A nonprofit is, “an organization with the purpose of which is something other than making a profit…often dedicated to furthering a particular social cause or advocating for a particular point of view.” Nonprofits are a great option to consider when looking for internships or jobs.
Recently we met up with Elizabeth Harstad, Director of Community Impact at Mankato United Way. Mankato United Way is a local nonprofit organization that’s mission is to” unite the community to secure and invest resources to improve people’s lives.” We went to the Shared Spaces Nonprofit Center in Downtown Mankato and asked her a few questions about how she got involved in the nonprofit sector and what it’s like to work for a nonprofit.
Career Development Center: Can you give us some background about yourself? Like what you went to school for and how you got involved with United Way?
Elizabeth Harstad: I grew up in Mankato. I’ve always had a passion for social justice issues and volunteered a lot in the community. I actually went up to the cities to start school and transferred back to Gustavus to be closer to home. I studied political science and also history with an emphasis on African American history. So again I was studying a lot about social justice and about policy and social welfare. So I kind of knew throughout my undergrad that I was interested in social work., but Gustavus didn’t have a social work program and so I started, during my undergrad, looking into my options for grad school and found out that I could go to grad school and get a master in social work. It would just take two years instead of one year without the undergraduate degree in social work. So I thought that was a really good option because it kept my doors open. I could keep studying in areas that I thought were really relevant and that I was interested in for my undergrad.
I took a year off of school after my undergrad and I worked at two different jobs. I worked as a paraprofessional in schools, which gave me experience working with young children with disabilities, and I also worked at the Harry Meyering Center group home in Mankato and I worked with adults with developmental disabilities there. So I continued to gain really good experience working directly with people. Then it was about half way through that year that I decided to look into grad school and when the deadlines would be to apply and realized, you know as I was looking in November, beginning of December, that they were due like in a month! So I should probably get on that.
So I decided to apply to MSU for the Masters of Social Work program and I got in. It was the traditional two-year program and I loved the program. I thought it was fantastic. Throughout it, I had two different practicums. One I was doing a school social work internship and then the second year I was doing my practicum with Open Door Health Center. Through that experience, I was working with a social worker on program development and then started working in collaboration with United Way on a grant that I was helping write as a community partner for a program. And that’s how I got to know United Way and build my relationship here.
So I always like to remind students that those internship opportunities are such a fantastic time to build relationships, not just in the organization where they are doing their internship, but to branch out to other organizations or companies within the field, to meet people and to make those connections, and build those relationships because I, essentially, was offered a job at United Way through developing that relationship and started a week after graduation. So it worked out perfectly. During that week off I took my licensing exam for social work and then started here at United Way the next week.
My position here doesn’t actually require a social work degree, but what I’m doing every single day I think benefits from having a social work degree. So it’s all kind of led up to making a lot of sense from one step to the next. I didn’t necessarily know or see myself working at United Way from the beginning, but I just followed opportunities that felt right and were a good match for my skills and interests. I didn’t even really know what United Way really was. I’d heard of United Way, but I didn’t really get to know the organization until I was working in my internship at Open Door Health Center. So it’s really, I think, valuable to be open to opportunities that are available and you don’t always know what those are going to be until they arise, but being open to them and saying yes to them. So I’ve been here now for just over 5 years and I’m the director of community impact. I work with the partner agencies that we fund throughout the community, on program development, and also on convening the community to better understand issues that we need to address, discuss them, and how we can develop solutions to them. So that’s what I’m doing now.
C.D.C.: I feel like a lot of times students are hesitant to even look into jobs that are nonprofits because there are just so many myths out there. I looked it up online and there were a couple, like “working at a nonprofit is a hobby,” “it isn’t really a career,” “you don’t get paid because you’re a nonprofit.” What would you say to students who are hesitant about working for nonprofits?
E.H.: I think there has definitely been a shift in the professionalization of working for nonprofits. I mean I’ve specifically studied and taught a course at MSU on the history of social welfare. You know nonprofits started out as basic charity work with volunteers, but as nonprofits have been recognized as being critical and valuable in communities to build strong communities they have been professionalizing and really making an effort to hire people who have strong skills. And a lot of the same skills you have in a for-profit business are the same skills you need in a nonprofit business in order to be effective and efficient. I especially think that certain organizations more than others have gotten to that point where there are very professional people and very comparable salaries that sometimes they might be able to find. Some nonprofits aren’t quite there yet. It just depends. And that needs to be something that an individual explores and seeks some information out on their own. But you can’t really clump together all nonprofits as begin exactly the same
C.D.C.: It sounds like there isn’t a whole lot of a difference between for-profits and not for profit businesses in the way they hire and the skills that are needed.
E.H.: I’ve never worked for a for-profit, so I can’t say that there is no difference, but I would say that there is definitely opportunities in nonprofits for people to use their skills and be in very professional roles.
C.D.C.: So what would you say, since you’ve worked for a nonprofit for five years, has been the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of your job?
E.H.: I think that the most rewarding has been that I have always had a deep-rooted passion in improving social justice and equality for people. The nonprofits in our community do such great work and I’ve been able to be a part of developing some of the programs, or expanding them. To be able to use my skills to develop programming that really impacts people’s lives and improves their lives has been really rewarding for me. I knew, at some point, I don’t know exactly when that I really enjoyed working more with the administrative side of the program development than working directly one on one with people. It allows me to look at the big picture and impact a lot of people by developing programs that are good. So being able to do that has been really rewarding.
A challenge is that, particularly in my role, I have the task of facilitating the allocations process, which means the dollars United Way raises that we give out to community organizations and programs, I lead a group of about 80 volunteers to determine where those funds should go. I always just wish there were endless amounts of funds to support the great work the programs are doing. So it does come down to difficult choices and priorities with that process so it can be very challenging.
C.D.C.: Do you have any advice for students who are maybe looking at working in the nonprofit sector?
E.H.: Reach out to some organizations and ask to meet and learn more about the organizations. They’ll get a feel for what it’s like to be involved with a nonprofit. I can definitely say that with a small nonprofit organization that’s trying to do a lot we get the opportunity to both do what our specialty is but sometimes we get pulled into other areas like events and fundraising and stuffing envelopes. So it’s a wide variety of work that you get to do. Some people might like that variety and some people might not. Reaching out and learning more about specific nonprofits that they might be interested in, how they function, and what the roles are of the different staff there because they all vary so much, is really important.
If you are interested in exploring nonprofit career & internship options stop by the Career Development Center and make an appointment, check out the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits website (http://www.minnesotanonprofits.org/), or go to MavJobs and register for the upcoming Government & Nonprofit Career Fair (https://mavjobs.joinhandshake.com/login).