Career Resources

Non-Profits and Social Justice


General Non-Profit Overview and Resources

Overview and Resources for Specific Fields


Overview of the Field

Non-profits are tax-exempt organizations whose money or “profit” must be used solely to further their charitable or educational mission, rather than distribute profits to owners or shareholders as in the for-profit sector. For a succinct summary of what you'll need to know if you would like to work in non-profits, as well as links to additional resources, read this US News article.

Non-profits may fund their operating revenues in various ways, including from foundations, government grants, membership dues, and fees for services they provide. If you are thinking of working in the non-profit field, you will likely be working with people who are passionate about solving social problems. Within the non-profit category there are many types of organizations, which can be characterized and differentiated by their approach and purpose.

Non-profits can be broken down into the following categories:

General Career Paths and Non-profit Positions

In general, the best way to get a foot in the door at your favorite non-profit is to volunteer there, or to take on a paid or unpaid internship if they are available. Non-profits, like many industries, tend to rely on their existing circle of contacts when filling full-time roles. Getting experience there before a position opens up is a great way to prove your value to the organization and can lead to contacts that may be helpful to you later on. If you are unable to volunteer or intern at an organization, contact your network (personal contacts, former co-workers, classmates, Columbia alumni) to see if anyone you know has a connection and can introduce you. Setting up informational interviews with employees of these organizations will prove valuable in getting an insiders’ perspective on the hiring practices and perhaps lead to a referral for a job in the future. Most non-profits hire on an as-needed basis, meaning when a position opens up (rather than months in advance), so building your network in the field now is essential to getting hired for these spots.

There is no single degree needed or career path to follow for working in a non-profit. Some common backgrounds include advanced business degrees, public affairs, social sciences, as well as non-profit management degrees. While not comprehensive, below are some common positions within the non-profit sector (pulled from the Wetfeet Insider’s Guide to Non-Profit Careers):

Executive Director

The executive director is like the CEO of a non-profit, and is financially accountable for the organization to the board of directors. S/he oversees the planning and management of the organization, and might also be involved with other duties, including fundraising and development, board development, hiring, media relations, or program development.

Program Director

This position is common in large non-profits, as a midlevel managerial role. Duties include oversight and management of a specific program or programs, often including hiring personnel, fundraising, public relations, and all other administrative and management duties specific to the program areas. The program director usually reports directly to the executive director.

Director of Development and Fundraising

This position is the mainstay of all non-profit organizations. The development director is responsible for raising the funds necessary to support the organization’s budget. The job includes things such as writing grant proposals, soliciting government funding, managing campaigns and individual donor solicitation, creating and conducting fundraisers and other events, arranging a fee-for-service or fee-for-product revenue source, and, increasingly, coming up with and implementing creative partnerships with businesses.

Director of Finance and Operations

This person manages all accounting and operations. This usually includes grant administration, management of personnel issues, and serving on the management team. In some organizations, the person in charge of finances is called the comptroller (or controller). And some larger non-profits have a director of operations, to whom the director of finance and a director of human resources report. In most cases, however, the chief financial person, whatever the actual title, reports directly to the executive director as part of senior management.

Manager of Information Systems

A typical non-profit might function on 10-year-old PCs and have neither the money nor human resources to upgrade. But non-profits are establishing themselves in the digital space more and more, and are hiring IT experts and developers to do it.

Communications Assistant/Director

Depending on the size of the organization, communications might be handled by a more senior or more junior staff member. Either way, duties usually entail editing and producing a newsletter, writing press releases, managing other communications projects, interacting with the media, and an assortment of other public relations activities. Overseeing an organization’s online presence—its website or social media profile, for instance—falls to this individual or team too. 

Program Assistant

This position is just what it sounds like—you’ll be doing all of the support work on programming. A notch above administrative help, you’ll probably still have to shoulder a fair amount of routine work in addition to trying your hand at more substantive tasks. For the entry-level job seeker, it’s a great way to learn about an issue and work closely with your supervisor.

Event Coordinator

You know this job is for you if you were the first to sign up for prom committee in high school or you were your fraternity’s social chairman. Event coordination requires good organizational ability and logistical skills, lots of patience, and a devotion to detail.

Director of Volunteers

In non-profits that run on the sweat of volunteer labor, this is a critical position. Duties might include recruiting and training volunteers, managing volunteer projects, and database management.

In addition, the role of external consultant has become increasingly popular, and can entail expertise in fundraising and philanthropic giving, from overall strategic planning to database management to development of membership programs to grant proposal writing to independent financial advisors.

CCE Resources

Columbia Resources

Select On-Campus Centers and Programs

  • Double Discovery Center: The Double Discovery Center of Columbia College works with low-income and first generation college Manhattan area youth and youth adults age 12 through 27 each year to ensure academic skills building and focus, high school graduation, college entrance and completion, and responsible adulthood.
  • Community Impact: Community Impact is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to serving disadvantaged people in the Morningside Heights, Harlem, and Washington Heights communities.
  • Columbia Community Outreach: Columbia Community Outreach (CCO) coordinates Columbia University's largest day of community service.  In recent years, projects have included rebeautifying parks, serving food in soup kitchens, running errands for homeless shelters, and performing administrative work at neighboring schools.
  • Arts Initiative Columbia University: A pioneering venture to make arts and culture a meaningful part of every Columbian's experience.
  • Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race: The Center's mission is to support and promote the most innovative thinking about race, ethnicity, indigeneity and other categories of difference to better understand their role and impact in modern societies.
  • Institute of the Study of Human Rights: ISHR is committed to its three core goals of providing excellent human rights education to Columbia students, fostering innovative interdisciplinary academic research, and offering its expertise in capacity building to human rights leaders, organizations, and universities around the world.
  • National Center for Children in Poverty: The National Center for Children in Poverty is one of the nation’s leading public policy center dedicated to promoting the economic security, health, and well-being of America’s low-income families and children.
  • Columbia UNICEF: Columbia UNICEF is part of a national coalition of student-led campus groups that educate, advocate, and fundraise on behalf of UNICEF.
  • Amnesty International: Columbia University Chapter: AI is a non-partisan, volunteer-driven, global organization which works towards the vision of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.
  • Undergraduate Research: Faculty and researchers throughout the University are keen to include undergraduates in their research, and offer a variety of fellowship opportunities.

External Resources

Sample Fellowships:

Consult your school’s fellowships advisor for additional information on opportunities.


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Volunteer Opportunities:

Last updated January 2015