5 Skills You Need for A Career in Nonprofits

Are you looking for a career with purpose?

Well, have you considered the nonprofit sector?

If not, you should because there are many opportunities to find a meaningful career across a wide array of fields within the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofit work provides purpose and meaning because the organizations tackle important issues and needs, such as hunger, access to healthcare, education, civil rights, animal welfare, environmental concerns, and democratic ideals to name a few.

Historically, people often found themselves working for nonprofits somewhat by accident, it was not a conscious choice, but that has changed.

In fact, over the course of the past 10 years, the number of employees has steadily risen—currently, about 14.4 million people are employed by a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization—and that number is expected to increase.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 57% of nonprofits across the US plan to hire, and a staggering 80% of nonprofits in the Philadelphia, New York, and D.C. are planning to hire this year.

These numbers might imply that nonprofits are desperate for workers and will hire virtually anyone to fill a seat, but that is not the case. Because nonprofits face challenges different from their for-profit counterparts, ranging from a lack of resources to sustainability, they must make careful hiring decisions.

The nonprofits that succeed and remain effective are those that bring in personnel who possess a wide, but specific range of professional skills ranging from big picture strategy to everyday interpersonal relationship-building.

These essential skills allow nonprofit managers and executive directors to maneuver through the challenges that arise.

Those interested in mid-level positions should have experience in donor cultivation and retention, fund development, campaign management and strategic planning.

However, given the fact nonprofits often have limited staffing, many paid employees must be able and willing to wear many different hats and regardless of the position, nonprofit hiring managers are looking for these five essential skills:

1. Communication

Regardless of the position, communication skills are essential. Communication not only occurs between colleagues but also between current and potential donors, as well as with external organizations such as foundations, governmental agencies, corporations, etc.

Poorly-written communications will not only leave a nonprofit organization looking bad, but it may cost them much needed funding. For example, a poorly written grant will likely be rejected.

In addition to being able to communicate professionally, there is another important aspect of communication that is essential for nonprofit organizations–storytelling. Successful nonprofit organizations rely on staff to tell a story.

It might be the story of a little girl who got a cleft pallet surgery or about the dog that had been dropped off at a high kills shelter’s journey to his forever home. It is the story that tugs at the heartstrings of donors and motivates them to open their wallets and give.

2. Organization

Organization is another important skill for a wide variety of responsibilities, such as campaign management, event planning, stewardship, grant proposals and management, gift recording and financial reporting.

When the manager of the annual fund is disorganized, donor needs and requests might be forgotten, which can result in a disgruntled donor.

When the person in charge of the Capital Campaign launch party forgets donor A and donor B cannot be seated at the same table, both donors might opt to leave the event early.

3. Relationship Building

While there are a few nonprofits that are completely funded by foundations or grant money, the majority of nonprofits depend on donations to meet their financial obligations and commitments. These gifts most often come about because a relationship is formed between the donor and people in the organization.

This is especially true when it comes to larger donations—over $1000 per year. These relationships are cultivated over time. In some cases, it might take years before a donor makes a significant contribution.

Relationship building the most important factor in a successful capital campaign, but relationship building is not only required for campaign and annual funds.

It is at the crux of community partnerships and corporate sponsorships, and many nonprofit organizations rely on both for programming and support of their overall mission.

In my role as a director of development, board member and major gifts volunteer, everything hinged on developing a relationship with the people who sat on the other side of the table. It meant remembering a birthday or favorite food, or an allergy.

It meant following up to see how a trip to Canada went or it meant providing the requested information. This aspect of relationship building also requires organization.

4. Flexibility

More and more for-profit companies are looking for employees who demonstrate flexibility because it suggests they will be more able to adapt to change.

In a nonprofit organization, flexibility is essential because most nonprofits have limited resources, which means their employees are forced to wear many hats. In order to successfully navigate this aspect, flexibility is a must.

Let me give you an example. A nonprofit depends heavily on the proceeds earned from an annual phone-a-thon. The event was planned and will be run by the Director of Development. A few hours before the phone-a-thon is to begin, the director’s mother is rushed to the hospital and she can’t run the event.

Although the communications director has no experience with phone-a-thons, he is asked to step up and take the lead, which he gladly does because he has previously been asked to wear other hats.

Unlike corporate America where employees often get siloed, in a nonprofit organization, due to limited resources, everyone pitches in and does what is necessary.

Sometimes this means learning on the spot or stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. With that, though, comes great reward. Junior employees often get exposure to more advanced skills and leadership opportunities long before their corporate counterparts.

5. Creativity 

Since nonprofits face unique challenges such as limited resources, sustainability, and maintaining and growing their donor base, their employees are often forced to think outside the box to make ends meet, extend programming, get the word out about an event, etc. This ability to be creative is an asset on which nonprofits rely.

Any time an employee can find a workaround that saves resources, it allows the organization to channel those saved resources to fund their mission. This not only benefits the recipients, but it also keeps organizational costs lower, which is more attractive to potential donors.

However, creativity is not limited to saving limited resources; it also should be applied to donor cultivation and engagement.


According to the Philanthropy Roundtable, charitable giving has increased by significantly over the past 60 years, rising from $54 billion to $390 billion.

Even when we account for inflation, the increase is nearly six times since the mid-1950s. But this number is slightly deceptive because the number of charitable organizations has also increased. However, it is important to note that since 2008, charitable giving has decreased, The Atlantic argues that this is likely to do with the 2008 recession.

According to the 501(c) Agencies Trust, the number of nonprofit organizations has increased by 10% over the past 20 years. Therefore, there is still competition for those charitable donations.

In addition to these five skills, anyone interested in a career in the nonprofit sector must also ground all decisions and actions within an ethical framework. Nonprofit leaders are often faced with ethical dilemmas.

For example, when I was the director of development for a small private elementary school, we ran an annual silent and live auction. It was a highly successful event.

One year a large donor appeared with a box—something for the live auction. He was terribly excited because he knew it would go for a significant amount of money. He refused to tell me what was in the box because he wanted to draw out the moment.

When I opened, I saw a football, as I pulled it out of the box, I realized the football had been signed by OJ Simpson, and we were in the middle of his murder trial. There was no way, ethically, I could consider taking the football, no matter how much money it might have raised for the school.

The nonprofit sector may not be the right choice for everyone. Working in a nonprofit often means long hours with little financial reward, when compared to for-profit corporations.

There are often obstacles and barriers that can seem insurmountable at times, and nonprofit organizations are entirely dependent upon others with whom they have little to no control, such as the government, foundations, and donors to generate revenue. And it is perfectly okay if this is not high on your career list, but if you are interested, despite the hurdles, the rewards are numerous.

Communication, organization, relationship building, flexibility and creativity are valuable skills for most careers, but they are especially crucial for those who wish to enter the nonprofit sector.

Possessing these skills will make you a valuable asset to the organization, which means more resources— human and financial—can be directed toward achieving the mission.

The kind of work ranges from providing legal aid, fighting for animal welfare, maintaining a nature conservancy, delivering afterschool activities, advocating for the elderly, supplying nutritional food to the young and old, educating youth about the dangers of opioids and so much more.

This is why a career in the nonprofit sector is so rewarding and fulfilling, everything you do on a daily basis contributes to the overarching mission.

Written By
Anne Converse Willkommis the Clinical Assistant Professor & Dept. Head of Graduate Studies at Goodwin College (Drexel University)