportunities with nonprofit groups functioning throughout New York.

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