New Jobs Growth Trend? Nonprofit Pursuit of Happiness

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When 27 year-old Damali Elliott started the non-profit Petals-N-Belles three years ago, she gave up a promising career in public relations. It was a decision criticized by her friends and family. But that unconventional choice may soon pay off.

It appears Elliott is a pioneer in a trend that's emerging in the jobs market. Educated 20-somethings looking to take control over their careers and do something meaningful in a struggling economy — even if that means starting from scratch without a salary.

“When I first began, I held two full time positions. As the organization grew, I made a sacrifice — quit my job and moved in with my parents, who are very supportive,” said Elliott. “Needless to say my life has changed a lot, but I am the happiest I have ever been professionally. Once Petals-N-Belles grows a bit more, my position, as well as others, will become a salary position. “

Petals-N-Belles is a New York City-based organization which mentors and strives to empower girls ages 12 to 22, especially those in need. It focuses on the importance of self-esteem, personal values, cultural awareness, community service and education.

Elliott said, "We live donation to donation. We have a few corporate sponsorships and recently got an educational grant from Target… We are making do, but not at a level where we can give anyone a salary."

She hopes by early next year she'll be able to pay herself and add a couple of full-time paid positions to the organization.

Similar to Petals-N-Belles, 26 year-old Jaleni Thompson also helped begin a nonprofit that is 100 percent volunteer-based. Thompson co-founded D.R.E.A.M, which stands for Developing Responsible Economically Advanced Model Citizens, in 2009. It’s a financial education and advocacy organization committed to empowering urban youth.

“We funded it by our own pockets, initially,” said Thompson, who is also the group’s Chief Strategy Officer.

“The state of the economy made some things come to light for my co-founder and I. It made us a little more intrigued and compelled to do something about this extreme gap of knowledge, specifically in certain communities.”

National Avg. Salaries at Non-Profits

Entry Level
Member Services Representative $29,662
Community Organizer $31,903
Mid-Career Level
Community Outreach Specialist $50,323
Direct Mail Specialist $52,246
Program Director $68,103
Corporate Group Manager $77,072
Executive Level
Chief Association Executive $226,502
Top Foundation Executive $154,790
Fundraising Director $109,328

Unlike Elliott, Thompson kept his day job. He's an analyst at Moody’s. Thompson hasn’t considered hiring people – yet. It all depends on the lending environment and if he can grow the organization over the next few years.

These endeavors may signal a semi-permanent shift in the jobs market. Not only are 20-somethings pursuing opportunities at nonprofits versus the traditional higher-paying corporate jobs, so are former Wall Street veterans.

“When you go through a boom period and then one of excess, often in the aftermath of it, people want different things. They see the emptiness of what they were chasing. So, they look for work that fulfills their goals or what they need in order to feel necessary again. We are in an era of this,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a jobs market outplacement and consulting firm.

49-year-old Brian Ricklin spent more than 25 years working in real estate private equity on Wall Street. He's now executive director and CEO of Creative Arts Workshops For Kids in New York City. The nonprofit uses visual, performing and technology arts and design to teach job and developmental needs to underserved youth.

"For me, the move was a natural progression. It was not a shift in the economy. I hopefully had the foresight to depart the private-equity market at the right time," said Ricklin, who has been involved with philanthropy for years.

His nonprofit is hiring. Ricklin is looking for a development and business manager with about two or three years experience. The position pays about $50,000 a year and includes benefits.

"We will probably see a lot of resumes. Am I going to see them coming from the private sector? I absolutely will," said Ricklin.

Stephanie is producer of CNBC's Squawk Box. Follow her on Twitter @StephLandsman

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