Nonprofits & NGOs

Winning the Talent Game

Nonprofits need to get smart about the competition for great talent.

Talent Matters Talent Matters Talent Matters is a blog series exploring how nonprofit leaders have achieved real-world results through an emphasis on talent.

Tiffany T. is the kind of young woman that could become a nonprofit lifer. She’s smart, articulate, and above all else committed to making a difference in the world. But as she started her job search and senior year at UC Berkeley last fall, Tiffany set her eyes not on the nonprofit sector but on mission-driven business. Now a recent graduate, she's working within the corporate citizenship department of a Fortune 100 company. “I’m happy working at a big company, because I feel like they really have the capacity to inspire others and make change in the world,” says Tiffany.

It used to be that if you wanted to make a difference on social or environmental causes, your options were pretty clear: You went to work in the nonprofit or public sectors. Today, we see from Net Impact members and students like Tiffany that options are much more expansive. You can go work at a nonprofit, but you can also go work at a start-up company or even a big corporation. Today, many companies are using the B-Corps logo to attract young, values-based talent to work in their ranks. And sustainability recruiter Ellen Weinreb reports that these days the only piece of recruiting collateral many corporations bring to campus is a sustainability report.

The fact that companies are now competing for mission-driven talent is, of course, a good thing. To address the problems we face on a global scale, we need people in all sectors to use their day job to make a difference. At the same time, this blurring of lines creates a new challenge for the social sector: We’re competing for talented, mission-driven prospective employees.

Nonprofits can no longer assume that passionate do-gooders will flock automatically to our job postings. We need to enhance our “employer brand” (to borrow a term from companies) to demonstrate all that we have to offer prospective employees—mission and beyond.

In our 2012 “What Workers Want” report, Net Impact and Rutgers University identified the top three priorities college students and college-educated professionals have for their job: a positive culture (90 percent), work-life balance (88 percent), and interesting work (96 percent).

Nonprofits can readily compete, and even outperform, the for-profit sector in these three areas. The fundamental nature of nonprofits—usually smaller, staffed by passionate people, and tackling really dynamic causes—sets us up for success and offers a recruiting advantage. There are a few specific ways I can see nonprofits building our employer brand.

  1. Positive Culture. In our research for “What Workers Want,” 90 percent of survey respondents told us that a positive culture was a very important or essential priority in their job. Much has been made of companies like Zappos, which espouses its zany corporate culture at every turn (“create a little weirdness” is one of the company’s core values). But nonprofits can play this game too. We tend to attract good-hearted, passionate people who care about both their cause and colleagues. Some nonprofits even celebrate their personality and values with culture books (see Do Something’s or Net Impact’s culture deck for inspiration).
  2. Work-Life Balance. Of our survey respondents, 88 percent identified work-life balance as very important or essential to their job satisfaction. While many nonprofits already keep this balance at a reasonable level, the sector needs to do a better job of communicating this fact when hiring new talent. To bring this to life at an organization, first identify which of your balance norms might be most appealing to recruits (it will likely depend on the seniority level or day-to-day responsibilities of a position). Examples I’ve seen include “no email weekends,” giving employees a bonus day off for holiday shopping or birthdays, and open policies on flex time.
  3. Interesting Work. As author Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, people are highly motivated by a sense of mastery, or the urge to get better and better at something that matters. Here is another lever nonprofits can pull: We have endless projects to tackle and opportunities to grow. Organizations can make sure even the most junior employees have a chance to contribute to interesting and important work, giving them outstanding professional development opportunities in the process. After all, the 70-20-10 rule shows that 70 percent of learning on the job comes from doing, versus 20 percent by mentoring or coaching, and 10 percent from classroom training.

If nonprofits can work together to establish a more cohesive employer brand around “mission and,” we can attract the best talent in the world to grow our organizations and drive transformative change.

As we’ve heard time and again in this series, hiring is often a secondary priority for busy nonprofit executives; it comes after work on strategy, fundraising, and program development. But if we don’t attract the right people to work on our strategy (or fundraising or programs), it will take much more time to meet our goals—and the issues we tackle every day are too important to wait. It’s time for the nonprofit sector to get serious about competing in the talent game.

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  • BY Monisha Kapila

    ON July 9, 2014 10:53 AM

    Liz, I absolutely agree with your perspective on this.  The nonprofit sector has to start thinking more about becoming an “employer of choice” as the options increase for people to do mission driven work in different sectors.  We have seen continued interest from candidates in the ProInspire Fellowship program, which recruits young business professionals to work for nonprofits.  When we interview top candidates, we hear that they are also applying to jobs with startups, social ventures, and companies where they can make a difference.  This means that the competition for recruiting AND retaining people is not coming from other nonprofits, but from organizations with different value propositions and resources.  Thank you for sharing your research on this important topic!

  • Emily Schroeder's avatar

    BY Emily Schroeder

    ON July 9, 2014 11:23 AM

    Great article, Liz. Sounds like everything is going very well at NI!

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON July 9, 2014 12:38 PM

    In this blog article I provide a link to Dan Pallotta’s TED talk showing challenges facing non profits. Finding the funds to hire and retain top talent is one of those challenges.  While it’s great to talk about what non profits need to do to attract talent, let’s talk about what businesses and philanthropy need to do to assure non profits have the money to attract and retain that talent.

  • Austin Carroll Keeley's avatar

    BY Austin Carroll Keeley

    ON July 10, 2014 01:26 PM

    Sure, interesting work, a positive culture, and work-life balance are required to attract top-talent, but are they sufficient? The social sector does not have the robust pipeline it needs to track talent out of universities and into the social sector. I bet one of the reasons that Tiffany ended up at a Fortune 100 company is because they do targeted recruiting at Cal. If we don’t get people in the pipeline, culture/balance/interesting work won’t be enough to attract talent.

  • Liz Maw's avatar

    BY Liz Maw

    ON July 10, 2014 03:03 PM

    Thanks for the great comments.  Austin, I agree that it’s hard to pass up the convenience and early timing of on campus recruiting.  Perhaps we need more programs like New Sector, which recruits college students into a fellowship program and then places them in nonprofits.  If a number of social sector organizations shared resources and recruited collectively, we’d be able to build the pipeline more.

    Daniel, I agree that our society has a sometimes twisted view of compensation. Nonprofit people work for the most important outcomes in the world, yet they should be paid less?  Dan Palotta’s TED talk is fascinating and thought provoking (and he is keynoting at the next Net Impact Conference, November 2014, by the way).

  • BY Anne Hays Egan

    ON July 16, 2014 06:04 AM

    Thanks for an informative and thought provoking article. Many years ago, there was some research indicating that the non-monetary motivators provided by many nonprofits provided them with an edge in recruiting, as long as salaries were adequate. Today, an increasing number of socially responsible businesses provide many of those non-monetary value related motivators in addition to more competitive salaries. This represents a significant challenge to nonprofits, and your three points offer helpful tools.

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