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Finding Your Niche in the Social Sector

By Dana Hagenbuch, courtesy of Commongood Careers

In a sector comprised of nearly two million organizations, each with its own unique mission and culture, finding your niche begins with a thoughtful process of self-discovery.

With graduation time in the not-too-distant future, the cliches come out. Commencement speakers prepare their speeches to encourage hope-filled graduates to "do what you love and the money will follow" and to "follow your passion." As tired as these phrases may be, there is a simple wisdom behind them: many people find that the most rewarding careers are those rich in personal meaning, connection, and conviction.  If you are one of those people, then a career in the social sector is a great option.

This article explores ways to leverage your passion into a fulfilling career at a nonprofit organization.

Conduct a Personal Inventory

When we talk to jobseekers about why they are interested in working at a particular nonprofit, we often hear a knee-jerk response of "I want to help people" or "I just want to make a difference." While altruism and goodwill are important, jobseekers need to get really specific about their personal connection to an organization and its mission, and take time to understand how their skills and passion will add value to the organization?s work.

To make the connection between your personal beliefs and professional work, start by creating a personal inventory.  Be honest with yourself, and think about all aspects of your past and current experience, as well as your future goals, as you:

1.    Make a list of your skills, particularly those that are transferable across work functions.  Include both hard skills (e.g. the ability to use Quicken for accounting tasks) and soft skills (e.g. the ability to be analytical).  Other sample soft skills include: Administration, Communication, Critical Thinking, Design and Planning, Relationships, Information Management, Leadership

2.    Make a list of your area(s) of mission interest, as well as why you are connected to these areas. Be as specific as you can. For example, if you are interested in public education, specify which aspects of this field are most important to you (e.g. improving the quality of academics at inner city schools or developing a culturally inclusive curriculum.)

3.    Make a list of your personal values -- the beliefs that drive your personal and professional life.  What is most important to you, regardless of your specific position or the organization for which you are working?

Once you have completed this self-inventory, research organizations and positions that align with your skills, interests, and values. Look carefully at specific roles and responsibilities, and keep an open mind about a range of roles at organizations that match your values and interests. For example, if you are passionate about after-school programming but cannot find a role in your area of expertise, consider other roles that leverage your transferable skills at these types of organizations.

Focus on Culture Fit

Identifying with a particular work culture can be a key element of carving out a career niche.  In fact, in the social sector, cultural fit can be just as or even more important than skill fit.  To begin analyzing your ideal work culture, consider the following questions:

  •     How are decisions made?
  •     How is information shared?
  •     How are employees rewarded for good work?
  •     How is the organizational chart mapped?
  •     What are the values shared across staff?

The answers to these questions will help to clarify what you look for in an organizational culture, and then focus on identifying organizations that match your criteria.

Some Helpful Resources

When exploring your career niche, you might find career assessment tools -- such as personality indicators and skill surveys -- to be helpful.  There are literally hundreds of assessment tools available to jobseekers. The following online resources provide information on and links to some of these options:

The Riley Guide
Focusing on self-assessment resources, The Riley Guide walks through different categories of assessment instruments, such as personality indicators and skills surveys. This site is a great place to start to get a comprehensive overview of career assessment options.

Quint Careers
This site provides links to and descriptions of various self-assessment tools, with a focus on personality indicators. Career Planning
This site describes the different types of self-assessment instruments, and provides links to information about specific tools.

What Color Is Your Parachute
Known as the "job hunters' bible," this perennial book is a practical manual for jobseekers and career changers.

Change Your Career: Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector
This book contains tools and information to help jobseekers figure out if a career in the nonprofit sector is right for them, and then how to make a seamless transition into the sector.

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