Getting a Job in the Conservation Movement
If you get discouraged easily, you won't make it in the conservation movement.
By Andy Kerr
During my 20 years with the Oregon Natural Resources Council (now Oregon Wild), I was often asked for a job or for advice on how to get a job in the conservation movement. I found myself saying the same thing so often that I decided to write it down. While it is less personal, I hope you find it useful. It's a more considered opinion than you'll get by cornering me for a few moments, or getting me on the telephone or via email. Please keep in mind that it is only one person's perspective.
First, if you get a job with a non-profit conservation organization, it won't be as much money as you could make in the private sector. The well-heeled groups (to national groups, Oregon Wild looks like a shoestring operation; to local grassroots groups, Oregon Wild appears to be rolling in the bucks) offer salaries that range from near competitive to livable, but not quite. If you are in it for the money only, go do something else.
I assume you have a commitment to the cause and want to make a difference and that a government or private sector job doesn't interest you, although they are (relatively) more stable. Funding for non-profits is most always volatile; more so than the profit-driven private sector or the relatively stable government sector. If you desire stability over all else, look for another field. Even if the funding is secure, programs change, executive directors change, boards of directors change and you may or may not be able to change with them.
I also ask people to tell me what is their perfect job fantasy. It may be a job that someone already has. You should know before you start looking, so as to be better able to find it or make your ideal job.
So, what kinds of traits do you need to get a job in the conservation movement? Intelligence, commitment, experience, perseverance, and money.
Intelligence It helps to be really smart. Not just educated (see Experience below), but smart. It's a necessary edge in a very competitive field.
Commitment You should be deeply committed to the cause. Others are and if you aren't, you won't be competitive. Show it by having worked long hours, with lousy (or no) pay, under miserable conditions for some just cause.
Experience You should be skilled in several areas; the more the better. Skill isn't necessarily the classes you've taken in college. As a college dropout, I've found that most of the classes I took weren't particularly relevant to my day-to-day work. Picking up the variety of skills (generalists are usually more valuable than specialists) is vitally important. Communication (writing and speaking) skills are important in most jobs. Computer literacy is vital. Technical skills may be of importance. Fundraising skills never hurt. You can gain skills by volunteering for non-profit groups or political campaigns, locally or in Washington, DC. Do whatever they ask you to do (remember commitment). In college, intern as much as possible (for the good guys if you can, but for the bad guys if you must). Get as much "practical" experience as possible. You may be better off to take a job outside the Pacific Northwest and gain some experience and then return here.
Perseverance If you get discouraged easily, you won't make it in the conservation movement. Since jobs are so tough to find, you'll need to be around (meaning volunteering or otherwise connected) when the opportunity strikes. Perseverance is also a trait highly valued in the conservation movement. When I suggest volunteering, I'm talking about at least a year commitment. It may not be fair, but doing so will dramatically increase your chances of getting a job in the movement. Sometimes, a volunteer makes themselves indispensable to the organization and it becomes in the organization's interest to keep them on after they can't volunteer any longer. You are going to need lots of luck. Despite the low pay, long hours, poor working conditions, there is very little turnover in the conservation movement. To get a job, you must step into a job, get a new job due to expansion, or make your own job (see Money). By volunteering, going to conferences, etc. you can make yourself known on the network and be ready to seize job opportunities when the arise. You might not get lucky, in spite of all efforts.
Money While the love of money may well be the root of all evil, the spending of money is also the root of some good. If you can bring money to the organization that wants to hire you, it can be a big help. Don't think that you can buy a job though. While money is a limiting factor to growth and effectiveness of most organizations, I wouldn't consider hiring someone who was lacking in intelligence, perseverance, commitment, and experience. If you come to an organization and want a job as an intern, and you have already secured the money to keep you alive while doing it, you are more likely to get their attention. The source could be a foundation, a conservation internship program, a rich aunt, or whatever. If you don't have money, volunteer (intern) half time, and work some paying job the other half and live simply. Developing fundraising skills, although it won't be a part of most formal job descriptions, is very important.
I write this not to discourage you, but hopefully to sober and focus you. These suggestions aren't hard and fast. Following them will not ensure you a job; not following them may get you a job anyway. What I look for most is passion. It is easier to make a professional out of an environmentalist than an environmentalist out of a professional.
Most of you won't find careers in the conservation movement. However, if you are good (intelligence, experience, commitment and the ability to raise money) and lucky (greatly enhanced by perseverance), you can make a career in the conservation movement. You can do good, even if you can't do well. It's a dirty job, but someone gets to do it.