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Where Public Relations Jobs Fit In

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In a typical medium- or large-size nonprofit organization (budget of $2 million or more, staff of 25 or more), public relations is a separate department, variously named Communications, Public Relations, Publications, Public Affairs, Marketing, or almost any combination of these titles. In a smaller nonprofit, elements of the public relations function will be handled by the Membership department, the chief executive officer, or even by volunteer workers, with or without the assistance of a professional specialist. Many nonprofits also work with outside public relations firms or consultants, most often when undertaking special projects like major fundraising drives, membership campaigns, public awareness programs, etc.

Where You Can Fit In

The most common entry-level job-even for a college graduate with a degree in public relations, communications or marketing-is as a clerical assistant. As a public relations assistant, you could expect to be hired as a guy/gal Friday to a mid-level or senior staff specialist. As in most fields, there is a great deal of competition in nonprofit public relations. It is not uncommon to see people with graduate degrees in public relations and marketing accept a clerical-level entry job just to get a foot in the door."

If you are fortunate in your choice of supervisors, you will find that nonprofits are traditionally so understaffed that you will quickly have an opportunity to try your hand at more responsible chores. Because nonprofits, like trade associations, are typically small (budgets of under $2 million and fewer than 50 employees), you may discover that, once you have mastered the more sophisticated tasks, your quickest career track will be to move out in order to move up. Nonprofit employees, including nonprofit communicators, tend to be "job hoppers" by necessity, not from any lack of commitment or inability to hold a steady job.

What You'll Be Doing on the Job

Your starting job will probably be mundane: filing, answering the telephone, keeping track of press clippings, maintaining a log of media inquiries, taking care of the inventory of promotional brochures and articles, filling publications orders, processing manuscripts and printer's proofs, and maintaining an inventory of publications, brochures, and media releases.

Nonprofits are so varied in size and mission that it is difficult to predict what "hidden" demands might come with the job. Many national organizations hold meetings and conferences at various locations around the country. Staff are expected to perform needed support functions-staff booths, pass out literature, set up displays and even some equipment, and take responsibility for the shipment, unpacking, display, repacking, and return of publications and exhibit items.

Entry-level employees seldom have any need (or opportunity) to entertain or host visiting board or committee members, although such tasks become more common the higher up the chain of command one moves.

Having said earlier that nonprofits tend to run "lean," it is also important to note that the pace is, nonetheless, less frantic and high-pressured than either agency or corporate public relations. There will be busy seasons and busy times when a project is on deadline. No one should expect to coast through life in the nonprofit sector. But freedom from an overwhelming commitment to the bottom line and the need to bring in new clients in order to survive, makes life in the nonprofit lane seem leisurely in comparison to the pressure cooker of corporate or agency communications.

Largest Nonprofit Institutions Ranked by income:
  1. Young Men's Christian Association

  2. Catholic Charities

  3. American Red Cross

  4. Lutheran Social Ministry Organizations

  5. Salvation Army


  7. Goodwill Industries

  8. Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children

  9. Boy Scouts of America

  10. Jewish Community Centers Association of North America Source: Non Profit Times
In a typical day, you will spend most of your time at a desk doing routine work. Be prepared in the early stages of your career to deal with the repetitious and seemingly inconsequential, though you should realize that how you do something as seemingly "routine" as answering the phone can have a major impact on the organization and your job potential. Incalculable harm has been done because an important officer or committee chair was treated discourteously over the phone by a junior staffer.

Your work, except for the routinized elements, will often be determined by your supervisor's workload on any given day. Don't have any illusions about your function: You are there to facilitate his or her ability to do the substantive work of the department. The old saying is indeed true: "If my boss looks good, I look good." So is the converse.

Promotions: When? How High? How Quickly?

Advancement in the nonprofit sector is often a function of size. The smaller the organization, the slimmer your chances of advancing very high. This is not the result of any explicit policy-it's simply that the job openings don't exist There is not much room at the top. Most often, you will have to change jobs to advance.

Having said that, it is also important to note that in the larger organization-as in the smaller one if you are in the right place at the right time-there is no bias against promoting from within, provided, of course, that you are qualified. For your own career advancement, you would do well to become skilled in "internal public relations"-making your presence, your skill growth and your accomplishments visible to "the powers that be." If you are fortunate, your boss may choose to serve as your mentor-keeping an eye on your educational and training growth, offering you the chance to tackle new challenges and calling your attention to advancement possibilities inside and outside the organization. As the level of professionalism has increased in the nonprofit sector, so has the realistic willingness to give bright young people a helping hand.

Outside the organization, this mutual help and mentoring is called networking, an important skill to develop. Networking is most easily learned and practiced by joining a professional association of your own. This will afford you an opportunity to meet your peers and their bosses, to form informational and support systems, and even to learn of job openings. Networking also provides a way for you to develop the skills of making yourself known and making your work appreciated by others.

Key organizations, many with local chapters or affiliates, include: the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), which has several sections devoted to the concerns of nonprofit public relations practitioners; the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC); the Society of National Association Publications (SNAP); and the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), which has a Communication Section for association and nonprofit communications specialists.
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