Pros and Cons: Working for a Nonprofit in College (with quiz!)

Before you commit to working for a nonprofit, consider these pros and cons.

Flickr user Merrimack College

Between social events, grocery bills, room & board, and tuition payments, you may find yourself looking for some extra money in college. Weekend music gigs and freelance design work could help you out. But, a secure, constant job is your best bet for consistent cash flow. But where will you find a part-time job?

With opportunities like the Federal Work-Study Program and service-learning credit, colleges often provide a straightforward route to entry-level work with nonprofit organizations. These organizations usually serve their surrounding community directly and continue to exist because of philanthropy and volunteers rather than turning a profit. You may decide in your first month of classes that nonprofit work will fund you through school. Or, you may wonder if such positions are right for you at all.

Before you commit, consider the pros and cons of working for a nonprofit amid your busy class schedule, social activities and campus events. Take this quiz to find out if a nonprofit is right for you, or keep reading for more information!

Opportunity: A wealth of experience

Because nonprofits generally have a smaller staff, every team member’s skills become invaluable—and versatile. You could get hired on as a writing intern and wind up designing and producing ads. Or, start in a job moving furniture and supplies, then learn how to do computer coding in the organization’s database. At a nonprofit, you’re more likely to encounter coworkers who are willing to take a few hours to train you in a new skill. Your expertise will make those hours worth their time in the long run.

Challenge: Fewer measures of success

A lot of nonprofit organizations are playing a long game. That means returns on your hard work can take months—or years—to become apparent. This will depend on the specific work of the organization. However, you’ll need to prepare for a long-term, patient perspective on your efforts. You may not get instant feedback and gratification.

Opportunity: Close connection with upper-level management

Nonprofits, being smaller, have a shorter chain of command. Many nonprofit organizations are eager to foster new talent. As a college student on staff, the supervisor you report to every month—or every week, or perhaps even every day—may have a high overall position in the organization. Your work will be seen and reviewed by people with many years of experience; the type of people who will write you strong recommendations and be an ally for you if you apply at the organization full-time after graduation. And while you’re an employee, your supervisor will act as a mentor for you, often regarding both work and life decisions.

Challenge: Low mobility within the organization

The smaller the staff, the less room you will have to gain ground. In some cases, your responsibilities will increase (as discussed above) while your pay remains the same. And if the organization isn’t sure about your level of commitment, they may be hesitant to give you a higher position at the risk of losing you as soon as you graduate college.

Opportunity: Flexible work environment

You’re a student. You have a busy class schedule, stacks of homework and commitments on campus every week. But at many nonprofit organizations, you’ll be able to create a balance of work and school. Depending on the type of organization, your options may include evening and weekend hours, small-time commitments or a flexible work schedule according to your individual needs.

Challenge: Modest pay

Nonprofits are funded by donor or government money. Each dollar has to be stretched as far as possible to effect the most change. As a result, employee salaries and hourly rates may be lower than you would find in a similar position working for a larger for-profit corporation. That said, you may still earn more at a nonprofit organization than in some retail jobs.

Opportunity: Post-college benefits

Under the public service loan forgiveness program, you can apply for loan forgiveness on the remaining balance for certain federal loans if you’re employed by not-for-profit organizations that are tax-exempt under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code or other not-for-profit organizations that provide certain types of qualifying public services. Your experience with a nonprofit employer in college may increase your chances of doing the same later in life. You may also be eligible for loan forgiveness benefits.

Challenge: A web of bureaucracy

No matter how passionate you are about an organization’s cause, the grunt work of getting things done can be discouraging. Nonprofit work can be a lot of paperwork and rule-following. While created with good intentions, it may quickly become tedious. It may distract you from the overall good of the organization’s mission.

At the end of the day, a job is a job, and working at a nonprofit is an applaudable endeavor. You’ll contribute to your community, challenge institutional roadblocks and be actively invested in change. But the merits of nonprofit work do not come without sacrifices and commitments; challenges that sometimes may make you question whether the work is worth it. Based on the organization, you’ll be able to judge whether the benefits and local influence of nonprofit work will outweigh the personal challenges.

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