Without having some connection the referral, it's unwise to ask for a reference. But just because you don't know anybody at the nonprofit doesn't mean your networking contacts don't. Check your LinkedIn account to see if there is anybody in your network that has connections at the nonprofit. If there's someone that you know fairly well who has connections, send a message asking if they can help you get in touch with the person in question.
Familiarity is key with references. You need to be sure that your contact knows this person well enough to ask for a referral, so be sure to ask this. Your contact should also know you well enough to be able to accurately describe your skills and experience. The better he/she knows you, the more likely they will be able to convince the potential reference that you would be a good fit for the organization.
Here are some other things to keep in mind:
- If you do happen to know someone at the nonprofit to which you are applying, precede your request for a reference with an explanation of why you would be a good fit at the organization. This should be no more than three or four sentences.
- Take no for an answer. Your reputation will suffer if you try to convince the person to change their mind.
- Offer to buy your contact lunch to discuss the situation further. This is a nice gesture and will give you an opportunity to explain anything you want he/she to know.
- Remember to send a thank-you note to your contact if they provide you with a reference, even if you don't end up getting the job.