7 Key Skills for Non-Profit Staff and Free/Low Cost Opportunities to Grow

nonprofit career opportunities

Liz Hensler
9/8/2020

The non-profit industry is as subject to inequity in skill development and upward mobility as for-profits. Non-profits notoriously pay staff low wages, while also prioritizing the hiring of people already possessing specific skills and experience. The career advantages then are given to staff who already have the personal financial means to seek additional skill building/training opportunities, have advanced degrees where they received training in academic environments, have minimal personal responsibility outside of work hours (i.e. are not caretakers for others, have financial security to work only one job), or work in the rare NGO that has surplus to invest in employees’ skill development. This means that NGO staff infrequently have opportunities for professional and skill development outside of their job description without accruing debt or sacrificing their well-being through disadvantageous personal cost/benefit decisions.

As we continue to work for increased equity in the sector, one way to combat this system is to provide more free and low cost skill development resources; providing opportunities for folks to build the skills they want to progress in their careers without the cost barrier. Here, I’ve identified a few key skills for different roles in non-profit spaces and free/low cost resources to start!

1. Language Learning

Being multilingual is a highly coveted skill for non-profit organizations. For many organizations, the breadth and native language diversity of clients and audience means that effective communication and ability to translate written materials is gold. Multilingual staff provide opportunities for organizations to be more effective in direct service and to expand the types of partnerships available, creating more capacity. More equitable hiring practices means hiring staff from a wide variety of communities with many native languages, but even for non-native speaking staff working with/in communities that speak a different language, developing multilingual skills is key to better understanding other cultures and to better communication and trust.

Most classes and highly popular language learning software (ahem Rosetta Stone) are incredibly expensive, particularly for non-profit staff. Here are a number of low cost/free options for language learning!

  • iTalkiLow cost
    With varying low costs, iTalki connects you with instructors for video one-on-one conversation practice in the language you’re learning.
  • DuoLingoFree
    As one of the most famous free mobile apps for language learning, this does not stand well on its own, but helps to practice grammar and vocabulary in a “game-ified” set up. They do also put out podcast episodes for additional learning.
  • Memrise Free
    As another grammar and vocabulary teaching app, this free tool is comprehensive and one of the most effective I’ve seen.
  • Extr@ Free
    This show, mimicking the American show Friends format, was designed to be a fun way to learn languages. While a little cheesy, I found it incredibly accessible and much less boring than books on tape. It’s been recreated in Spanish, French, German, and English for your language learning needs.
  • Netflix Paid subscription
    Finding engaging material has been key for me to keep focused while trying to practice. Finding either new shows in the language I’m learning (telenovelas have been great for Spanish, as the actors’ emotions are incredibly clear) or switching the language on English shows I’ve already seen helps to both stick with practicing and internalize the learning!
  • Children’s BooksFree with your local library card
    About ten years ago, I picked up the habit while traveling of buying a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the local language of wherever I visited as a personal souvenir. Because I have read the American-English version so many times, the story is familiar and I am able to pick up vocabulary through context clues. I highly recommend picking your favorite childhood book and finding a copy in the language you are trying to learn. It’s fun and you have the text in your native language as a reference, instead of a dictionary.
2. Grant Writing & Fundraising Basics

Within the non-profit space, fundraisers are among the highest paid staff and is one of the most transferable skill sets across NGO services (every non-profit needs fundraisers). It is also one of the least diverse positions, with 70.1% identifying as female – although still on average, making $18K less than their male counterparts, and overwhelmingly White (82.7%). In part, this is due to the hierarchical system of fundraising work – with fundraisers consistently liaising with predominantly White boards and donors, continuing a power imbalance that these decision-making spaces foster and uphold. Creating better pay equity among staff and creating more equitable organizations overall ties heavily to more diversity in the hiring of fundraisers, as gatekeepers of the money.

To fight this imbalance, one method is to identify and support potential fundraisers within your staff (or preparation for yourself, if you are interested in this line of work!), to ensure that non-White and/or low income candidates are well positioned to be competitive with more privileged and experienced fundraisers. Each of the below free or low cost courses teach the basics of grant writing and fundraising.

3. General Career Exploration & Skill Building

So far in my career, I’ve been a bit of a non-profit generalist. I’ve worked to some capacity in most facets of non-profit work – either paid or voluntarily. In part, this has mostly been out of a desire for exploration of new opportunities, restless feet, and being “unsure of what I want to be when I grow up”. I am a firm believer in trying on new hats for as long as they fit and being a perpetual student above all else. There are career pros and cons to this mindset – the biggest con could be taking on more “lateral career moves”, as upward trajectory within non-profit hierarchies generally means increased specialization, as opposed to broader learning.

One low risk, low cost way to explore your career options is to engage in some of the free courses on career development listed below. These give you the opportunity to virtually try on new hats and assess what aspects of this work peak your interest/what “shit sandwich” you are willing to eat.

  • CourseraFree classes, paid certificate or degree
    Coursera can be overwhelming with the number of learning opportunities they offer. These courses range all of the topics covered in this piece and more. There are also options to get certificates and online degrees, but I recommend comparing each with your local accreditation.
  • Jopwell EventsFree
    Jopwell works to advance the careers of Black, Latinx, and Native American students and professionals. They offer learning and networking events and career advice through their site.
  • KayaFree
    Specific to humanitarian work, Kaya offers classes, modules, and resources for your learning needs across the major categories of Humanitarian Essentials, Technical Sectors, Programmatic Support, Safety and Security, and Management Essentials.
  • Khan Academy Career Development coursesFree
    While I first heard of Khan Academy while helping students prepare for the SATs, Khan Academy provides free academic support to students of all ages and includes this module of career exploration.
4. Budgets & Finance

Ah yes, the sexy stuff. While this may not seem as exciting as some of the others, having a basic understanding of non-profit budgeting and finance is widely applicable across staff positions. Budgeting and accounting are key to program development and implementation (could be as simple as managing classroom supplies or safety materials for environmental clean up!) to overall strategic planning and fundraising projections to grant writing. Non-profits are subject to incredibly high governmental budgetary scrutiny, due to tax status, and are accountable to donors, who generally want to know their money is being spent efficiently and effectively and ask for specific reporting to make sure. Being able to understand budgets and financial statements is a highly coveted skill, and immensely important in understanding the ethics and priorities of an organization. Here is a compilation of resources, courses, and webinars all for better understanding non-profit finance.

5. Social Media, Content Creation & Branding

Marketing and communications has always held a soft spot for me. With the world increasingly (particularly now) moving virtually, the ability to effectively communicate your organization’s vision and initiatives is vital to its health and longevity. This part of the work is, at its core, storytelling; and because humans respond to and learn best through stories, this skill is central to bringing on new supporters and advocates.

  • HubSpot Academy Free
    This site offers tons of classes around marketing and digital media, including certifications.
  • Digital Marketing for Non-Profits & Charities by Udemy Low Cost
    Udemy offers thousands of low-medium cost learning options, including this course on digital marketing specific for non-profits
  • Marketing Essentials by ForbesFree trial for two weeks
    While geared toward for-profit, many of the marketing principles can be translated to non-profit spaces. This is an 18-hour course specialization ready for a long weekend.
  • Social Media Quickstarter by ConstantContact Free
    This series of videos and articles gives you a full introduction to using social media at your company or organization. Keep in mind that social media is always changing, so seek out frequent and up-to-date information.
6. Project Management

There are truly few skills I’ve used as often as project management in my career. Project management is a career in itself, but it also applies to every other role – from planning an event, developing a social media calendar, designing a new program, prospecting new fundraising, writing a proposal, developing curriculum, and so on.

  • AsanaFree
    As far as project management tools go, I’ve certainly used Asana in the past to manage projects with many moving parts and multiple people. It’s incredibly helpful to keep everyone up to date and on track. Asana certainly isn’t the only project management application out there, and I recommend you find the one that works best for you.
  • edX Introduction to Project MangagementFree
    This six week free course is taught by instructors from the University of Adelaide and teaches the basics of project management for large or small projects. For a course certificate, you will need to pay a fee.
  • edX International Project ManagementFree
    This nine week free course is taught by instructors from the Rochester Institute of Technology and focuses on global project management. For a course certificate, you will need to pay a fee.
  • Udemy Project Management Fundamentals Course + CertificateLow cost
    This course includes 10 hours of video, articles, and practical application.
7. Tech

While I’m not sure if this is a US specific requirement, most jobs I’ve held and applied to have asked for levels of competence in certain tech. For most of my roles, this has been very Salesforce and Microsoft Excel focused; but many roles also ask for Razor’s Edge, Hootsuite, social media platforms, or some coding. Brushing up on your tech skills is a tangible way to bolster your resume and a great way to preempt training you may need from your future employer – meaning you can jump right into the job, without as much time spent on systems learning.

  • Salesforce Training by LinkedIn LearningFree for first month
    LinkedIn Learning is providing your first month of access to their modules free and hosts a number of courses dedicated to teaching Salesforce
  • Excel Courses by LinkedIn LearningFree for first month
    LinkedIn Learning is providing your first month of access to their modules free and hosts a number of courses dedicated to teaching Excel
  • Coursera Excel CoursesFree
    While some Coursera classes can be hit or miss, they offer a wide variety of free options to learn more about the tech you need.
  • Code.orgFree
    Designed for kids, this site is also a fun way for adults to get into the basics of coding. For example, I made a dancing cat to Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road. It was the highlight of my quarantined weekend.
  • Code Academy Free for basic package
    While access to most of their services requires payment, you can take many of their intro courses for free.

What skills or resources have you found most useful? Let us know!


Liz Hensler, MPA (she/her/hers) is the founder of Do Good, Better. She works in philanthropy in the humanitarian aid sector and has a background in NGO program management, corporate and community engagement, volunteer management, and communications. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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