So now, more than ever, you’re looking for ways to spend time outdoors. For those who want to explore our natural wonders, there’s no nobler (or more enjoyable) way than by helping to conserve wilderness areas, clean up waterways, or educate others about the outdoors. Luckily, a wealth of opportunities exists for those who are eager to turn a passion for nature into an altruistic career. Whether it’s through environmental conservation, education, or recreation, outdoor enthusiasts in any stage of their career can pivot to a job with a non-profit. To that end, we’ve put together this guide to non-profit jobs in the outdoor industry—because you could do a lot worse than getting paid by Surfrider to preserve our coasts in the name of protecting beautiful waves.
The best way to start out at a non-profit is by donating your free time. Volunteering will help you establish a relationship with members and employees, while giving you the chance to learn more about how the group functions, and whether it might be a good fit for a full-time job. Find volunteer opportunities at sites like VolunteerMatch, which helps connect you with groups in your specific area that need help. Hiring managers at non-profits are going to be much more likely to bring aboard someone they’ve worked with before. They’ll know for a fact that you, as their potential co-worker, have a passion for the cause—and, hopefully, that you’ll be a reliable, hard-working, and enthusiastic part of the team.
Explore your (myriad) options
Non-profit work based in the outdoors can take on a variety of forms. This is where it helps to look at your strengths and weaknesses to determine where you might fit in. If you’ve studied ecology or horticulture extensively, you could help teach youth nature classes, protect threatened plant species, or oversee urban gardens. If you’re a marine biologist, find a role like this Fisheries Management Specialist job with the NOAA in Alaska; or go to work for the aforementioned Surfrider Foundation, which focuses on protecting beaches and surf breaks. Figure out what unique mix of experience and skills you already have, or are willing to acquire, and make that the focus of your job search.
Luckily, no matter your background you’ll likely be able to find non-profit outdoor work that matches your skills. And because many of the disciplines tend to overlap, you could possibly find yourself in a job where you’re using multiple skills at once. After all, there’s nothing like teaching others about conservation, while pointing out local flora and fauna—and screaming down class IV rapids.
Non-profit conservation roles are some of the most prominent, as there are always going to be endangered wilderness areas, forests, wild animals, and clean water and air to protect. Having a biology or environmental science background is useful (marine biologists, geologists, and environmental engineers are popular roles), though there are full-time jobs to be found for those from a variety of disciplines. Conservation groups are going to need mechanics, park supervisors, marketing personnel, and a wide range of other employees to help them operate.
Take a look at this list of conservation non-profits, to see whether there is a chapter that may need help near your hometown. Depending on where you live, there will likely also be locally based environmental groups that could use a hand.
Flexibility is useful in these organizations, as many of them operate on a shoestring budget. Don’t be surprised if you’re taking river samples one second and crafting social media posts the next.
There are a number of environmental non-profits that either specialize in outdoor education, or offer similar programs. In these roles, you could end up leading nature hikes, showing kids how to recycle, or teaching horticulture classes. This is a great route for teachers who want a change of scenery, or just environmentalists with a passion for education.
There are numerous outdoor education programs, such as the Marine Science Institute, based in San Francisco, or the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, that are region-specific. Especially if you have extensive knowledge of the area, don’t forget to seek out those organizations that are in your own backyard.
This one is for the skiers, hikers, kayakers, and other outdoor sports aficionados. Non-profits like Outward Bound combine both education and recreation, taking people of all ages on educational trips through nature. Other organizations like Protect our Winters—a group of mostly snowboarders and skiers that works to combat climate change—are at the intersection of recreation and conservation. Special qualifications like CPR and/or search-and-rescue training may be necessary for recreational non-profit work.
Make your move
Once you have an idea of the non-profits you’d like to work with, scour the career section of their sites to find potential openings. Also, there are a number of outdoor non-profit job boards that will help you on your search. Conservationjobboard.com is an excellent resource, with positions ranging from intern to upper management. Of course, conventional job boards like ZipRecruiter, LinkedIn and Indeed are also useful. If job postings or volunteer opportunities are scarce, consider reaching out to staff members to ask them how you can get involved.
We know you didn’t get into it for the money, but if you are looking for a higher income, consider moving into a higher-paying management role within your organization. Alternatively, you may want to make the jump to one of the bigger outfits once you’ve filled out your CV a bit—think the National Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, or the Wildlife Conservation Society. Often, however, even the smaller non-profits offer solid benefits, which can offset the lower pay.
Even after you’ve established yourself, make sure you’re up to date with training and any applicable certifications. Taking continuing education courses, attending conferences, and networking at events are great ways to further your non-profit career. And, of course, don’t forget to charm potential donors—after all, your salary has to come from somewhere.