At some point, most people working in the for profit sector consider transitioning into the non-profit field. There is this misconception that going into charitable work will save you the stress of long hours and intolerable bosses. Unlike the for profit world, non-profit does give your work a sense of purpose, but don't be fooled, the world of philanthropy is not as simple as its made out to be.
I think one of the biggest assumptions of non-profit work is that it's easy. I think this is closely tied to the fact that most people associate the not for profit sector with the state, due to the fact that some funding may come from there. The state has always had a bad rap when it comes to employees but successful non-profits often run a tight ship and work is plentiful. You have to keep in mind that philanthropic organizations run off of charitable contributions and grants, two sources that are never in abundance. This money must be used wisely and programs typically get it first, leaving staff salaries last. Most organizations will try to consolidate a few similar positions to one person making the position more competitive for someone who has multiple skills. Most non-profits work in this manner so you'd better have a variety of talents before applying for a non-profit position.
Just because a person works in a "helping profession" doesn't necessarily prequalify them as a nice person. It can be rather shocking to meet the types of people that work at charities. Non-profit work is just as cutthroat as any other job and, in fact, comes with an even greater ego boost than for profit work. Not only are you a successful Executive Director but you've also fed 50,000 homeless people who would have otherwise starved if it weren't for you. I've commonly seen the "higher ups" in non-profit work begin to disassociate themselves from their work because their ego has grown so large they can do no wrong. They treat their employees poorly, forget who they are helping, and fail to promote their organization because they have already reaped the benefits of their title. Even some of the entry level employees can be rather nasty, especially if they are using non-profit work to beef up their resumes.
A lot of people that have spent many years in business burn out and want to try "feeling good about their work". They go back to school, take a few courses, volunteer, and look for an organization they believe in only to find that it's not the happy-go-lucky job they wanted. Most non-profit organizations are developed in order to help the underserved. Dealing with the homeless, abused, and misunderstood are daily requirements for most charitable work and it's not always fun. There's a reason why social work is one of the top burn-out professions in our country. So much is required physically and emotionally that recent grads find themselves back in school learning something else.
Pay is Low
I once had an administrative assistant job at a non-profit that paid $18 an hour. I thought this was a bit high for non-profit work since most other similar positions capped it off at around $14. There is money to be made in philanthropy and many of the top level positions are competitive with those of business executives. It really all depends on the size of the organization so if you're looking to make the big bucks, you want to keep your eye on the more renowned organizations.
Anytime money is involved ethics must always be questioned. Non-profits are just happy to receive a contribution and they often don't ask where it's coming from. Donors can be of unknown origin so the organization is not to blame but, more often than not, the organization is aware of how the money was made. Non-profits also have strong ties to businesses since their employees may be serving on their board. If a business is involved in shady practices but one of their employees is President of the board an organization may overlook any wrongdoings. Additionally, funds may be put towards programs at the cost of the employee causing high turnover and a revolving door of unqualified workers. Be wary of an organization that is can't hold down stable employees.