How to Get a Job in Philanthropy

by Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs and Advocacy

Like many professionals working in philanthropy, I was oriented to do work in the social sector and stumbled into a job at a foundation. When I started as a program officer at the age of 28, I wasn’t sure if I would make a career out of out of philanthropy. At that time there was a debate about whether or not philanthropy was even a viable career path.  Some believed it was a golden parachute for the successful retiree departing from their CEO jobs in corporate America, or from being the chancellor of some prestigious university. It was a strange place to be in 2005 – thankfully, things have changed and there are many more opportunities to explore careers in philanthropy today.

I’ve seen more on-ramps into the field, special initiatives to attempt to diversify the workforce (in terms of race, gender, and age) and the professionalization of grantmaking in a way that I never imagined.  You can even get a college degree in philanthropy.  Even still, breaking into the field of philanthropy and navigating its fresh career pathways can still be a relatively mysterious process.  I’m often approached by professionals who are interested in this work for advice, so here are some tips.

Where to start

If you’re considering working in philanthropy, you might be wondering where to start. I’d like to offer these 10 tips for finding a job in philanthropy, and getting the experience to be a competitive candidate:

  1. Get nonprofit experience. Working and volunteering in the nonprofit sector will allow you to see what you like and dislike about organizations and positions within those organizations. You might connect with a certain social issue, movement or organizational function. You might realize that you hate writing and want to be on the financial side of things, or vice versa. Either way, you will learn important factors about both the field of philanthropy and yourself, and gaining that experience will benefit your future career, especially if you’re a role that involves grantseeking.
  2. Demonstrate passion about an issue. Maybe you have a specific type of philanthropy work in mind - improving the public education system, training farmers in the Global South to practice self-sufficient sustainable techniques, or getting clean water to communities often forgotten. If there’s a certain cause that moves you, pursue that. Foundations are more likely to hire folks with passion and experience in a key social issue that connects with a foundation’s giving strategy.
  3. Build relationships. By building relationships with those in the philanthropy field, you’ll be able to learn more about the career itself while simultaneously making connections for possible positions in the future. It’s about networking, silly!
  4. Be flexible. Although you may have a dream position at a dream organization in mind, chances are there are steps to be taken before you wind up there. Be open to accepting a job that may not be your end goal, but one that will help you get there.
  5. Go global. If you’ve always entertained the idea of living in another country and are searching for an opportunity to launch a career in philanthropy, now could be the ideal time to make that move. Working abroad will give you global experience that many philanthropies value.  Understanding social problems and solutions with a worldview is priceless and many foundaions have global giving programs.
  6. Consider internships and fellowships. Although not a full-time job, internships and fellowships can be valuable opportunities which provide hands on experience within organizations. You can build relationships, learn about the field, and possibly land a full-time job.
  7. Examine your temperament. Are you temperamentally suited to do this work? This seems like a strange question but many people have unrealistic expectations about what giving money away entails. Are you prepared to say “no” much more than you can ever say “yes?” Any funder is well aware that one has to reject a very high percentage of requests.
  8. Don’t expect a clear return on investment. While there is something soothing about setting concrete goals and accomplishing them in a set amount of time, philanthropy and its relationship with grantees and communities is not linear and often does not work seamlessly. Declaring certain investments as “successful” might take more time than you would like.
  9. Consider multiple options within the philanthropy realm. There are too few jobs available at foundations to not consider other options – be open to looking at allocation specialty availabilities at large charities, grant programs within state and municipal entities, and even roles at consulting firms that provide grants management for funders.
  10. Keep learning. Whether by taking courses online, at a college, reading online, or attending lectures, it is important to expand your existing knowledge of the role philanthropy if you plan on working in the field.

Ask yourself tough questions

While working in philanthropy is often considered a “cushy” job, it is much more demanding than it may appear—and in some unexpected ways. Consider the following questions:

  •  Are you prepared to be a walking dollar sign? Once one is identified as being a funder, people will treat you like the money is your own.  It is  guaranteed that social events will become opportunities for solicitations.
  • Are you prepared to have someone else take credit for your success? If you are a responsible foundation professional, the credit for the success of the work should properly belong to those working on the frontlines. Is your ego sufficiently in check to handle that?
  • Are you prepared to have almost no measureable way to determine if you are doing a good job beyond how much money you gave away? The number of grants given is hardly a measure of the effectiveness of the foundation’s strategy. Ironically, funders are place significant important on outcome measures from their grantees; however, it is the field struggles to measure the work of  program officers. If you get your satisfaction by meeting very clear goals, you aren’t likely to find the work of grantmaking to be as gratifying as you think.
  • Are you comfortable with spending a lot of time doing office work? Much of the work of professional grantmaking involves reading proposals, due diligence of grantee organization, writing up board and staff summaries, ensuring all the legal and financial paperwork has been completed, and keeping current with the fields in which funding takes place. Only a small percentage of work is actually on the ground amid all the work being funded. 

Stay competitive

While no one can guarantee a grantmaking position, there are steps one can take to enhance one’s competitive position:

  • If you are not in the sector, it is very useful to serve on a non-profit board to learn something about the way decisions are made.
  • Attend public lectures about trends in philanthropy so that one can learn the terms and categories of the field. This is not simply a matter of learning the lingo; it is also demonstrating that the way in which funders approach questions may be quite different than the way other professions do.
  • Take courses. This recommendation may sound self-serving, but if one’s professional background is close and one’s experience is relevant, taking courses at places such as the NYU Academy can help round out one’s competitiveness.
  • Network. There is no better way to get on short lists of candidates, especially for small to medium sized foundations, than to hear of positions through networking. But remember: all the networking in the world won’t help if you don’t have the credentials or relevant experience. 

If you’ve gotten this far and still want to take the plunge into the world of philanthropy, go for it! Being a funder can be one of the most gratifying ways to spend one’s career. One can indeed make a difference: usually in small yet meaningful ways, but occasionally in large and influential ways too. And one can take pleasure in knowing that, every day, one is helping to shape the character and values of our society.

Want to learn more? Edgar Villanueva recently spoke on a panel about careers in philanthropy at Philanthropy New York. You can watch the event here:

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