5 Common Misconceptions About the Nonprofit Sector

nonprofit word in letterpress typeAlthough nonprofits play a large role in each of our daily lives, there are common misconceptions about what nonprofits are, and what they do.

1. Nonprofits don’t make money.

This myth stems from a sheer lack of understanding of the term 501(c)(3)- the tax-exempt identification necessary to become a nonprofit organization. Being a 501(c)(3) does not ban an organization from making money, it simply means that all profits go toward their mission and purpose. A nonprofit actually cannot live or function without profit- because they would be unable to run the programs and activities which create impact. And although some nonprofits struggle for funding (including many of the social change organizations I have worked for,) there are countless nonprofits who have no money problems whatsoever. Think of the NFL, the New York Stock Exchange, or Northeastern. All are nonprofit organizations, and all are making quite a bit of money.

2. Nonprofit careers are for those who couldn’t make it elsewhere.

I hear this one all the time- that certain degrees are cut out for nonprofit careers, and certain degrees aren’t. Nonprofit professionals chose careers in the sector because they were passionate and driven about their causes, not because they weren’t smart enough to pursue other career paths. In fact, many nonprofit organizations now prefer to hire MBA’s as opposed to MPA’s- showing the increased demand for business knowledge across the entire nonprofit world.

3. Nonprofits all do the same thing.

Even I have been guilty of imagining a “nonprofit world” in my mind, consisting only of social change and educational organizations. However this is far from the real world of nonprofits. To name a few organizations who are making leaps and bounds in unexpected places: St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the American Red Cross, TED, the Smithsonian Institute, and NPR.

4. Nonprofit work environments are casual and laid-back.

Just as any other sector, every office has its own distinct environment. Smaller organizations tend to be more casual, while large universities and hospitals expect more professional attire. Speaking from personal experience, I have worked for organizations where I could wear my Birkenstocks to work everyday, and others where my Birkenstocks would be considered absolutely ridiculous and rude. This goes for office culture as well- the entire spectrum from extremely casual to extremely rigid exists in the nonprofit world.

5. Working in a nonprofit means hands-on, direct service.

The most common comment to when I describe my career aspirations is, “You must help so many people.” Every individual who chooses to pursue a nonprofit career wants to create an impact, and see that impact- including myself. However, we often don’t get to see that impact on a daily basis- or directly “help” people. While there are professionals who constantly work in the field and in programs, this is definitely not always the case. Many nonprofit jobs require working in an office, with administration, finance, or human resources material. And although change is always occurring, we don’t always get to see it happen live.

Daniella is a sophomore at Northeastern with a combined major in Human Services and International Affairs, and a minor in Spanish. She is currently on her first co-op working for a youth development nonprofit organization in Cape Town, South Africa. Daniella is passionate about social change, travel, and good food- and can’t wait to see what Africa has to offer her both professionally and personally.

Email her at emami.d@husky.neu.edu. Look for Daniella’s posts every other Tuesday.

What does it mean to work for a non-profit?

non profit post word cloud

This guest post was written by NU Pre-Law and Graduate School Advisor, Anne Grieves.

It may mean that you won’t be making as much money as your friend at Fidelity.  It may mean that you come home from work emotionally drained.  It may also mean that you come home knowing you had a positive impact on something or someone. Wherever you end up 5, 10, 15 years from now, having had even one experience working at a non-profit will give you what you won’t be able to buy with any amount of money.

In my 20s I worked for two educational travel companies; one was a for-profit and one was a not-for-profit.  Each one offered amazing opportunities, but looking back, it was at the not-for-profit that I developed a stronger sense of self, gained professional self-confidence and knew that what I brought and gave was important and valued.

Working at the for-profit was FUN.  The management team had frequent celebrations (with champagne), gave out bonuses, hosted annual team building ropes course retreats and much more.  Anything to incentivize the staff.  However, each month, those that didn’t perform as expected, were cut.  There were quotas to meet and if they weren’t… tough luck.  People came and went so frequently that developing relationships was very challenging.

Of course not all for-profits are like this.  But, if the bottom line is making money, sometimes it comes at the expense of other things.

Five years later I worked at a similar company, but the fact that it was a not-for-profit (slightly different from non-profit), allowed me to grow in ways I would not have been able to at the previous company.  I had opportunities to be creative, was able to get involved with many projects and connected with every single person in the organization.  Everyone was open and willing to mentor.  People were busy but were not driven by the bottom line.

The president of the company who turned 50 while I was there, started as an intern while he was in college.  I was surprised to learn that many employees had been there for over 10, 15 and even 20 years.  This was in 2000 and many of them are still there today!  We did not have expensive celebrations (rather potluck parties).  We did not have fancy office supplies.  We had a sense of community.  We had the daily awareness that we were creating something of value for society and we cared to do our best without monetary incentives.

Sure- even there some people had to be let go.  But, only as a last resort and much coaching.  Here, creativity was valued and ideas were encouraged.  People recognized each other’s talents and leveraged them for constant growth of the individual and the company.

In my late 20s, working at this company I grew in many ways and made connections hands on world picthat have stayed with me to this day.  I now have a career in higher education because that is where my passion and interests join together.  But, having had a taste of working at a not-for-profit triggered that excitement of knowing I could leave work at the end of the day with an incredible sense of fulfillment.

So, if you are a student with a passion, a desire to lead, a yearning to bring about change and have a natural tendency to truly care, you should consider working for a non-profit or social impact organization.

Please join us on October 9th, 5:30-7 at the Non-Profit and Government Networking Forum in Raytheon Amphitheater, to learn more about the world of non-profits.  This is an opportunity to meet with 14 organizations that are making an impact on education, the environment, the arts, health care, and social enterprise.  You will get to know people within the nonprofit community in Boston who are always happy to help young people interested in using their careers for good.  Also check out the nuCAUSE Careers calendar of events for the fall semester for other opportunities to explore non-profit careers.

Anne Grieves is the Pre-Law and Graduate School Career Advisor at Northeastern University Career Development. A proud ENFP, Anne enjoys helping students explore their career options through various assessment tools and workshops and is a freelance Zumba instructor. To make an appointment with Anne, call 617-373-2430.   

What about the Peace Corps or International Development Jobs?

"The Peace Corps works in countries from Asia to Central America, and from Europe to Africa. In each of these countries, Volunteers work with governments, schools, and entrepreneurs to address changing and complex needs in education, health and HIV/AIDS, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment." Image: www.peacecorps.gov

“The Peace Corps works in countries from Asia to Central America, and from Europe to Africa. In each of these countries, Volunteers work with governments, schools, and entrepreneurs to address changing and complex needs in education, health and HIV/AIDS, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment.”
Image/Info from: www.peacecorps.gov

This guest post was written by Katrina Deutsch, a Peace Corps recruiter for the Metro-Boston area and a frequent Employer in Residence at Northeastern University. 

When I started my job search my senior year of college, I knew I wanted to work internationally after graduation. Quick searches through my university’s job board left me discouraged, as I was under qualified for most of the jobs I was interested in. I started looking into international volunteer organizations, specifically in health and teaching, as those were the areas in which my past travels fell. I was again discouraged, mostly because so many international volunteer organizations required a fee to participate, and money was something I didn’t have.

But there was always one organization I kept coming back to – the Peace Corps. I knew what it was; as I had met Peace Corps Volunteers traveling in Swaziland my first summer abroad. I also knew my mother would object. After more research, I decided to apply to the Peace Corps and thought it would be best to not tell my parents about my application. After all, I wasn’t sure I would receive an invitation, so why get them worried for no reason?


  • Established on March 1, 1961 by John F. Kennedy
  • Currently serve in 65 countries; have served in 139 countries
  • 7,209 volunteers and trainees currently in service
  • Work in the areas of education, health, environment, community economic development, youth in development and agriculture
  • Annual budget of $356.25 million

The Peace Corps appealed to me. First, I did not have to pay. The Peace Corps is a U.S. Government Agency, and funding comes from the government. In fact, the Peace Corps was going to pay me at the local level to volunteer! Second, it was a 27 month commitment, and I was hoping to work abroad for at least one year, which is something most other organizations did not provide. Third, I felt that the experience I would gain through my Peace Corps service would give me the skills I needed to qualify for the jobs I wanted.

First Group of 51 Peace Corps Volunteers, Aug 30, 1961. The first group of 51 Peace Corps Volunteers, Ghana I, arrives in Accra to serve as teachers. Image/info from http://www.peacecorps.gov/about/history/

“First Group of 51 Peace Corps Volunteers, Aug 30, 1961. The first group of 51 Peace Corps Volunteers, Ghana I, arrives in Accra to serve as teachers.”
Image/info from: http://www.peacecorps.gov/about/history/


  • Speak to a Peace Corps Recruiter about your skills and qualifications
  • Prepare all necessary documents, including transcripts, financial obligation information, and reference contact information
  • Complete the application within 30 days from starting
  • Be prepared to answer questions about your medical history
  • Tell your parents you are applying to the Peace Corps when you start – the more information and time they have to learn about the Peace Corps,  the easier it will be for you and your parents!

Unfortunately for my parents, I received an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps as a Secondary Education English Teacher in Nicaragua. I accepted my invitation and departed for service the summer after graduating.

The Peace Corps developed my skills and abilities far more than I had anticipated.  I gained valuable language skills and nearly three years of international development experience (I extended my service beyond the two year commitment).  I also discovered a passion that tied all of my initial career goals together: international education development and policy.

After Peace Corps, I attended graduate school to receive my master’s degree in international education policy. I hadn’t planned to attend graduate school so soon after college.  However, I knew that my experience and a graduate degree would make me competitive for many of the jobs I was interested in.


  • Consider the Peace Corps Masters International or Peace Corps Fellows program, combining graduate school and Peace Corps
  • Make sure you’re passionate about what you plan on studying – don’t go to graduate school just to go to graduate school
  • Reach out to alumni from schools to hear their experiences
  • Consider all variables, not just the name or reputation of the school: Do they offer financial aid? Is it located in an area that has good job or internship opportunities? When was the program established?

As I dove back into full job search mode, I now had real experience and knowledge of international job search resources.  My graduate school internship at an international education non-profit turned into a full-time job, and I worked there for two years before returning to work with Peace Corps as a recruiter.

I don’t know what my next job will be or where it will take me.  However, I do know that I have the skills, experience, and passion – and the resources – to continue my work in international development.


Katrina Deutsch is currently the Peace Corps Recruiter for the Metro Boston Area. For more information on the Peace Corps, application process, and when Katrina will be at Northeastern, you can reach her at kdeutsch@peacecorps.gov. Learn more about Katrina’s Peace Corps experience here