My experience joining the Chicago nonprofit community, and a few tips


Not having gone to school in Chicago, or even in Illinois, probably made it tougher for me to launch a career here than it would have been for a “native.” How do you start out when you have no connections? It can be discouraging to feel like the perpetual outsider.

There are strategies that can ease your entry into the sector, and at the same time make you more attractive to employers. It’s important to realize that you have to be somewhat systematic and diligent in applying strategies, or you won’t get results.

Join a nonprofit networking group

If you’re reading this, you may already be a member of YNPN, so yay for you! But how do you turn that membership into something meaningful? Well, you shouldn’t stop with just one networking organization. Some groups, like Chicago Women in Philanthropy, are affordable and have periodic events open to nonmembers as well. Other groups, like the Association of Professional Fundraisers, have a higher membership fee but also offer many benefits. If you have a particular issue area interest, look for member organizations in that arena. Sign up for mailing lists and stay informed about what’s happening.

The benefit of joining and attending events across multiple organizations is that you will start to run into people you’ve seen or met at previous events. You can build on that and start to really get to know people. It takes time.


Volunteerism is extremely important. This is the thing that will benefit your resume as well as your networking prospects. There’s a lot of information out there on this, so I won’t belabor it, but I will say that it’s important to consider the breadth of ways to be involved, and which one(s) will help you reach your goal(s). For example, it’s fun to do one-on-one tutoring with kids, but that’s not going to help you network with adults. Joining a junior board, on the other hand, will. Get out of your comfort zone. Make time for more than one volunteer activity, but don’t overcommit.

Don’t be shy

Whether you’re at a networking or panel event, a luncheon or a happy hour, or a volunteer day, don’t be shy about introducing yourself. Just walk up to a small group, as long as they do not appear to be too deeply in conversation, set your drink down on the highboy, and smile. Nine times out of ten, before you even get a chance to say anything, someone will say hello and introduce themselves. If they don’t, just say, “Hi, do you mind if I join you? I don’t know anyone here.”

Tip: It can actually be unproductive to go to events with a friend who also knows no one. Because the two of you will just wander around, talking to each other, and not be forced to interact. So only go to events with friends who know people and will introduce you to them. Otherwise, go alone.

Follow up

The day following any event, write an email to each person whose business card you have. Do NOT send a bunch of LinkedIn requests with no personal message. Send an email from your personal account, saying it was nice to meet them, you enjoyed talking about/learning about X, and so on. You can look them up on LinkedIn and also send a note there, referencing your email and asking if you can add them to your network.

If there was a particularly good conversation that would naturally lead-in to getting together, go ahead and ask if the person would like to meet for lunch or coffee. If not, wait until you run into them again, or have an opportunity to connect over shared interests.

Complete an internship

Do you have the opportunity to do an internship? You probably had to if you’re a recent grad. If you’re not still in school and are unemployed, consider this option to break into the Chicago nonprofit sector. It’s hard to work for free, but in the end it’s an excellent way to get to know the sector, gain local references, and improve your skills.

Do informational interviews

I’ve been in conversations with lots of job seekers who seem clueless about this time-tested strategy. There are lots of resources about how to go about doing info interviews, so I won’t go into more detail. But I believe informational interviews are absolutely essential to building your network, your confidence, and your knowledge of the field.

Please share comments and feedback—what strategies have worked for you? What are your favorite networking groups? Where do you find volunteer opportunities? Let’s continue the discussion!

About the Author


Mary Penn is a Chicago-based development and communications professional who specializes in donor relations. After 15+ years in the fields of graphic design and fine arts, she earned a Masters of Public Administration in 2012 and launched her career in Chicago, beginning with an internship at Forefront (formerly Donors Forum.) Currently, she is Donor Relations Manager, Institutional Giving at The Resurrection Project in Pilsen.

2 thoughts on “My experience joining the Chicago nonprofit community, and a few tips

  1. June 23, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Great advice for getting involved in Chicago. Finding somewhere you are comfortable is important so these tips will be really helpful.

  2. Amy Kappele
    May 3, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    This is perfect timing for this blog! I am in the process of looking for an internship this summer. I am going to be making a career change from education to nonprofit the summer of 2107. If you have any leads for organizations that are looking for a highly motivated, mature and responsible individual for the summer please let me know.