Don't Start Your Career at a Non-ProfitStories from the Trenches

Man in t-shirt standing triumphantly after reaching the top of a big boulder during early sunrise in a national park

When I was an undergraduate, I had a generalized desire to do something positive like “social entrepeneurship” or “environmental sustainability” without really knowing what that would mean in practice. I had a general sense that business = not so great, and triple-bottom-line companies or social organizations = good. This, in turn, shaped my early career goals to pursue a role in a leading environmental nonprofit or government agency.

In this regard, I was very succesful as a student seeking nonprofit experiences. I managed to intern for a variety of the country’s leading environmental nonprofit organizations. Each organization works on valuable projects that further the public good, but I no longer think that they are good places to start your career.

Recent, ambitious graduates are best utilized in growth organizations where they can have a measurable impact on its trajectory. If a nonprofit is growing it can be a great opportunity. However, that is rarely the case.

According to a report by the Urban Institute entitled The Nonprofit Sector in Brief, over 80 percent of nonprofits in the United States have budgets of less than $1 million per year, a figure that has remained unchanged for years. From 1970 to 2009, only 144 nonprofits crossed the $50 million annual revenue mark. During the same period, nearly 50,000 for-profit businesses crosses that threshold. Furthermore, the pool of resources available to nonprofits is fixed at the rate of GDP growth. We have a growing pool of nonprofits competing for a fixed set of resources; any nonprofit that just avoids shrinking is doing better than average.

It is dispiriting to be in an environment with scarce resources that isn’t growing. Although the mission might be compelling, it is easy to get disillusioned or burned out after several years. Scarce resources may also limit career development opportunities for entry-level employees. At best, many entry-level nonprofit roles are a great launching platform into graduate school. If this is your strategy, then do it. But at worst, you risk spending years churning our research reports without building valuable operational skills.

I now think that it is not an organization’s legal structure that matters; rather, what matters is the product or service that the organization is delivering and the leadership team behind the organization. It is about how the organization creates and delivers value. In this regard, many for-profit businesses are delivering tremendous value (e.g. Google, Amazon) and many non-profits are doing very little.

In summary, I have one message to all socially-inclined current students and recent graduates: It’s less about what you’re studying or your general aspirations and more about how your skills fit into a concrete role within an organization.

Skills > Mission. Focus on getting better at building things.

This article first appeared on and has been republished here with the authors permission.

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Luke Ackerknecht is an energy analyst with a background in public policy and sustainability. You can follow Luke on Medium, or on Twitter.