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Finding a Career Beyond “Policy” or “Politics”


Caroline O’Shea ’07
Caroline O’Shea ’07

When I meet current college students or recent graduates who’ve just moved to Washington, D.C. and I ask them what kind of work they’re interested in, they often answer “…policy?” or “…politics?” or something similarly open-ended.

I sympathize. Plenty of people finish college with an interest in policy, government, or generally “changing the world,” but without much idea of the various career paths and job descriptions that could entail. As a student at Hamilton, I had interned on Capitol Hill during a semester in the D.C. program, volunteered for local Congressional campaigns, and watched a whole lot of episodes of The West Wing after College Democrats meeting. With that in mind, the first place I started looking for jobs after graduation was with Hill offices, party committees, and big brand-name political organizations.

It turned out, however, that my first job would be something I hadn’t even really known existed before. A friend told me about an entry-level opportunity with a fundraising consulting firm serving progressive nonprofit organizations and candidates. It was a great way to gain experience and learn about the political and nonprofit landscape.

From there, I moved on to NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, a state-level reproductive rights and health care advocacy organization, where I managed fundraising and took on responsibilities around communications and organizational management over the course of 7 years. In this role, I can say I helped make significant impact in high-profile policy fights and pivotal elections – not from a legislator’s office or a political campaign, but from within a small, grassroots nonprofit.

While news coverage tends to focus on national elected officials and big political organizations, many of the most important policy decisions – and much of the work for social change – is happening at the state and local level. There are thousands of nonprofits of all sizes and shapes that work on policy, organizing, driving public opinion, or delivering direct services to challenge inequality and solve social problems.

Nonprofit employees working for social change aren’t just grassroots organizers, think-tank policy wonks, or advocates who talk with policymakers. All mission-driven organizations rely on people in diverse roles like communications, fundraising, and organizational administration. These kinds of jobs are a great fit for people with a liberal arts education who can write and speak effectively, craft a persuasive argument, work collaboratively, and think analytically and creatively to solve problems. Many nonprofits have entry-level positions in these departments that value these skills and that can let you learn about the field and gain valuable experience.

There’s no doubt that working in the nonprofit sector can have its challenges. There’s a real bias out there among some people that nonprofit employees should be doing it “for the cause” and not as worried about salaries and advancing in their careers. While feeling fulfilled by the work you do is definitely a great perk and, no, you’re not likely to make big corporate bucks, I believe nonprofit employees should know the value they provide an organization and find a position that will give them the compensation and work-life balance they deserve.

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In my current job as a consultant, I work with a variety of nonprofit clients on their grants fundraising programs, enabling them to have a greater impact on issues like affordable housing and educational inequality. I’m always struck by the variety of important, innovative work that’s happening across nonprofit sectors and the dedication of the people with whom I get to work. I’m also struck, however, by the enormity and complexity of the persistent social and policy challenges they seek to address. We need to continue bringing smart, driven, ambitious people into this sector.

In the end, the work I’m doing today is probably not how I would have imagined I’d be “changing the world” when I first graduated college and moved to D.C. looking to work “in policy? or politics?” – but I’m grateful to have found this path and to be able to use my Hamilton education to do it. I hope future generations of Hamilton graduates consider fields like nonprofit advocacy, communications, fundraising, or organizational management as a way to use their skills to make a difference.

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