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There are few beginning jobs that will offer more opportunities to try new things, juggle several projects, build interpersonal and management skills, and gain professional experience at light speed than a busy office of a nonprofit organization. It might take you years longer to build up a comparable resume in the private sector.

As the American Cancer Society's National Vice President for Public Relations, STEVE DICKINSON has overall responsibility for the Society's public relations, media relations, and advertising programs.

Along with coordinating major national promotional campaigns such as the Great American Smokeout and the Great American Food Fight Against Cancer, Dickinson oversees all other national corporate communications programs. He draws upon more than 14 years experience in corporate and nonprofit public relations.

Dickinson came to the Society from Dornier Medical Systems, Inc., the U.S. medical technology subsidiary of the large German aerospace firm. He was recruited by Dornier to start up a new public relations and corporate communications department. There he developed programs to foster advocacy for a new medical technology among influential physicians, hospitals, government agencies, and professional associations, as well as the general public.

Prior to that, Dickinson was Director of Public Affairs for the U.S. operations of GD Searle & Co., a top 20 pharmaceutical company. There he headed up all media relations, corporate advertising, crisis communications, marketing publicity, and corporate public relations.

Dickinson earned a BA in journalism from Kent State University in Ohio, during which time he was also a columnist and reporter for a daily newspaper. He has done postgraduate work toward an MBA, and also has several years of sales and marketing experience in addition to his background in public relations.

The American Cancer Society, the world's largest health charity, is the nationwide voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem by preventing cancer, saving lives from cancer, and diminishing suffering from cancer through research, education, and service. The American Cancer Society's national headquarters is in Atlanta, GA.

Salary-Now and Later

Competition is heavy for entry-level public relations jobs everywhere, including the nonprofit sector. In addition, there is a long-standing mindset among nonprofit boards-who set policy and, to some extent, salaries for nonprofits-that organizations in the "charity business" (however broadly one defines that!) shouldn't pay their employees too much. As a result, starting salaries are somewhat lower than those for similar jobs in the agency or for- profit sides. Local organizations tend to pay less than statewide outfits and these, in turn, generally pay less than national organizations.

You'll start in the mid-teens ($14,000-$16,000 per year), though the highest paid public relations specialist in a large nonprofit organization may earn $75,000-$95,000 a year.

For those of you willing to put in longer hours, work toward advanced degrees, undertake specialized training and take a few risks here and there, advancement can be quick. If you are a tortoise rather than a hare, however, plan on small, steady increases in the neighborhood of 3% to 5% a year, with promotion opportunities that are few and far between. In addition to salary increase, many nonprofits offer tuition assistance programs, payment of professional- level seminars and workshops, and subsidies for dues to at least one professional organization.

Portability of Experience

It is possible for nonprofit employees to transfer the public relations skills they have developed into the corporate sector or agency side, although there is an undeclared bias against such a move. The rationale seems to be that nonprofit types are not "tough" enough to make it in the bottom-line oriented, competitive world of the for-profit sector. Expect such a shift to be difficult, though not impossible, to achieve. Of course, a number of highly talented public relations practitioners have made the jump, usually by starting their own agencies to service nonprofit accounts or by being spotted and recruited by corporate public relations specialists who sit on the boards or committees of the nonprofit organizations.

"Willing to work" and "eager to learn" might be the two best labels to have pinned on you if you seek entry into the nonprofit sector. Because budgets are always strained and staffing chronically low, you must be a self-starter, someone willing to learn on-the-job with a minimum of coaching and supervision. Don't worry: Once you begin to demonstrate a facility for the public relations business, your supervisors will quickly let you juggle as many balls as you can handle.

Entry-level salaries at the community level of most nonprofits are typically at the low end of the scale-sometimes as much as 25 percent lower than what might be expected for a similar job at a larger corporation. However, many feel that the "psychic income" of working for a cause of which they can be proud helps make up the difference in their eyes. As a career progresses in most of the larger nonprofit organizations, however, professional salaries more closely resemble comparable positions in the for-profit world, since it is increasingly recognized that top-notch talent is required to face the challenges of running any organization successfully in today's 9S competitive environment

Most charities will require a college degree in journalism or a comparable field for their top communications post. Openings in these local affiliates often offer an excellent means of starting a career in public relations. Depending on the size of the charity, and whether you are applying at a larger state or national office, you may also be required to demonstrate professional experience at another job in the field.
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