How I Got My Job at an Environmental Nonprofit

Girl standing with nestbox with nest in it - how i got my job at an environmental nonprofit
[One of the duties at my job was monitoring nest boxes – however, I don’t do that as much now, but I really loved it! Baby birds galore. Although there were some dead ones, that was a bummer. And one time I got chased by wasps]
I work as an Education Programs Coordinator for an environmental nonprofit that promotes the education and conservation of birds. I never ever expected to be working in the job that I am, never expected to become passionate about birds (before this I was more of a mammals person – but I think that’s how many people in the wildlife field start out lol), and never expected what it’d actually be like to work at an environmental nonprofit.

I really really enjoy it (for the most part). But – before I get into what it’s like in the next article, here’s some background info to ~set the scene~

Girl and boy standing at college graduation, girl has cap and gown
[My brother and I at my college graduation, little do you know I am secretly scared shitless because I’m like WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE]
To start this story out properly, I’m going to take us back. Like waaaay back. Well – ok, not all the way to caveman times, but to 3 years ago (HOLY SHIT HOW WAS THAT 3 YEARS AGO) when I graduated college.

I had NO IDEA what I was doing with my life (spoiler alert: I still don’t!!!!!), but I had my degree. I’d majored in psychology and gotten a minor in wildlife, fish, and conservation biology (WFCB). I’d also taken almost enough classes to minor in design, but abandoned it for the WFCB minor.

So clearly – I had a lot going on. And I was kind of (more like REALLY) all over the place.

Girl with environmental education project
[Ignore my goober face, but one internship I did involved teaching environmental education to 4th graders, and then creating our own “game” that kids played at our large outreach event in the spring. Mine involved native vs non-native plants, and I used tissue paper to make them – students were supposed to ‘pick’ the non-native ones from the pot]
I knew I wanted to work in the conservation field, and had done a bunch of internships in college that I hoped would help. I’d also taken extra classes related to the wildlife field, but was worried it wouldn’t be enough since I didn’t have the actual degree (I’d wanted to switch, but was almost done with my psych major and my guidance counselor was like LOL NO. I even went as far as talking to the actual advisor of the department, who also gave me a flat out NO.).

I also had some credit card debt that I wanted to pay off ASAP, so I got a job working full time as a customer service rep for an online swimwear company. It was a great way to make some cash and avoid the bay area traffic (yay #remotewerk) but I HATED the job iself.

People standing in the desert in Arizona
[Living my best life in the conservation corps. Doing a weird dance move? Just how I normally walk? LOL the world will never know]
I do not have thick skin AT ALL and getting yelled at on the daily by upset customers (people are so much meaner over the phone!!) was not my jam. But, I saved up enough to pay off my debt, and after 3 months got a job with the conservation corps.

That was super fun, but obviously not sustainable long term. After 3 months of that, I took off for 2 months of travel and racked up some more credit card debt. Not the smartest choice, but I’m glad I went!

After I got back, I started frantically applying for jobs. I was basically applying to anything and everything that sounded even remotely interesting.

Ocotillo Cacti in Arizona in the middle of a desert, surrounded by other cacti and mountains
[Side note: Arizona is really awesome, and I worked there in the conservation corps]
I was also hopping around – I stayed with my boyfriend at the time in Arizona for 2.5 weeks, then with my brother in LA for 2 weeks, and then I just decided to head back home to the bay area in California with the ‘rents because I didn’t know what else to do, and moved in with my dad. ~temporarily~

I was starting to get discouraged, because I’d been applying to soooo many places and hadn’t heard back from a SINGLE. ONE.

I did have one phone interview, but still no cigar. I was starting to wonder if this was the right field for me to try and break into. I knew so many other people with so much more direction and experience. I was starting to feel pretty hopeless and had more than a few sad little pity parties.

A while back, I’d applied to this environmental nonprofit job that sounded cool – but they’d already hired someone. But, once I was back in the bay area, she told me to come volunteer. I had nothing else to do, and figured I’d better start adding to my resume during #funemployment.

My second day volunteering, I ended up chatting with our Executive Director (although I didn’t realize he was at the time! I just thought he was another volunteer). Somehow it came up in conversation that I needed a job, and then he and the woman who had encouraged me to volunteer decided they needed a second intern, offered me the job on the spot – and just like that, I was a working lady!

American Avocet in the water in the wetlands
[An American Avocet! One of the birds I had to learn about]
I also didn’t know anything about birds, which was a necessary component to the position (I would be an Education & Outreach Intern, which would require teaching students about birds). So, I got my butt online, and spent the week learning about all the wetland birds I’d have to teach students about by the next week!

So, one of my tips: be nice and passionate. I was offered the job at this particular environmental nonprofit because our Executive Director really liked my personality, and thought I’d be a good fit for the organization. He could also tell I was passionate and willing to learn. So, even though I knew nothing about birds at the time, he trusted that I’d do my part in teaching myself.

Año Nuevo with Elephant Seals on the beach
[It wasn’t full time, and I did lots of letter folding and data input, but I sometimes got paid to come to cool places like this and teach people about the birds there]
BUT. It was not a full time job (and I actually got a second job at REI during this time to keep me afloat). I ended up working about 10-20 hours per week. After the internship ended a few months later, I was rehired as an associate for 30 hours a week, and slowly worked my way up to full time; it took about 8 months from the time I’d been hired.

And that’s how I got my job! So, my 2 cents: if there’s an environmental nonprofit you really want to work for, volunteer for them as much as you can. When there IS a job opening, you’ll be the first person they think about!

We used this same philosophy when hiring my coworker. She’d helped out quite a bit with our education stuff the season prior, and when a position opened up, we offered her the job first as we already knew she had a great work ethic. It’s a lot less work to hire someone you already know than it is to start from scratch.

Black-crowned Night Heron in a nest in a tree
[Looking at a Black-crowned Night Heron through a scope – another site that we were hired to teach people about birds]
If you’re new the conservation job world, and want to get a job in that field (like an environmental nonprofit, field technician, government job etc.), here are the websites I used to apply:

It took me about 2 months from the time I got back in the states to actually find a job. And I literally had NO OTHER LEADS. And, at the beginning, I did a lot of intern-y things like filing and folding letters.

But, if it’s an environmental nonprofit you want to work, you’ll get to know everyone, and if they like you, they’ll want the best for you and either give you a job or have their feelers out for you. Right now, my org is actually helping one of my coworkers find a biology job!

[This is not what I do now, but in college I had a class where we did research projects in a wetland area, which helped me get my job today! Also showed me that I did NOT want to do research, though]
If you don’t get lucky right away, don’t give up! Try and volunteer as much as you can to keep beefing up that resume. Call local wildlife facilities and environmental nonprofits to see if they’re hiring or looking for volunteers. Tell your friends and post that you’re looking for a job on Facebook etc. – you never know who might know someone!

If you can’t afford to volunteer your time away until you get a full-time gig, see if there’s anything you can help out with on weekends. Orgs are also always looking for database volunteers etc. that can do so on their own time. My environmental nonprofit is always looking for help, so just ask! Even if it’s not EXACTLY what you want to be doing, just getting your name out there is helpful. Make it clear to the org that you’re looking for a job in that field, and they may be able to help you.

YOU. GOT. THIS. And if you have any questions, please ask away! I’m all ears, and would love to help if I can!

[I also interned at fish lab in undergrad; interning meant a lot of changing tank water and talking to the fish. LOL. I also took some data, but it was mostly just tank maintenance. And this reinforced that I didn’t want to do research. And yet I took a summer course on research STILL because I still wasn’t convinced – then FINALLY I accepted I didn’t want to do research lol]
**Note: I do realize that I am extremely privileged to be in my field in the first place. Most jobs require a college degree, and don’t pay very much, so it’s helpful to have some support (in my case, I live with my dad; many of my coworkers live with family, as well, or live with a significant other who makes a better salary). They also often require volunteer time/internships, and I know not everyone can afford to work for free. I acknowledge that, and am very grateful that I’m in the position to do so. However, some orgs do pay pretty well (especially if you get into government work!), but keep in mind that you will most likely never “get rich” in this field. However, I’d rather live on a little less than work a job I absolutely hate, and I also really like knowing that I’m making a difference!

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