Nonprofit or public: Which work environment is best for you?

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Students who have completed the political management online program through the George Washington University have pursued careers in a multitude of industries. Regardless of their professions, each of them works in one of three overarching sectors: private, public, and nonprofits.

Wooden sign with arrows reading ‘public’ and ‘private’

Nonprofits can cast a substantial and influential footprint by providing services that go toward improving the public good.

Even though the public and nonprofit sectors frequently intersect, several key distinctions can help you decide which one is for you. The following will discuss the public sector and nonprofits in greater detail:

The public sector in brief

Government makes up the public sector. Whether it’s at the federal, state or local levels, the public sector accounts for nearly 15 percent of overall employment, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What are the benefits of working in the public sector?

Job availability: Generally speaking, employment opportunities tend to be more numerous in the public sector compared to nonprofits, largely because there are so many layers to it. Whether it’s holding political office or working as a professor at a state college or university, the options are plentiful. In Wyoming, Alaska and New Mexico, for example, more than 20 percent of each state’s workforce are government employees, according to 24/7 Wall Street analysis of BLS data.

Perks: Whether it’s health insurance, time off or job security, the public sector offers a variety of advantages that make it a highly sought-after industry. This is partly due to the funding mechanism — taxes — that helps pay for some of these benefits.

What are the potential downsides?

Red tape: Because government is big and composed of many moving parts, there’s a formal process to getting things accomplished. This often involves paperwork, signatures, waiting periods and formal reviews. Sorting through bureaucracy means it can take a while for decisions, such as policy changes or program adjustments, to move forward.

Comparatively low pay: Salaries are all relative, but compared to the private sector, public sector and nonprofit employees tend to earn less. This is true of lawyers — such as defense attorneys versus district attorneys — executives and teachers, among others.

Nonprofits in brief

As its title implies, nonprofits are not in the money-making business per se. Nonprofits’ chief function is to further the improvement of society and advance various causes. This can include providing shelter for the homeless, transportation for those who lack access to a vehicle, healthcare services for underprivileged communities, job opportunities for those who are struggling to find employment or assistance for families displaced by natural disasters. Nonprofits usually rely on donation fundraising and grants to further their goals. According to digital marketing agency Nonprofits Source, Americans donated an estimated $410 billion to charitable organizations in 2017. That’s an increase of 5 percent from 2016.

What are the benefits of working for nonprofits?

Nonprofits can provide an avenue to pursue passion. It doesn’t get much better than loving to go to work every day. If philanthropic endeavors are important to you, nonprofits offer many opportunities to make a difference.

Opportunities for growth: Generally speaking, nonprofits tend to be understaffed due to limited capital. As a result, nonprofit workers are often tasked to take on several responsibilities. The ability to multitask is indispensable, and this capability also can present avenues for career development, as noted by the Case Foundation. These positions can speak to your proficiency in multiple job functions and good overall work ethic.

What are the potential downsides?

Risk of burnout: Some of the advantages of working for nonprofit organizations can also serve as drawbacks. For instance, while growth opportunities are nice to have, multitasking can easily lead to burnout if the tasks prove difficult to juggle, especially over a prolonged period of time. This is largely due to nonprofits often having fewer resources.

Constant need for funds: Because nonprofits’ lifeblood comes from donations and grants, budgets tend to be tight. Even after a successful fundraiser, it’s only a matter of time before the money is gone, requiring more fundraising to keep things running. This can lead to stress and projects being tabled.


Several hands holding money

How the political management program prepares students for both

The online Master’s in Political Management program at GW can position you for success whichever sector you decide to pursue. The robust curriculum delves into many of the aspects that working in the public or nonprofit sectors involves on a daily basis, such as fundraising, campaigning — whether in the electoral sense or for the support of initiatives — developing strategies, managing issues or navigating the panoply of processes found in local, state and federal governments.

The 36-credit-hour online master’s program can impart the knowledge and awareness of what the public and nonprofit sectors include so you can make the best judgment for your career, whether you’re newly out of college or are considering a career change.

Get more information on the online master’s program at GW today.

Recommended reading:
What is a career as a fundraiser like?
What you can learn about grassroots engagement at GW Online

24/7 Wall Street
The BalanceThe Case Foundation
Careers In Government