With one year of introductory PR classes under my belt, I had the privilege to work as the public relations intern for Gift of Life Donor Program — a nonprofit organ procurement organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The position I had originally applied for was a “community relations intern”. It, however, required a junior or senior status. I didn’t fit the basic qualifications but I excelled in another area that set me apart from any other applicant and prompted administration to create my position, as well as my passion and connection to the cause.
Working in the nonprofit sector requires a different skill set than any other in the PR industry. Communicators are pushed to draw on their own feelings and experiences to get inside the heads and hearts of their audiences. It’s a challenging, drawing industry but almost, in my opinion, some of the most rewarding work a person can do. When determining if nonprofit is the right fit for you, here are some ideas to consider.
“Why this cause”
“Why organ donation” was one of the first questions I was asked during my interview. A simple “I think it’s really interesting” or “I’m really passionate about it” would not be the answer to winning over a room, especially in my case where you are also trying to convince them of your experience level. Nonprofits look for people who have a “connection to the cause” but this does not mean you need to be personally impacted by it. For me, organ donation has not personally impacted my family but my mom is a nurse and works with donors and recipients each day. I was brought up knowing I was going to check “yes” for organ donation on my driver’s license. An answer to this question should leave no doubt; you believe everyone should support the cause and imply your drive to share your passion with others. My reply detailed the story of my mom’s passion being passed on to me and how I felt I could bring on a new generation of advocates as a millennial.
“How do you handle rejection?”
When speaking about rejection, we are not just talking about being denied a job. Advocating for a cause to the public does not always result in a new happy donor, supporter or advocate. A PR professional in the nonprofit sector has to be able to take criticism; to have someone look you in the face and say “I don’t believe in that” and respect them. Whether it is on social media or in-person, during my internship I had to be able to respond to those advocating against me, keep my emotions out of my response, present the facts and respectfully reply to negativity. You must be ready to take each negative comment as an opportunity to educate the audience on the facts and showcase that your cause supports all.
“What can you do to make your cause stand out?”
There are an endless number of causes to support. People may feel that their annual donation to the local girl scout troop fulfills their cause obligation for the year but your work has to change that. PR professionals in nonprofits are challenged each day to get their cause in front of new audiences, as well as to overcome the barriers of different races, religions and beliefs. Each day of your work will task you to try and find new audiences, get inside their heads and figure out what is holding them back from supporting you. You must be willing to put your story out there, explore unusual campaigns ideas and learn to adapt to other’s ideas to break down barriers and resonate with them. If you are a millennial, why is your demographic not more engaged? What channels does your peers use? How can you convince a person that they can have an impact on something they as bigger than themselves?
“How do you handle emotions?”
Nonprofits deal with sensitive, personal content each day. I spent a majority of my summer interviewing organ recipient and donor families to translate their stories to blog posts. I listened to stories of losing loved ones to tragedy and stories of how a new chance of life was received through transplant. I had to be able to put myself out there, tell people my story and show my vulnerabilities to build trust with those I interviewed to share their story in full. A PR professional in a nonprofit must be able to put down their guard and listen to emotional content. They must be able to remain strong and use tough content as motivation to make a change. They also must be able to take these stories and be able to translate them in to content that is as emotional and raw as having that person telling their story directly to the audience.
The nonprofit sector is an amazing industry and unlike any other. It takes not only skill and education but passion and the ability to deal with tough content. In my personal experience, I believe my internship in the nonprofit industry has prepared me for the world of PR. I have been stretched to think creatively, find a way to connect with people of all backgrounds and relay emotional content in a way that reflects the raw power of personal stories. I cannot be more grateful for my experiences and hope others can see the importance of our work in this industry.
Emily Zekonis is a sophomore dual public relations and psychology major at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. She currently serves as the WVU PRSSA Chapter treasurer and fundraising committee chair. To learn more about Emily, and WVU PRSSA, connect with her on LinkedIn or follow on Twitter.