For social workers, deciding between working for a non-profit or for-profit organization can be a juggling act of ethical, financial and cultural considerations. So what’s the right career move for you?

While many would consider the non-profit space a perfect fit for those interested in social work, there are pros and cons that need to be weighed.

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations in the U.S., including public charities, private foundations and other types of non-profit organizations such as chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues.

In 2014, non-profit organizations accounted for 5.3 percent of the U.S. GDP.

It’s clear that non-profit organizations play a vital role in the U.S. business landscape, offering creative and charitable solutions to some of society’s biggest issues.

Despite this, for-profit organizations offer employees competitive compensation, professional development and career advancement that non-profit organizations may not be able to match.

So what are the differences between working in the non-profit sector versus the for-profit sector? And how can you decide which path is right for you?

Funding Structures and Responsibilities

Companies in the for-profit sector share the same basic focus: increasing profits for owners and investors, with top-performing employees often enjoying big financial rewards and incentives.

Non-profits, on the other hand, generally stay afloat on donations and grants. This means they have to be more careful about where, and how, their money is allocated.

According to a 2011 survey by Opportunity Knocks, a national online job site for non-profit roles, 47 percent of non-profit workers are unsatisfied with their pay given their skills and effort.

Cultural Differences

An important characteristic of non-profit organizations is that they tend to be more focused on an overall mission and purpose, which may mitigate concerns regarding compensation.

By constantly emphasizing the importance of the mission, it serves as a strong motivator for employees. This is reflected in how non-profit employees feel about their jobs.

In the Opportunity Knocks survey, 81 percent agreed that their organization’s programs and staff support their mission, and 89 percent believed that their work contributed to the carrying out of that mission. Additionally, 87 percent of respondents rated their ability to serve the mission of their organization as important to very important.

According to career consultant Randi Bussin, the non-profit sector can also offer more flexible working conditions in the form of job sharing, telecommuting, leave and health plans. This can make it ideal for career-changers seeking a better work-life balance.

However, a common disadvantage of working in the non-profit sector is the relative scarcity of resources, which can restrict managers’ ability to implement programs or increase staff compensation. This can, in turn, affect how non-profit workers feel about their career prospects.

Two surveys of 3500 non-profit workers in the New York and Washington metropolitan areas found that around 50 percent of works believed a salary reduction would be a reason to leave, and a more important motivation for departure than a change in work expectations or job description.

Moving Between the For-profit and Non-profit Sectors

Bussin also notes that non-profits have a tendency to be more consensus-driven and process-oriented than corporate enterprises. This can result in slower decision-making and project implementation, which can frustrate people who are accustomed to working in the fast-moving organizations of the for-profit sector.

This can create challenges for social workers who may want, at some stage, to work with a for-profit enterprise after a career stint in a non-profit organization. They might be viewed as more passive than entrepreneurial, and ill-suited to the pressures of a deadline-intensive work environment.

While switching between the sectors could prove difficult, many professionals still see career advancement within the non-profit sector. Opportunity Knocks found that those who rise up the ranks are viewed highly by their employees, with 70 percent of workers reporting they were very satisfied or satisfied with the degree of respect and fair treatment they receive from their supervisors.

Many social workers who invest in their own skills and capabilities have a better chance at career advancement. Explore whether an advanced degree may be the right move for you and your career.

What’s the Right Path for You?

Social workers are passionate about meaningful work that changes the world for the better, whether that’s through working at a non-profit organization or a for-profit business. It’s simply (or perhaps not-so-simply) a question of weighing up your priorities.

For-profits Non-profits
Career advancement. Mission-driven. Working for a purpose.
Opportunities for professional development and training. Flexible working conditions.
Higher average compensation. Lower average compensation.
Greater career flexibility and options. May struggle to switch to the for-profit sector.


To better understand how social work is evolving in the American market, explore Social Policy for Social Work: Placing Social Work in its Wider Context

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For-profit and Non-profit Organizations: How Do They Differ for Social Workers?
Discover whether for-profit or non-profit is right for you with our guide for social workers.