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Why Nonprofit Interns Can’t Survive on Soft Skills Alone
May 9, 2017
Nonprofit interns are a dedicated band of angels.

Nonprofit interns are a dedicated band of angels.

They often …”just want to help people,” or “…want to do something that will make a difference.” If that sounds like you, we salute your noble intentions. We need you now more than ever.

Unfortunately, those intentions alone are not going to get you very far. While soft skills (and a soft heart) are a common motivation to get into the nonprofit sector, non-profit interns can’t survive on soft skills alone. Your ship will sink before it has sailed.


Multiply your selfless virtues by developing these survival tools, and your future with nonprofits will add up to success.

Develop grit and discipline

If you enter the nonprofit world with your heart on your sleeve, you’ll wind up emotionally exhausted, completely jaded and cynical. Don’t go down this road if you think you’re going to save every soul on the planet.

Develop the emotional grit you’ll need to keep moving forward. Be disciplined enough to keep going despite setbacks or budget cuts. Creative thinkers can find another way. If you can’t see yourself coping with that over the long term, but still wish to make a difference, consider an internship in hospitality or another industry that helps people in other ways.

Learn the ability to multitask

Nonprofit organizations are always short-handed. Very few have extensive resources to do it all. If you do have the necessary hard skills, expect to be tossed around from department to department.

Develop a set of hard skills like:

  • organization
  • research
  • accurately filling out paperwork
  • handling phone calls
  • fund-raising
  • grant writing
  • event planning
  • graphic design
  • website management
  • copywriting

When you have several of these, you can make a difference to an organization that makes a difference.

You may also be asked to expand your workload into complementary fields. For example, a copywriter may be asked to handle public relations or grant writing on behalf of the organization.

So, if you’re planning to jump into the nonprofit world, be ready, willing and able to wear several hats.

Acquire patience and attention to detail

Nonprofits are notoriously inundated with paperwork, so expect to have to cut through plenty of red tape and filling out forms. Organization, persistence and patience are skills that add a lot of value to a non-profit.

Depending on the nature of the organization, the accuracy of their paperwork may also be very critical to you, the company, or a third party who depends on you to cross all your Ts. We may be talking basic sustenance for a struggling family, or health care services for someone with a serious illness, so show up for the long haul.

Have a plan for what’s next

When your internship ends, goodbye doesn’t have to come in a mournful package. Be ready for your departure before you ever set foot in the door. Have a plan for what happens next. It’s okay if plans change, but have something in mind for your transition into the adult working world.

Nonprofit internships are incredibly rewarding, but they can also be mentally and emotionally draining. Don’t rely on your soft skills alone. Passion, compassion, and empathy are not a feasible foundation for long-term career success.

If you really “just want to help people,” or “want to do something that will make a difference,” remember that slow and steady wins the race.

You can’t make much of an impact on the world if you can’t contribute the hard skills needed to get things done (often on a shoestring) or burn out before you ever truly begin.