BOSTON — WHEN he was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, Jim Clark tried all kinds of internships in hopes of getting a feel for the job market awaiting him.
He tried a government job, a corporate job, and a job with a nonprofit agency.
He decided the last suited him best, but when the time drew near to find a position with such an organization, he encountered an obstacle: It was difficult to get a handle on just what was available among the community-development, environmental, health-related, and public-interest nonprofits springing up in all corners of the continent.
That's when Access: Networking in the Public Interest started to take shape.
Mr. Clark began working the phones and his computer to compile all the information he could about job needs and openings in the not-for-profit world. He kept at it after graduation, spending long hours in the New York Public Library building lists of nonprofits.
Clark had in mind a clearinghouse publication of jobs available with nonprofit agencies. The first mailing he sent out offering such a service to a few thousand nonprofits got an 80 percent positive response, he says. That launched him, and after a few years in the New York-Connecticut area, Clark moved the operation to Boston, where it occupies a Beacon Street address not far from the Massachusetts State House.
Access's current services include a monthly newspaper called Community Jobs, which has a readership of more than 100,000, a regional-employment newsletter for the nonprofit sector in the New York-New Jersey area, a special package of information for college and university career offices, and a National Service Guide that lists volunteer and internship opportunities. His idea seems more on-target than ever, says Clark, since the nonprofit sector continues to expand.
The organizations he lists fall roughly into the category of ``charities,'' which means that contributions to them are tax-deductible.
There were about 325,000 such organizations in 1982, and they have proliferated at a rate of about 50,000 a year since then, Clark says.
Christine Letts, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says it is only recently that nonprofits have come to be ``something that people refer to as a `sector.' '' That term, with its economic implications, heralds nonprofits' arrival as ``a force in society potentially equal to that of private industry or government,'' Ms. Letts says.
Clark says the importance of nonprofit agencies to the country is their ability to function as ``social laboratories'' where new ideas germinate and are tested. He sees this going on in such areas as ``microenterprises,'' the fostering of very small businesses with loans of a few thousand dollars from nonprofit lenders. For many poor people, such loans are an indispensable leg up.
Some 22,000 such loans have been made to start-up businesses and 44,000 to existing ones, Clark says, estimating that well over 200,000 people have been affected by the activity. This is an example, he says, of how nonprofits can work at a ``much higher level of efficiency'' than governments can.But there's another side to the comparison with government. While nonprofits are often called the ``independent'' or ``third'' sector, they frequently are closely linked to the governmental sector. Government contracts are often a larger source of funds for nonprofits than private contributions, says Alan Abramson, a research associate with the Urban Institute in Washington.
Clark is well aware of that relationship, since he served as a liaison to the nonprofit sector for the Clinton campaign in 1992 and has been active in shaping administration policy toward nonprofits since then. People in nonprofit work are aware that the relationship with government could get too cozy, Clark says. The sector recognizes that ``its strength is as a laboratory, and the less independent it is, the less experimental it can be.''
Effective community agencies will have to steer clear of such restrictions and ``serve people based on what people want,'' Clark says. ``It's customer-driven'' - as distinct from agencies that try ``to impose a concept and say, `Here's what you need.' ''
Clark has few doubts that the nonprofit sector will continue to grow, and that lots of people - both mid-career job switchers and those fresh out of college - will continue to seek work in it.
The generation that has been graduating from college since the late 1980s is ``idealistic and skeptical at the same time,'' he says. ``They're not driven by ... ideology ... to say, `I should be acting a certain way.' My generation is getting involved because we have to get involved - it's our future.''
Most people balance the idealism of helping society against the need to make a living. Salaries in the nonprofit sector are becoming more competitive, especially at the entry level, Clark says.
But many nonprofits have to strive constantly for the donations, grants, and contracts that keep them going.
His own nonprofit, Access, is kept afloat by subscription income from its publications and services (about 60 percent of the budget) and by grants from major foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Kellogg Foundation.