August 30, 2020
By Kirstie Dabbs
Jobs in sustainability can be found in all sectors, from corporate to policy to nonprofit. Unlike government and for-profit organizations, nonprofits are specifically structured to serve a public benefit through their core mission, which all their activities are meant to support. This structure gives employees the opportunity to bring their values to work in a variety of professional roles. While some roles, such as customer service, marketing and facilities management are comparable to their private sector counterparts, others, such as development and community engagement, are unique because of the funding and service delivery structures in the nonprofit sector.
Whatever role you choose, when seeking work at a nonprofit, it’s important to find an organization whose mission resonates with your own, because you will be promoting it daily. In doing so, you’ll be affecting change that matters to you. According to Roxanne Sharif, a sustainability professional in New York, who has worked in both the private and nonprofit sectors, a benefit of working for a nonprofit is that the organization has a clear prioritization of positive impact. “In sustainability nonprofits that I’ve worked for – including the Sierra Club, the U.S. Green Building Council and the North Shore Land Alliance – environmental, social or governance goals have been clearly outlined and are fundamental to the organization’s purpose, serving to guide operations. This often appeals to sustainability professionals because it is understood that the organization will stay aligned with those goals.”
Using skills directly in service to values: development
Michelle Velez, Director of Development at New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P), is responsible for creating and implementing fundraising strategies to ensure that NY4P has the funds to support its work and programs, and definitely puts her values front and center in her job. “I work here because I whole-heartedly agree that parks are critical to city infrastructure. Though I’m personally doing fundraising in my role,” she explains, “I use those skills as the means to advance the creation of a visionary and equitable system of parks and open space in New York City.”
Wondering what a development role entails? According to Velez, “It really depends on the size of the organization. In a small nonprofit, it’s not uncommon to have one person responsible for all fundraising, while in a bigger organization there might be individuals or teams devoted to different aspects of development, such as grant writing, major donor cultivation and stewardship, campaigns, special events, memberships and more.” In terms of required skills for this type of role, however, they remain consistent no matter the size of the organization. “Relationship building is at the top of the list. Personal touch points are key to successful fundraising,” says Velez. “You’ll want to feel comfortable picking up the phone and having an informed conversation with a donor, to communicate ways they can support your mission and to keep them informed of the positive impacts of their contributions.”
Two other skills that are highly valued in development professionals are grant writing and database management. “When applying for funding, writing a grant that maintains the consistent language of your organization while also clearly conveying that the work your organization does fulfills the priorities of the grant is a craft – it takes practice,” Velez explains.
For those wanting to hone these skills, small organizations may be amenable to taking on a volunteer to provide extra capacity. Velez suggests looking for such opportunities by following the work of small nonprofits that you are interested in. “Some may have a history of engaging volunteers for grant writing, while others may appreciate you reaching out to offer other types of pro bono help, if you make the case for what skills you offer.”
Impact beyond four walls: community engagement
Engagement roles in nonprofits often appeal to people who want to make “boots on the ground” impact. “The people-centric nature of many nonprofits appeals to many of my nonprofit colleagues,” explains Sharif. “They love to see that they are making a difference in the community.”
In her role as the Community Horticulturist for The New York Botanical Garden’s (NYBG) “Bronx Green-Up” program, Kadeesha Williams allows the NYBG to spread its mission to provide plant advocacy and education beyond the gates of its Bronx garden and into the surrounding community. Williams shares her robust knowledge of horticulture and agriculture with members of the public who seek guidance on community projects or enroll in NYBG’s certificate programs on subjects such as soil science, fruit and vegetable cultivation, and urban farm creation. Through this work, Williams and her team are cultivating the urban environmental stewards of the future. “The people we serve often grow with us and continue to be a part of the NYBG community. We believe the Bronx gardening community knows they can call on us, and that is more than half of our goal.”
For those interested in a community engagement position at a nonprofit, Williams says the role typically requires interpersonal skills, for such activities as facilitating workshops and recruiting or managing volunteers; flexibility, as schedules often change; and follow-through with administrative duties like record-keeping and correspondence. She credits the time she spent in Americorps, as well as her accrued experience in the realm of community education, for helping her develop these skills over time.
A vision for the future: sustainable missions supported by green operations
A unique opportunity for sustainability nonprofits lies in the adoption of green operations to support their missions. A nonprofit focused on environmental stewardship, for example, may pursue mission alignment through reduction of its carbon footprint – a feat accomplished by The New York Botanical Garden through strategic operational work dating back to 1993.
As reported in a case study by The Building Energy Exchange, “NYBG’s mission to protect natural resources drives their commitment to sustainability planning and climate action” in their operations. Investments in efficiency at the NYBG have led to great reduction in energy use, carbon emissions and utility costs, demonstrating that when a sustainability mission is paired with adoption of more sustainable operations, nonprofits may achieve even greater benefits for their bottom line and society at large.
Organizations have found that facilities managers are well-positioned to take on operational sustainability goals since they understand energy, lighting and water systems. The facilities team at NYBG oversaw energy management and planning improvements that led to their successful greening of operations, and their VP of Site Operations serves as Chief Sustainability Officer, as well. Facilities roles typically require skills in engineering, maintenance, resource management and coordination to ensure a safe and productive work environment for all employees. Green operations roles offer a hands-on opportunity for people with such skills to serve a sustainability mission.
The wide range of positions available in nonprofits is a testament to the diversity of the sector. Because mission is front-and-center for these organizations, there’s no mystery about the activities and values the organization is putting first. This helps job seekers find mission alignment with nonprofits that will be an opportunity to use their skills in service to their values.
Want to learn more about non-profit sustainability careers? Join GreenHomeNYC Careers online on September 8 at 6:30. Register here.
New York Botanical Garden: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_York_Botanical_Garden_(Bronx).jpg
Photo Credit: Wikimedia user LeoTar
Caption: “One of the 38 buildings on the Bronx campus of the New York Botanical Garden, 2005”
New Yorkers for Parks:
Photo Credit: Rosalina Mestric
Caption: “Michelle Velez at a New Yorkers for Parks daffodil bulb distribution in Union Square Park, 2017”