Tips on breaking into the opaque world of non-profit and political jobs in Washington DC
The morning of the 2016 presidential election, I stood on risers in the East Room of the White House, watching President Obama wrap up his talk. “Be kind, be useful, be fearless,” he told us, the White House Interns, at the end of an hour of questions. He waved us off, and we loped back to our offices, determined to go off into the world and do just that. My internship would end in a few weeks, and I knew what I wanted— to leverage my resume and connections to find a job in the new Clinton administration.
Of course, those hopes seem laughable now. The next months hit us hard. Suddenly my colleagues and I were competing for a tiny pool of jobs in a city flooded with people hoping to “drain the swamp.” As a newly ordained swamp-creature, I had almost no chance of finding a political job in most government agencies and departments. Fortunately, after months of hard work and desperation, I finally found a job in an organization I could believe in, doing something I loved.
Political transitions are always like this, even if it is your political party coming to power. Washington DC turns over, overnight. Thousands of people leave, and tens of thousands of hopefuls arrive. Everything changes. Even restaurants fail or succeed based on which party is in power (steakhouses did particularly well after 2016). As Michael Scott would say, it’s a doggy-dog world.
These are tips to help you be one of the lucky arrivals who actually lands a job.
Know your personal political absolutes
Washington is inescapably political. These days, skipping back and forth between parties is (sadly for the state of our union) nearly impossible. If you end up working for an organization which does not align to your personal values, you will have a very difficult time convincing a more appropriate place to take you on.
So, first and foremost, you need to know what you believe. Not on every issue, but at least on the issues most relevant to your area of passion. A vague interest in “politics” may land you in a place you realize too late advocates for a world you don’t want to live in.
Even if you solidly align with one camp, I suggest you still take a moment for introspection. People’s values shift over time, and you may find your inner political landscape shifting more quickly than you realized.
Learn the lingo
Do you know the difference between a Program Officer and a Program Assistant? What about the difference between a Legislative Assistant and a Legislative Correspondent? I didn’t know these terms, and my ignorance resulted in a few weeks of blundering around as I looked for jobs.
It’s much easier to find what you’re looking for if you have the sense of what sort of positions are available at non-profits, think tanks, and political offices. Research this, figure out which level you’re qualified for, and apply.
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Use your time tactically
Even if your political party is in office, finding a job in DC is a challenge. Most people who come to DC spend more than three months just looking for a job. You are extremely unlikely to be hired if you are still living outside the DC area. In a city deluged with applicants, someone less accessible simply isn’t worth the work. The most likely positions you will be hired for from afar are internships, but most of these are unpaid.
This set up is, of course, inherently unfair. It highly favors people with the money or connections necessary for them to spend months in an expensive city looking for a job, or working in an unpaid internship. Unpaid internships, by the way, are the norm, and many jobs expect you to have had a couple before you apply for a paid position. This system perpetuates people from privilege getting positions of privilege, and is seriously the worst.
But don’t despair just yet. Temp agencies abound in DC, and many of them cater to applicants just like you — smart, accomplished, and looking for fulfilling, permanent work. I worked at a temp agency for four months, and actually thought it was great fun. It enabled me to keep applying for jobs, was super flexible about allowing me time off to interview, and sent me all over the DMV area (DC-Maryland-Virginia) to temp at every type of office imaginable. From a sheer adventure perspective, it was awesome. I worked at a National Nursing Organization, a Nuclear Engineering Firm, and an Immigration Lawyers Association, among others. I even worked the door at a Trump Inaugural Ball (a surreal experience, given that I had just left the Obama White House).
Finding jobs in each sector
Government jobs: Don’t let the USA Jobs algorithm bury you
USA Jobs is terrible. It’s a site meant to direct you to basically any job in the US government, but since that’s a mammoth undertaking, it doesn’t necessarily work in your favor. If you’re not careful, it can be a black hole into which your applications disappear forever.
Beyond making sure you have the best application possible (this is essential, of course), the way to make sure your application is seen by an actual human is to play to the algorithm. Otherwise, the algorithm will discard your application before it has even reached its destination.
To get the algorithm to like you, you have to parrot back the exact phrasing used in the job description. If it says “seeking an applicant with experience in program design and implementation”, you need to write “I have program design and implementation experience” and not “I have created programs and helped get them off the ground.” Synonyms are a no-go.
Similarly, if the job has a list of “required” skills, and you don’t have all or most of them, the algorithm probably won’t send you through to the next stage.
If you don’t meet the requirements, but think you’d be a good candidate anyway (which you likely will, people will often overlook applicants’ weaknesses if they strongly match other qualifications) you can apply through USA jobs, and then also through other means — say passing your resume to someone you meet in an informational interview, or contacting the organization directly.
Government Jobs: Look for civil servant positions (non-political appointees)
If your political party is on the outs, you can still work for government agencies as a civil servant and not a political appointee. But, if you do this, be aware that you will not be calling the shots. Civil servants are fundamentally apolitical, and therefore not the ones who design policy. If you’re opposed to that, these jobs are not for you.
Non-Profits and Think Tanks: Map the organizational landscape
If you’re looking to work in a non-profit or a think tank, you can start finding potential organizations with a simple Google search. If it’s Middle Eastern Affairs, try “middle east organization, Washington DC.” You’ll be surprised at the lists people have compiled online. They’re a good start, but soon you’ll have to do a deep dive, searching through websites thoroughly to find links to other organizations to add to your list.
Be aware of this key fact: unless it’s a Super Pac, a partisan lobbyist, or a political office, most organizations rarely advertise their political leanings in bold letters on the top of their website. Think tanks and non-profits will have innocuous names like “Middle East Forum” which tell you nothing about which approach to foreign policy they advocate. Yet, this being DC, each organization does have a definitive place on the spectrum, even if it is right in the middle.
The easiest way to figure out an organization’s political alignment is to look at who each organization invites to speak at events. For example, if they consistently invite members of the current administration, you can conclude they’re on good terms with it, and vice versa.
A more difficult, but perhaps more enlightening, method to assess political leaning is to see who funds the organization. This requires some internet sleuthing, but will give you gobs of insight into whether it is the sort of place you’d feel comfortable working or not.
Even if your party is slaughtered in the national election, a non-profit or think tank is unlikely to change its political alignment and will still be looking for someone with your values.
Political Offices: Work for campaigns to get top positions with freshman politicians
If you have the time and means to play the long game, you should definitely work for a campaign. This is a crap shoot, since you don’t know if the candidate will win and, even if they do, if you’ll be offered a permanent job.
But this strategy can pay off big time. Presidents usually staff the White House top jobs with their loyal campaign volunteers and employees. Senators and Representatives do too. This method can shoot you out of obscurity to some of the most influential positions in the country.
Political Offices: Apply first to offices with which you have a “personal connection”
“Personal connection” to a place is practically a currency in Congress. Basically, if you apply to the office of a Senator from Arkansas and you’re from Nevada, you are significantly less likely to get the job than an equally (or nearly equally) qualified candidate from Arkansas.
Political offices are frequented by people from the states they represent, and visitors almost always ask where office workers are from. It is awkward if you’re not from the state your boss represents, especially if you’re working a public-facing job. This matters less in higher positions in the office, but it still matters. I very nearly got a job working for a Representative from New Mexico, but was beaten out by a New Mexico native (I know this because the hiring manager called me to apologize for not hiring me. It was very odd).
If you’re not from the state of the office you’re interested in, you can get away with having gone to school in that state, or having lived there at some point. Or, if you’re pushing it, you could apply to the state where your Grandparents live and you visited in the summers. Even something as tenuous as this will give you a leg up.
If you’re from a small, under-represented state, you’re basically a shoe-in. States like Wyoming, Alaska, and Mississippi, often struggle to get applicants from their home state. When they do, they snatch them up. Count yourself lucky if that’s you.
Of course, this shouldn’t stop you from applying to the offices of politicians from places you don’t have a connection to. Plenty of people do and still get the job.
All sectors: Use your personal network
Possibly the thing I found the most difficult to adjust to in DC was the networking culture. Most new relationships take on a transactional nature, which makes even a basic conversation feel like part of some larger strategy.
If you’re smart about it, this can work to your benefit. Because people expect networking for the sake of personal advancement, there is nothing embarrassing about approaching friends of friends and asking if they’ll advocate for you, or if they have suggestions. People are willing to do more than you’d think.
But note this — just because you’re looking for opportunity doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be sincere. A high percentage of the best opportunities I have had came through relationships I cultivated for no other reason than making a friend. From friendships, opportunities come organically. It’s a beautiful symbiosis.
Methods to make you stand out
Do as many “informational interviews” as possible
Before I lived in DC, I had never heard of an informational interview. Now recommend this tactic to everyone I meet. Basically, it means asking people who work in positions you’re interested in to meet up with you for coffee and offer you advice. You can contact them on LinkedIn or Facebook if you don’t have their email address or a second-hand contact.
People are incredibly willing to do these interviews. I almost never had someone refuse to meet with me when I asked, and I always emerged from these meetings with a great deal more insight into the organization and their hiring practices.
If you’re lucky, the person you speak with will even tell you to send your resume to them so they can shop it around to their organization personally.
I can’t stress enough how worthwhile and easy these interviews are. DO IT.
Be aware of what your application signals
Markers of political alignment are everywhere for those who have the eyes to see. Your university, hometown, previous jobs — all offer people a clue of which way you might lean. If you defy those stereotypes, you need to make that clear somewhere in your application. Particularly at very partisan organizations, not being from the right background can cost you your opportunity.
Personalize every single application for every single job
It’s tempting to shoot out as many applications as possible and see what comes back. But that’s what everyone does, and during a political transition, there are literally hundreds of applicants to every single job. And, even more worryingly, most of applicants are extremely impressive. You’re competing against people from the best schools, with the most incredible job histories, and with personal connections to boot. Somewhere else, your background might be incredible. But in DC, even Harvard graduates who spent two years fighting malaria in Malawi are a dime a dozen.
If you send a generic application, the hiring manager will see right through it and you’ll go join the hundreds of other applications in the rejection pile. You’ll probably never even know that you were rejected, since most of the time, you simply never hear back.
Make yourself stand out by taking time on each application. This includes tailoring your resume to highlight aspects relevant to the job you’re applying for. It’s super tedious, I know, but it really make a difference. My White House Supervisor once told me that my resume’s clear formatting and relevance to the position was one of the top reasons he requested me to be his intern.
Volunteer — it’s a shockingly good way to find opportunities
When I finally found a permanent job, it was because of volunteering. I went with a friend to a MLK day training for refugees to help them enter the job market. There, at lunch, I met someone who worked at my eventual employer. He told me all about his job, and I found it aligned perfectly with my interests. With his encouragement, I applied. I likely would not have thought to apply there otherwise.
This is not the only time I’ve seen this happen. A friend and I attended an anti-human trafficking event where she took the time to meet the event organizers. They found her so impressive, they hired days later.
A dose of (unfortunate) reality
If you’re just starting out in DC, you’re probably going to be underemployed
Especially if your political party is on the outs, you will likely have few job options that match your level of qualifications. I certainly didn’t. When I was finally hired, it was as a paid intern. People with a master’s degrees and the work experience I had usually were three levels higher in the organization. However, I took the job because it was at the right place, and they would actually pay me. Fortunately, I was able to promote quickly, and within a year was at the level commensurate with my age and experience. That year also afforded me the opportunity to learn the ropes of a new industry, so by the time I rose to the level I wanted to be, I actually knew what I was doing.
You’re probably going to be paid terribly
Jobs in DC are notoriously underpaid, unless you’re working for a lobbyist (they get paid bank). Political jobs, non-profits, think tanks, all pay barely enough to get by in the city. I knew almost no one who did not live with roommates, and most people had to figure out creative ways to economize their food purchases and transportation to make sure they could survive.
These are jobs of passion, and consequently, employers don’t have to offer high dollar figures to get people to apply. If you work in the city long enough, you start to make decent money, but it takes years.
If the work you love is in DC , it’s worth all the effort it takes to get there.
DC is an unusual place, with things that are normally hobbies (political action, volunteer work, international exchange, etc) suddenly turned into real, paying jobs. There are few places like it in the world, particularly not places with power and prestige like you’ll find in DC.
If you can handle the political divisiveness and the uncertainty of the moment, it’s an incredible place to be. Just remember, be kind, be useful, and be fearless.