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Nonprofit Work and Women

Most of us have been fattened for the 9-to-5 grind since high school, and herded to the proverbial slaughter through college and then the workforce. Many pursue practical degrees meant to secure a steady paycheck. Business, marketing, or the omnipresent communications degrees are popular. If you chose a more creative path (theater, art, writing), you’ve probably been met with a blank stare. “What kind of jobs are there for that?”It’s ingrained in our society that success comes to the common working man only through being tethered to the same job for years, putting up with the daily grind, always keeping in mind what you stand to lose if you quit. Some people genuinely thrive in a traditional corporate environment. These jobs can be reliable. They offer structure and security; without them, many of the products we use every day wouldn’t exist.

Friends and I have lamented all the responsibilities we’ve loaded up on ourselves that would be hard or impossible to manage if we quit our jobs tomorrow.

A drawback, though, is that you're locked into whatever vision the company promotes or where it wants to go. For-profit companies have owners and shareholders, and at the end of the day, any profit is meant to go back in their pockets. You know, the invisible “man” somewhere out there who everyone either hates or has sadly resigned themselves to. The entire thing is meant to be a closed loop. There isn’t a lot of creative wiggle room or many chances for employees to spread their wings besides “moving up the ladder.”

And, once you go down that road, it’s harder to switch gears. Friends and I have lamented all the responsibilities we’ve loaded up on ourselves that would be hard or impossible to manage if we quit our jobs tomorrow. What about the mortgage? Car payment? If you have a partner or children, or both, it’s even harder. It’s not realistic to think people can completely uproot their lifestyles to pursue things closer to their hearts. But what about a middle path?

It’s that added point of community that makes the difference between for- and nonprofits.

Nonprofit businesses are an option that’s gained more notoriety over the years, shedding the assumption that they’re just glorified volunteer positions. Common myths are being busted: yes, you can make money. Yes, you can effectively use your skills. Nonprofits hire for the same positions for-profits do--design, accounting, management, communications, IT, grant writing, fundraising, etc. And all kinds of groups can be nonprofits, like “childcare centers, shelters for the homeless, community health care clinics and hospitals, museums, churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship, schools, performing arts groups, and conservation groups.” It’s that added point of community that makes the difference between for- and nonprofits. For nonprofits,the goal is to have a positive effect in the world. “Staff are generally expected to share that perspective [...] staff members often derive an enormous sense of personal fulfillment from their work (particularly if the organization is well-run and getting results).”

Nonprofits like AmeriCorps and Teach for America more than doubled in their positions and applicants in 2010, and given that trajectory, secured footing as important options for adults looking for a way to mesh personal goals with community service. “Organizations like Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers have been overwhelmed--and overjoyed--with the swelling demand from talented 20-somethings,” said Max Stier, the president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.


It’s not just millennials who see the value in nonprofit work. Workplace Trends and Saba found that nonprofit work is high on the list for women, as well. Kim Williams, CEO, Interfaith Housing Coalition wrote at Forbes, “Nonprofits tend to offer more flexible hours, more paid holidays, and longer vacation packages (often in exchange for lower salaries than in comparable fields). So it is no wonder that women, who still share the lion's load of family responsibilities, are eager to join the nonprofit workforce.”

Williams also illustrated the value women can bring to nonprofits both directly within the organization and through projects. “One of my female board members, an accomplished attorney and a mom, spoke to a panel of funders and successfully asked for $500,000 to help us build a new extended-hours childcare for working moms and moms who want to train at night to obtain better jobs in the future. She was a perfect advocate.”


But like any business, it really is up to company itself to promote inclusive hiring practices so that women can occupy these roles and execute their skills. A study done by the White House Project shows that women make up 73% of the workers in nonprofits, but men hold the majority of leadership roles. Even though there is a significant percentage of women working for nonprofits, they’re not occupying these strategic board or leadership positions. Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University said, “Male board members often say they want to include more female trustees at their organizations. I don’t think it’s anything insidious, that they don’t want women on the board. I think [male board members] just don’t understand what it takes and why it’s important and how to do it.”

Women are best able to speak to various initiatives for women and seek out the appropriate resources that can expand the reach of the nonprofit.

Women clearly are valuable assets in number and ideas. So how can they leverage this to help their male counterparts balance out their representation? Lyndsey Hrabik at Nonprofit Hub writes, “Studies have shown that women have the tendency to systematically underestimate their own abilities. For example, [Sheryl] Sandberg referred to a study where men tended to contribute success they experienced to themselves. In the same study, women contributed their success to outside factors.” This goes beyond simply saying out loud that you deserve a board seat or promotion. Gather data and facts to present a clear case for your goal, and be open to discussion about changes.

We don’t need women in leadership positions in nonprofit work just to have them. That’s plain diversity, which, yes, is a necessary starting point. David Feitler wrote for Harvard Business Review, “Diversity can bring many organizational benefits, including greater customer satisfaction, better market position, successful decision-making, an enhanced ability to reach strategic goals, improved organizational outcomes, and a stronger bottom line.” But expanding from diversity is inclusivity. Inclusivity stems from diversity in that it takes specific steps to understand a different point of view, and implement changes to actively include the other group. Women are best able to speak to various initiatives for women and seek out the appropriate resources that can expand the reach of the nonprofit. So, it’s really in everyone's best interests.


There are opportunities to do good and promote inclusivity whether you work in a for- or nonprofit. But if you’ve been unfulfilled by your day job and are looking for a worthy alternative, nonprofits can provide a lot of openings to engage and challenge your perception of community and global work. And because communities are represented by many different kinds of people, it behooves us to tackle the shortcomings and give everyone as equal chance to succeed.

For more ideas about how to start your own nonprofit or what kinds are out there, check out this list of women-started non-profits! Here are a couple highlights.

Keep a Breast

"KAB’s founders, then involved in their own arts organization, rallied to support a friend with breast cancer. They developed an idea to express the female experience of breast cancer by reimagining the traditional canvas as a participatory sculpture [...] The success of these breast casts [have been] conversation starters, awareness builders and fundraising tools..." - Keep a Breast

Keep a Breast

Girls Who Code

"Tech jobs are among the fastest growing in the country, yet girls are being left behind. While interest in computer science ebbs over time, the biggest drop off happens between the ages of 13-17." - Girls Who Code

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