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Working for the Good of It

Tech careers in the nonprofit sector

By Jennifer Bobrow Burns

What's the first image that comes to your mind when you hear the phrase "nonprofit sector?" If you picture overworked staffers, slaving away in the name of their cause for little or no pay--think again.

Today's nonprofit sector ranges from prestigious research institutes to world-class cultural centers. Among the many professionals employed in this arena include doctors, lawyers, social workers, professors, administrators and, yes, computer scientists and engineers.

There are many misconceptions people have about the nonprofit sector. Contrary to what the name "nonprofit" implies, the reality is that those who work for these organizations can actually make a profitable living. It's important to remember that nonprofit refers to the organization's tax status, rather than their employee's ability to make a decent salary.

What is a Nonprofit Organization?

Legally an organization that has been granted tax exemption status by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Federal Tax Code, is defined as a nonprofit organization. To further clarify, the United States Census Bureau declares a nonprofit (or not-for-profit) organization to be one that is not operated for the purpose of making a profit for its owners or shareholders. It may or may not also be a tax-exempt organization. While some nonprofits do engage in commercial profit-generating activities, the profit is used to support the organization rather than financially benefit the individuals at the organization. A simple way to understand it is that nonprofit organizations are not commercially motivated, however, employees at the organizations are paid a salary.

Spanning a multitude of industries, nonprofit organizations include museums, universities, environmental organizations, professional and trade associations, hospitals, social service agencies, religious institutions, advocacy groups and more. Because the field is so diverse, the job options are varied as well. For new professionals with strong technical skills, it can be a virtually untapped market.

Nonprofit vs. Corporate

Nonprofits often represent a more flexible career trajectory for employees than can be found in the private sector. Nonprofit work environments typically offer more work to do and fewer resources, but employees are also less confined by their job descriptions or defined by a hierarchy. Due to understaffing and budget constraints, nonprofits offer tremendous learning experiences for their employees, who are able to enjoy more responsibility early on in their careers.

Everyone from the administrative assistant to the executive director has a hand in all aspects of the company's inner workings. And there is usually a less structured advancement process than at corporate companies, as well. For individuals with the right combination of education, experience and drive, a large promotion early in one's career is not unheard of.

Another advantage to nonprofit work environments is that they tend to be more relaxed and informal. At many organizations, professionals dress casually. Insiders also cite friendliness and camaraderie at nonprofits, which may be absent in the atmosphere at big companies where the focus is on the bottom-line. At nonprofits, everyone is ultimately working toward a mission of greater good. Employees tend to bond under this unified goal.

Money, though, can be a negative factor. While new IT professionals may earn more than other entry-level nonprofit workers, there is no denying that salaries are lower than their comparable corporate positions, and resources can be scarce. It's important to keep in mind, however, the other benefits. Engineers and computer scientists employed in the nonprofit sector work hard, long hours, but often feel motivated to do so based on their commitment to a greater good. Also, programs such as tuition reimbursement and generous vacation time may help to prevent burnout.

Keep in mind that nonprofit professionals can use their skills to create more lucrative paths if they desire. Larger organizations offer more competitive pay, as do those on the east and west coasts. Individuals with advanced degrees often earn more, depending upon their areas of expertise. Engineers and computer scientists, in particular, can also consult on outside projects.

Engineers and computer scientists can capitalize on their many talents in the nonprofit sector, enjoying a variety of roles and responsibilities. Read on to learn more.

Web Development

In today's world, every large organization and most small organizations have a Web site; it's nearly impossible to get one's message across without it. While businesses may use their Web sites to advertise products, nonprofits often use this venue to communicate their mission and to inform people about how to get involved by donating their time or money. Nonprofit organizations need qualified professionals to build these sites.

Hannah Kane, campus organizer for Action Without Borders-Idealist.org, one of the most comprehensive Web sites that brings together nonprofit career resources, information and opportunities, also notes that Web design is an area where many nonprofits are still catching up to the for-profit sector. "More and more nonprofits are starting to look to the Internet as a tool for mobilizing their constituencies," she says.

"Graduates who are designers or programmers and are interested in connecting their values to their careers will find that many mission-based nonprofit organizations are in need of great-looking Web sites, fundraising and volunteer management software, and other information technology tools."

If you have strong programming skills and have created Web sites before, you may choose to work in any number of nonprofits seeking a webmaster or web developer to manage and maintain its Internet presence. In this field you can develop a concept, manage both back-end and front-end operations, create links and troubleshoot problems. All the while, you will know that you are doing your part to promote the public good, rather than sell products or make money for shareholders.

International Aid and Development

According to Dr. Jerry Houser, the director of the Caltech Career Development Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., there are many opportunities for engineers to do nonprofit work after graduation regardless of their ultimate career plans. "Some [engineers] decide to take a hiatus year, especially if they are planning to take some time before applying to graduate school," he says.

If you are a soon-to-be graduate with strong technical skills, programs such as the Peace Corps can be mutually beneficial. While the Peace Corps needs applicants who can get to work building bridges and analyzing water safety, new engineering professionals can apply the theories learned in school to make a difference in the world.

In addition to the Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov), technology--specific volunteer organizations that exclusively focus on placing engineers and techies in international volunteer programs have recently sprung up. Check out some of these groups such as Engineers Without Borders (www.engineerswithoutborders.org), Geekcorps (www.geekcorps.org), Tech Corps (www.techcorps.org/about) and NetCorps (www.globalnetcorps.org). As part of these programs, volunteers go to developing countries and help with projects ranging from hardware installation to community technology education.

Engineers in the nonprofit sector can also make the more permanent choice to work in the field of international aid and development. The Peace Corps is a set two-year program, but there are many international relief organizations that need full-time engineers to build, create and analyze. Dr. Houser has worked with students who have found jobs with organizations such as the World Bank or other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Research Organizations

Other relatively untapped markets for computer scientists and engineers to find nonprofit jobs are international and domestic research institutions. Nonprofit organizations like the RAND Corporation, which is located in Santa Monica, Calif. and has offices worldwide, analyzes global social and economic problems. RAND needs engineers and computer scientists for their strong problem solving abilities. Techies preparing for this type of analytical work should focus on quantitative course work that requires synthesis of information and critical thinking.

Opportunities at international and domestic research institutions are even better for those graduating with advanced degrees in engineering. Candidates with master's degrees or PhDs have proven they can conduct research at a high level and organize their findings. For example, RAND almost exclusively recruits graduate students. Unlike the corporate realm, environments such as RAND are highly academic, where nontraditional thought is welcomed and encouraged. The benefits aren't too shabby either, including a unique feature called "sabbatic pay," where employees are actually compensated extra for taking time off!

Education

Some engineers and computer scientists continue their education to receive advanced degrees after college so they can make a career of training the new professionals of the future, but the career options don't end there.

If the college atmosphere appeals to you, consider extending your time on campus. Professors with doctorates may teach undergraduate and graduate students, conduct research, serve as mentors and more. At the master's degree level, engineers may find positions in university administration, working with technical students and faculty as advisors, managers and coordinators.

For those engineers and computer scientists with strong programming skills, the options multiply. Most colleges and universities have large information technology departments where they handle everything related to computing on campus. There are jobs for programmers, analysts, Web developers, help desk staff, and administrators, among others.

The benefits of working at a college can be tremendous, especially for those who see graduate school in their future. Tuition reimbursement is often offered and many employees take courses in the evening while they work. Staff also enjoy generous vacation time and the overall quality of life that comes from working in collegial atmosphere.

Nonprofit Job Search Tips

According to Hannah Kane, there are a number of ways that engineers and computer scientists can market themselves to nonprofit organizations. The following are several of her suggestions:

1. Volunteer your time. While engineers and computer scientists are sought after for their specific skills, it is also helpful to show your commitment to a mission.

2. Be willing to work within limitations. "Are you okay with being the only programmer in the organization?" Kane asks. If the answer is "yes," be able to show employers your creativity and ability to take initiative.

3. Network, network, network. "As in other sectors, networking is key in the nonprofit world," Kane observes. "Work the connections you've made through volunteering, internships, friends, professors, alumni, etc."

4. Conduct an active job search. According to Kane, one characteristic of the nonprofit sector is that many jobs aren't publicized, and very few nonprofits have the resources to actively recruit on college campuses. Recent graduates can virtually create their own jobs and titles by identifying organizations of interest and selling their skills to them directly.

The Future Is Now

In addition to the fields listed above, there are many opportunities available for engineers and computer scientists depending on your specific background, training and interests. Environmental organizations may recruit environmental, civil, or agricultural engineers, arts organizations can seek computer graphic experts, and foundations might need quantitative types to manage their endowments. So, whatever your skill set, be creative. The chance to make a living while making a difference awaits you!

Jennifer Bobrow Burns is a career counselor and free-lance writer in Connecticut. She is the author of the forthcoming book Career Opportunities in the Nonprofit Sector, to be published by Facts on File, Inc. in 2006.

Jennifer Bobrow Burns is a career counselor and free-lance writer in Connecticut. She is the author of the forthcoming book Career Opportunities in the Nonprofit Sector, to be published by Facts on File, Inc. in 2006.

non-profits



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