Tech & Work

Working for more than money: IT and the nonprofit sector

While their salaries still aren't at the corporate level, nonprofits offer high-tech workers the satisfaction of knowing that they're working for a greater cause. Here are some of the high and low points of working for a nonprofit.


Why have IT workers traditionally avoided working for nonprofit organizations? According to Daniel Lauber, author of Nonprofits & Education Job Finder, techies tend to stay clear of nonprofit organizations because they don’t pay as much as corporations. (Lauber also says that techies don’t have much of a social conscience, but we’ll leave such inflammatory remarks out of this discussion.)

Rick King, author of From Making a Profit to Making a Difference, and president of Kittleman & Associates, LLC, a Chicago-based executive search firm that specializes in the nonprofits sector, takes a kinder view, saying that techies—and most job-seekers for that matter—don’t consider nonprofits as a career option because they were “bred to think corporate.”

In this market of booming growth and peaking salaries in the IT industry, it’s easy to forget about the smaller nonprofit sector. With only a million nonprofit organizations, the majority of which are small and midsize firms, this sector can easily get lost amidst the towering corporate IT landscape.

But all this may be changing. The number of people who volunteer their time to social causes increases each year, according to the Independent Sector , a national coalition of 700 voluntary organizations and foundations in Washington, DC. A 1999 survey by IS reported that 56 percent of adults volunteered a total of 19.9 billion hours, a 13.7 percent increase from its 1996 survey. The interest is certainly there, but are the dollars?

Working around the numbers game
Even though the number of technical jobs offered by nonprofits pales in comparison to the quantity offered by corporations, many nonprofits offer exciting career prospects. In the past, average nonprofit salaries barely made ends meet. But thanks to a robust economy, “nonprofits have the funding to advance their technology,” says King.

“Over the last decade, nonprofits have filled their coffers from hefty private and public contributions,” King explains. The University of Illinois at Urbana, for example, raised an astronomical $1 billion in funding.

As a result, more nonprofits have the funds to channel into technology and draw the attention of techies. Colleges are a good example.

University Web sites have evolved from meager homespun student creations into powerful marketing tools maintained by professional staffs. An increasing number of schools now offer the convenience of online admission.

Other nonprofit, tech-heavy businesses include health care organizations and the 150 science museums throughout the United States. Nonprofit hospitals, for example, need help automating records and maintaining databases. Futuristic museums like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and Boston’s Museum of Science are investing millions in sophisticated interactive exhibits and hands-on displays.

And high-profile nonprofits like the Red Cross, CARE, United Cerebral Palsy, United Way, Alzheimer’s Association, and countless others are aggressively recruiting programmers, database specialists, project managers, and systems analysts to harness the Internet as a powerful fund-raising tool.

While there is no shortage of opportunities, bear in mind that nonprofits pay 5 percent to 20 percent less (depending on the position) than corporations. And, they don’t pay stock options. “Some nonprofits pay bonuses, but they’re in the minority,” says King. Obviously, you’re not going to earn as much as you would doing the identical work at a corporation.

Making a difference through your work
So, if the salaries aren’t as high as what corporations usually pay, why work for a nonprofit? “The number-one motivator is the opportunity to make a difference working for a cause in which you believe,” says King. “It is as much a personal decision as it is a career choice.”

King also dispels the myth that a swerve into a nonprofit organization limits your chances of returning to a private sector job.

“That’s traditional thinking,” says King. “You can easily move back and forth from a profit to a nonprofit organization and not be penalized. The only thing that matters is your performance.”

If you’re interested in finding out what working for a nonprofit is like, King advises volunteering for a nonprofit that intrigues you. Most large nonprofits advertise volunteer technical positions on their Web sites.

“Try it out for a few months and see how you like it,” said King. Who knows? It could amount to a career-defining experience.

For information about nonprofits, contact The Independent Sector, The Idealist, The National Society of Fundraising Executives’ search engine, called Philanthropy Search.com, or The Chronicle of Philanthropy .

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

Each Wednesday, Bob Weinstein gives you the scoop on great trends in IT. And you can get his report delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Exclusively for our TechMail subscribers, Bob answers questions from a worldwide network of IT pros.

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