Can You Make a Living Working for a Nonprofit?

U.S. Airmen with the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard, prepare bags of food and supplies in St. Joseph, Missouri.
U.S. Airmen with the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard, prepare bags of food and supplies at a mobile drive-thru distribution location with Second Harvest Food Bank, in St. Joseph, Missouri, April 22, 2020. (Tech. Sgt. Patrick Evenson/U.S. Air National Guard photo)

If you feel a strong desire to continue serving after leaving the military, but fear that working for a charity or nonprofit could make it hard to support your family, you're not alone.

Many veterans in transition are attracted to the mission-focused and service nature of nonprofit organizations, but fear they can't earn enough to support themselves and their family. Here, let's explore the viability of a career in the nonprofit sector.

Why Would Military Veterans Seek a Nonprofit Career?

Many veterans are attracted to nonprofit work, because military service opened their eyes to issues of poverty, injustice and dire need. For others, service and duty were what initially attracted them to the military.

Regardless of the motivation, many veterans see employment in the nonprofit sector as a means of continuing their service and pursuing a career opportunity that is aligned with their personal mission and values.

Interestingly, your military training makes you uniquely well-suited for leadership and impact in the nonprofit sector. To better understand the opportunities available for veterans within the nonprofit sector, I spoke with Kaitlyn Hudgins, director of strategic partnerships for the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance.

"For a veteran interested in working in the nonprofit sector, they should know that their skills of adaptive leadership, relationship building and focus on mission are particularly important when considering nonprofit employment," Hudgins said.

Adaptive Leadership

Military leaders must be ready to face a fast-changing and unpredictable enemy, so the armed services train service members in ways that build a culture of readiness and commitment.

Adaptive leadership is critical to success in the nonprofit sector as well. Take, for example, the ever-evolving operating environment facing most nonprofits; a capacity to adjust and adapt quickly will serve a nonprofit leader well when faced with significant and frequent changes in funding sources and community needs.

Relationship Building

Successful military leaders create personal connections that enable them to lead people through challenging times. This relationship-building skill is another way in which military personnel are particularly well-suited for nonprofit work. The capacity to motivate and engage volunteers, board members, donors, clients, community members and fellow staff is arguably the most critical skill of any nonprofit leader.

Focus on Mission

A successful military leader knows how to create a common purpose, celebrate those who help achieve it and focus on collective or community need, vs. personal gain. This focus on mission is equally important in nonprofit operations as it enables leaders to effectively allocate limited staff and financial resources.

The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is typically at least one full percentage point higher than that for non-veterans. When rates are sorted by age, the difference is starker.

The unemployment rates for 22- to 24-year-old veterans are, on average, 3% higher than those for non-veterans of the same age, and unemployment for veterans in that age group reached a high of almost 22% in 2009. (Employing America's Veterans, Perspectives from Businesses, Center for New American Security, 2012)

In the U.S., more than 10% of the workforce is employed by a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit employment represents a growth segment of the U.S. economy. In fact, nonprofit employment grew every year during the past 15 years, even during the recession.

In the last decade, while government employment increased by 5% and business employment by only 1%, nonprofit employment increased by 23% (Urban Institute's 2016 Nonprofit Almanac).

The types of jobs and scope of work is as varied as the many missions represented by the more than 1.5 million organizations that make up the nonprofit sector.

Two key considerations for someone considering nonprofit employment are mission and vocation. The following sub-sectors represent mission areas in the nonprofit sector:

  • Health care
  • Education
  • Animal welfare and environment
  • Arts and culture
  • Advocacy and social benefit
  • Human and youth services
  • International

Specific jobs include:

  • Technology
  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Human resources
  • Program management
  • Administration
  • Fundraising
  • Volunteer management

How Competitive Are Salaries in Nonprofits?

Many nonprofit organizations offer competitive salary and benefits, especially in careers such as administration and fundraising. And where a gap exists, the nonprofit sector is making up lost ground. In the past 10 years, nonprofit wages increased by 29%, compared to 17% for government wages and 6% for business wages (Urban Institute's 2016 Nonprofit Almanac).

Much like the corporate sector, larger nonprofits with bigger budgets offer more competitive packages than smaller, grassroots organizations. And just like any career opportunity, the rewards are often greater than just salary available to talented leaders passionate about, and committed to, making a difference in the world.

Want to Know More About the Military?

Be sure to get the latest news about the U.S. military, as well as critical info about how to join and all the benefits of service. Subscribe to and receive customized updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Story Continues
Social Media