Public Relations Careers In The Nonprofit Sector

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Public relations mean 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 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 non profit'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.

Where Public Relations Fits In

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.

And 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, 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. Staffs 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.

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 routine 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, higher is your chances of advancing. 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. (All of these organizations are listed in Appendix A Ed.)

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 state wide outfits and these, in turn, generally pay less than national organizations.

You'll start in the low to mid teens ($10,000 $14,000 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 mini mum 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.

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 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.


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 man agers 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.
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