Public Relations Careers in the Nonprofit Sector

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William J. Wilson, APR, CAE, Director of Public Relations, Vision Council of America

Careers in public relations means many things in the nonprofit (or not for profit) sector, and public relations specialists in these organizations wear many hats. A number of their duties resemble those of corporate or agency public relations practitioners. Other areas of responsibility parallel job categories found in trade and professional associations. But certain things nonprofit public relations specialists do are unique to their area of concern.

Like public relations in the for profit sector, nonprofit public relations:

Deals with the media (media relations or press relations);


  • Handles special events and promotions (publicity, meeting planning);

  •  Seeks to further the client's (in this case, the nonprofit organization's) interests with the various "publics" with which it needs to communicate;

  • Monitors and reports on developing issues, legislation, and regulations that impact the organization's area of concern (issues management, public affairs, crisis management); and

  • Manages and puts into place the organization's communications program (publications, speech writing, promotional writing).
Like trade and professional associations, nonprofit organizations are extremely member conscious. Membership development and member relations form an integral part of many nonprofit public relations programs. Boards and committees charged with oversight for the nonprofit's program of education and action and knowledge of how to work with them are a big part of the nonprofit employee's work life.

What makes nonprofit public relations different is that the organization is usually tightly focused on a mission that has high value content (e.g., the American Red Cross, Special Olympics, Catholic Charities); that participation by volunteer members is entirely at their own discretion, making member relations even more crucial; and that all support is voluntary, making fund raising and its public relations overtones a daily necessity.

Educational Requirements

These days, a BA or BS degree is needed just to get a job interview. This may seem unfair, since many bright young people must go to work immediately after high school or have no desire to undertake a college degree. Unfair or not, you would be unrealistic to expect to be hired for any but the most routine clerical level job (mail clerk, clerk typist, file clerk), without college.

Major in English, marketing, public relations, or journalism, if possible, with public relations and journalism being the two degrees prospective employers like most.

A graduate degree in journalism, public relations, or marketing would enhance your employability, but in the public relations side of nonprofits, an MBA would not be of much use. An advanced degree won't guarantee you a job (or even an interview), but in many instances lack of a graduate degree certainly lack of a college degree of some type may eliminate you from contention entirely.

While you are in college, gain whatever PR experience you can. Sign on as a staffer on the college newspaper or journal. Learn desktop publishing, printing, and graphics techniques. Get involved in planning and promoting special events on campus. Learn how newspapers, magazines, radio and television work. Above all, learn to write and think clearly. Learn to promote yourself. Learn effective verbal communication and listening skills. These are the types of entries that will give your resume a competitive edge over other job applicants.

Internships

Prospects for internships depend on what you mean by that term. Unpaid internships as a volunteer are easily arranged, especially with nonprofit organizations, both on a part time or full time summer basis. Chronically understaffed nonprofits are always looking for free help and will provide valuable training and work experience in exchange. Paid internships are less easily come by, although not impossible.

A good way to prepare yourself to be more marketable to a nonprofit as a paid intern or even for full time employment is to acquire experience as a volunteer. This will demonstrate your willingness to work and give you some immediately usable skills and possible contacts that might help you obtain a paid internship.

Most of your internship duties will be routine, clerical chores, but many nonprofit managers who employ interns work hard to provide truly enriching on the job experiences.

Getting the Interview, Getting Hired

When I hire someone I look for a number of specific traits and skills, starting with the resume: Is it accurate, well written, and appealingly laid out? After all, the resume is the first sales tool a job applicant has; it gets you in the door. Without a good one, nothing else in the process can work.

The interview must show me someone with a positive attitude willing to work, eager to learn who focuses more on what he or she can contribute than on what he or she will receive.

At the same time, the kinds of questions the interviewee asks about the job, the benefits, the organization's structure, the volunteer leadership, the other staff members, etc., reveal a lot about his or her level of awareness and sophistication.

A frequently overlooked element in landing a first job, of course, is how you dress and groom for the interview. While very few organizations have a formal dress code, most do have a climate conservative, informal, campus like, etc.  that a prospective employee ignores at his or her peril. You may never know that wearing high top basketball shoes to the interview cost you the job. So play it safe: Dress a little more conservatively than you think the organization's typical staff member would. You can always loosen up" after you land the job, assuming this is acceptable.

Some Final Thoughts

Nonprofit public relations can be a rewarding career for a communicator. A variety of issues on which to focus your professional endeavors, the sense of accomplishing something for the good of the community and the opportunity to work with interesting and successful volunteer leaders are just some of the returns you can expect for your efforts. But, as in any career, effort is essential, as are training and a willingness to learn and work hard. Cultivate these basics, and you will have made a good start toward finding and keeping your first job in nonprofit public relations.

The Vision Council of America, located in Rosslyn, Virginia, is a trade association of optical manufacturers that seeks to promote the interests of the entire ophthalmic community and of the American consumer.

WILLIAM J. WILSON APR, CAE, is also a member of the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and a past chair of the Association Section of the PRSA. He has written numerous articles on association management and public relations, has authored four books and several film narratives, and has taught association management and public relations.

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