Nonprofits, Think Tanks, Social Enterprise

Photograph of Habitat for Humanity project


Be sure to take a look at the OCS publication The Nonprofit Job Search (pdf).

If you are interested in helping to further a mission or cause that seeks to make a positive impact in the world, you may want to consider working at a nonprofit organization. Nonprofits cut across every type of industry and function area—including education, communication, healthcare, and technology—and working in this sector can be a great way to combine a subject area interest with a desire to make a difference. There are opportunities to work directly with people through human services, teaching, or advocacy and indirectly through marketing, policy or fundraising. Nonprofit organizations exist both domestically and internationally, and can vary in size from large organizations, such as the American Red Cross, United Way or Oxfam, to smaller and more local community organizations. You may also be interested in the work of foundations or philanthropic organizations which work toward the social good by providing grants and financial support to nonprofits and other mission driven organizations. Foundations can be a corporate entity or a private foundation that derives its grant-making funds primarily from the contributions of a profit-making business.

Think tanks

"Think Tanks" are organizations which conduct research and study and recommend public policy alternatives. They can approach issues from a partisan or non-partisan perspective, and often serve a broader educational function as well, through conferences and publications. If you are interested in exploring the world of think tanks, and if you enjoy research, you may want to consider working as a research assistant.

Social Enterprise

Social enterprises are businesses with two goals: to generate income by selling a product or service, and to create a social, environmental, or cultural impact. These organizations are driven by both profit and purpose. Careers in social enterprises may include being part of a nonprofit or philanthropic organization, government or nongovernmental organizations, for-profit and nonprofit social ventures, and social venture capital firms. Some may also start their own business that has both financial and social purpose.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Similarly, corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to operating a business in a way that produces an overall positive impact on society. Corporate social responsibility is about integrating the issues of the workplace, the community and the marketplace into core business strategies. Organizations are devoting real time and money toward various CSR initiatives including environmental sustainability programs, alternative energy ideas and improving the quality of life of the workforce and families in society at large.

Finding Jobs & Internships


You may want to pursue an internship to further explore a specific interest area or topic, gain experience working with a certain population, or to build and develop a new skillset.

Many think tanks have structured internship programs that run throughout the year. If you are interested in summer internship opportunities, visit the organizations' websites for specific application information and deadlines. Generally, deadlines to apply for summer internships are in the early spring (February/March).

Since social enterprise combines business and social purpose, gaining experience in either or both sectors would be helpful. Consider interning or volunteering at a non-profit organization, or at a startup or business to help you acquire the necessary business skills.

If you are interested in CSR, there is not one specific career path and you will rarely find jobs that are posted as "corporate social responsibility adviser." You could start in this field by obtaining an internship in the public relations department at a pharmaceutical company, or work at a government agency in policy, or spend a summer working for a niche CSR consulting company.

Many foundations require extensive experience or an advanced degree when hiring. However, there are opportunities that can help you acquire the skill sets you need to work at a foundation. If you are interested in grant-making, consider volunteering on a grant-making committee for a foundation. If fundraising is of interest, consider volunteering as a Crimson Caller at Harvard, where student callers spend their time raising money for the university.


Nonprofits generally cannot predict their hiring needs in advance. Organizations use "just in time" hiring, which means that opportunities are posted only once a position becomes available (for example, if a person leaves or if the organization gets a grant for more staff). Many nonprofits do not have the resources to recruit on campus, and are usually only hiring for one or two individual positions as opposed to a cohort of new hires. Once an organization posts an opening, they are generally looking for someone to start immediately (although some organizations may have flexibility with the start date). This can be challenging for students who are hoping to secure a post-graduate opportunity earlier in the year. Instead, students can use the fall to connect with interesting organizations and professionals in the field. These connections can be helpful in identifying future opportunities and during the application process.

Some typical nonprofit entry-level positions are "assistant", "associate", and "coordinator." For example, you may apply for a program coordinator role, or a communications assistant role. At larger nonprofits, these roles may be more specific and defined; whereas at smaller non­­­­­profits, you may be expected to wear many different hats and take on additional projects and responsibilities.

If you are looking into opportunities at think tanks, some organizations may prefer to hire research assistants (RAs) who have a master's degree or who are doing graduate work. However, it is possible for students with a bachelor's degree to be hired for RA positions, which usually last from one to two years. If you are interested in affiliating yourself with a think tank as a career goal, you will need a Ph.D.

Careers in corporate social responsibility cover a variety of causes, ranging from business ethics to green business to sustainable development. Corporate-driven initiatives are usually implemented by traditional business divisions, such as operations, marketing, or finance. CSR job profiles generally fall into three categories: CSR specialist, foundation officer, or consultant. In addition to high profile “socially responsible” strategies, many large companies also establish a charitable foundation as part of their overall CSR efforts. Since there is no ideal set career path, it will be important to gain transferable skills and knowledge.

When it comes to foundation work, there is rarely a direct career path, as employees tend to have a wide range of experience and backgrounds before entering into the foundation. Whether an organization has an entry-level position will depend on the specific needs of the foundation. Generally speaking, foundations seek applicants who can write clearly, execute proper judgment, and be creative yet analytical thinkers. In addition, some foundations seek foreign language fluency, field experience and/or a graduate degree.

For both jobs and internships:

Whichever area you find yourself most interested in, become as informed as possible about the current events in that field. ­­­Many nonprofit, think tank, social enterprise, CSR, and foundation positions are filled through referrals; therefore, networking is important. Get involved in Harvard student groups, connect with Harvard alums through the Alumni Directory and LinkedIn, go to networking meetings, and consider joining a professional association.

Also, to find out about volunteer, internship and post-graduate opportunities, take advantage of on-campus resources such as the Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship, the Institute of Politics (IOP), Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) and the Harvard i-lab. You can also subscribe to the Harvard College Public Service Newsletter­­ to learn about upcoming public service opportunities and events across campus. Crimson Careers and are helpful websites to find opportunities.

While some internship and post-graduate opportunities become available in the fall, and have early spring deadlines, many opportunities are posted throughout the spring.

Funding Opportunities:

There are several Harvard resources where students can apply for summer funding, including OCS, the Institute of Politics (IOP), the Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship, Harvard's Presidential Public Service Fellowship , Summer Urban Program (SUP) through the Phillips Brooks House Association, and CARAT.