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How Nonprofit Organizations (NPOs) Can Hire Great Employees

In Hiring Strategy — by Dave Anderson


Hiring is always a challenge but nonprofit organizations face additional hurdles when searching for great employees. While it’s a fulfilling endeavor working for an NPO, NGO, or another type of 501(c)(3) organization, it’s a vastly different experience than being an employee of a for-profit business.

However, hiring is a large part of the operations of NPOs, especially as they grow and progress toward their goals. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, an estimated 14.4 million Americans work in the sector as of 2013. That number represents a 14 percent uptick from the 12.7 million people who held NPO jobs in 2003.

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Challenges NPOs face when hiring

Charities, foundations, associations, and similar organizations will face more competition for qualified workers as hiring continues to increase in the sector. But that is only one of the many challenges NPOs encounter when building their teams. Here are a few more to be aware of:

  • Compensation can be lower – Since most people stand to earn more in the for-profit sector, compensation is often a candidate’s main deterrent to accepting a job with a NPO.
  • Work is often not 9-to-5 – And on top of low pay, work can require weekends, nights, or extended travel.
  • Organizational goals can seem out of reach – Every NPO is taking on a large societal problem. While many new hires can be excited at first, they can grow disenchanted by slow progress over time.
  • Burnout is high – All the challenges highlighted above can result in high turnover, as employees leave for more traditional employment.
  • Finding likeminded candidates can be difficult – Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is finding a candidate who is truly interested in your organization’s cause.

NPOs often ask a lot of their employees and can’t always provide the same in return. While for-profit businesses tend to have too many candidates to consider, nonprofits can struggle to attract great ones and retain them once they’re hired.

What to consider when hiring employees for an NPO

Now that we’ve covered the typical challenges NPOs face when hiring, let’s talk about how you can overcome them and find ideal candidates.

Passion and knowledge trump skills

Hiring typical means finding someone with a specific set of skills to handle particular responsibilities. The difference for NPOs is that employees often wear a lot of hats instead of doing the same tasks day-after-day.

Because of that, it can be a good approach to look for someone who is passionate about your organization’s mission, rather than seeking a candidate with a certain skillset. If they have knowledge of the challenges at hand, they can bring smart ideas to the table. It also decreases the likelihood they’ll get discouraged or burnt out down the road, lowering turnover and preventing a future need to hire.

Work and life experiences matter

While skills aren’t overly important when hiring, experience certainly is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean past work history since people with unique life experiences can make great NPO employees as well.

When screening applicants, it’s of course a good idea to consider people who have previously worked, interned, or volunteered with an NPO. It also makes a lot of sense to meet with candidates who have been impacted by the problem your organization is taking on. Whether they’ve been directly affected by it or observed it second hand, you can learn about their perspective and the drive they’ve developed through the experience.

Be cautiously open-minded to transitioning professionals

Many of the candidates who apply to your role will likely have a background in for-profit businesses and be looking to change their career path. As we highlighted at the beginning of this article, even though working for an NPO can be intrinsically rewarding, there are many downsides that can sometimes result in burnout.

It’s important to make sure transitioning professionals understand everything that goes into being an employee of your organization. Ask them why they are looking to make the move and what they expect in return. If their experience and background align with your cause and they understand the sacrifices they might need to make, it’s worth considering them for the role.

Post of your job description in the right places

The overarching theme of this article is that your ideal candidates are different from the people a for-profit business would seek. That means posting your role on the major job boards will only be so effective. The NPO-specific job boards listed below will help you connect with the right candidates:

  • Idealist – With more than 1.4 million monthly visitors looking for jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities, Idealist is one of the largest job boards for NPOs.
  • Common Good Careers – A search firm with an online job board that specializes in filling entry to executive level jobs for NPOs.
  • Nonprofit Career Match – An extension of the NonProfit Times, this job board advertises positions for well-known organizations.
  • National Council of Nonprofits – The main job board for a network of 25,000+ organizations nationwide.
  • Conservation Job Board – A large job board that advertises positions with environmental organizations.
  • Foundation List – A rather new website that features a growing number of NPO job opportunities.

NPOs face numerous challenges when it comes to hiring great employees. With the right approach, you can overcome the challenges and find the right person for your organization.

Image courtesy of Ariel Lustre 

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