The Nonprofit Career Path Puzzle

​Since I transitioned from corporate work into the nonprofit sector over 11 years ago, I’ve wondered and worried about the uncertainty of a long-term career path in the “doing good” world for me, my peers and those who hope to join our ranks. Luckily the tides are starting to turn as the social sector creates a more inclusive, connected community. And there are simple things we can all do as nonprofit leaders to make our sector a place for talented, passionate people to build their professional lives.

A new reality

My first thoughts on this topic came from my own professional life circa 2003. I saw immediate opportunities for my skills at the junior and middle levels of organizations, but I wasn’t sure what it would take to reach the senior positions. And from day one of being “in the trenches” of a nonprofit, I realized that management’s focus was on the mission and the mountains of work in front of us… with professional development and mentoring seen as luxuries of resources and time that we just didn’t have. So I focused on learning as much as I could “on the job” and through day-to-day interactions with my colleagues, as well as what I could glean from reading industry publications.

Stepping into the shoes of a manager

A couple of years later, I was promoted to a role that included management of a small team – and my worries about the vague notion of “nonprofit careers” became much bigger. I was trying to attract and retain talented young professionals, and they wisely pushed me on advancement opportunities and professional development. So I tried to bootstrap career growth for my team through stretch assignments, free or low-cost workshops that I found in our city, emailed and photocopied articles I thought might help them feel connected to a larger do-gooder community, and general pep talks about the importance of their contributions to our mission. I often found myself with a sad, sinking feeling during annual reviews when I knew no matter what I said or did, we just couldn’t offer the promotions, raises or transfer opportunities that they envisioned for their next career step. I lowered my expectations and started to recruit fresh talent with the hope of just keeping them for two, maybe three, years before they moved on to another organization – or more often, another field entirely. I started to shift my focus to coaching my staff to find their personal purpose and maximize their contributions and learnings in each role… If I couldn’t realistically retain them on my team or in our organization for many years, at least I could help them with their general professional path.

Peers dropping out

Meanwhile, I saw my friends and colleagues leaving not just their current organizations, but the nonprofit sector overall. Many could no longer afford the low wages and saw opportunities to pay off student loans and perhaps even start saving by transitioning to corporate, government or even entrepreneurial ventures. They didn’t see a future in senior positions at their organization or others like it. They were burned out from working so hard and encountering so many challenges – all without work-life balance or compensation as a tradeoff. Many also mused that there was a general lack of respect from families, friends and society in general for a nonprofit career. (“Oh wow, that must be rewarding…” with a tone of condescension at a cocktail party isn’t the most motivating reaction.)

So what’s the wake-up call for all of us? Passion alone cannot power our organizations going forward! We need a strong pipeline of talented, motivated and committed professionals to lead our organizations into the future… so we have to get to the core of this problem and find ways to create meaningful, rewarding and long-term career paths in the social sector.

What’s the issue?

As my personal experience highlights, professionals (particularly young professionals) in the social sector often don’t see clear paths on which to build their careers. This uncertainty is magnified by a general lack of mentorship in the sector and minimal investment in professional development by nonprofit employers with limited resources. In my opinion, this situation can lead to a “commoditization” of talent in the sector, with organizations expecting high turnover rates, which reinforces a culture of minimal talent and leadership development.

Why is it an issue?

As nonprofit leaders who are constantly dealing with a scarcity of funding, we typically say lack of financial resources is the reason for uncompetitive compensation and benefits and limited professional development offerings. But I think if we dig deeper, there are additional reasons at play:

  • Pressure to keep overhead low. It’s not just that financial resources overall are limited; it’s that we continue to be held to unreasonable standards by funders, Boards of Directors and others for administrative expenses (which often include staff training, recruiting, and compensation/benefits for non-program staff). Thankfully, this situation is starting to change, but we have a long way to go.
  • Over-valuing senior staff. I’ve seen many organizations place a high premium on recruiting and retaining senior staff (particularly development staff), but minimize the contributions of mid and junior level staff. Of course, good managers who can create successful strategies and effectively lead teams are critical for our organizations – but if we can retain great talent at the mid and junior levels, we’ll have a pipeline of outstanding, committed leaders.
  • Rigid approaches to hiring and promotions. In my experience, nonprofits tend to be very strict in our review of job candidates against a formal job description. We often want candidates (both internal and external) to have already successfully performed the duties described in our job posting, with little flexibility for transferable skills and experiences. I believe this is a risk-averse reaction to the day-to-day pressures facing social sector leaders; we simply can’t afford to make a hiring mistake. But by expanding our hiring criteria, we open up the possibilities for bringing in great new talent and keeping our great current people.
  • Leadership stretched thin. This isn’t a revolutionary new observation, but it’s important to underscore. Nonprofit leaders, particularly executive directors, face a tremendous and growing amount of stress in their efforts to keep their organizations afloat. I believe that most executive directors truly want to invest in their staff and build a leadership pipeline, but they simply don’t have enough hours in the day to make it happen with everything else they’re juggling. No easy answers here, but the onus is on Boards of Directors to empower executive directors to prioritize these issues and funders to allow resources to be used toward these ends.
  • Boards don’t have visibility to junior and mid-level staff. Most Boards of Directors work primarily with the executive directors and senior staff leading each department, but don’t have direct, working contact with the rest of the team members. This is a general reality of a productive organizational hierarchy, but it comes at the cost of Boards not having “faces” for contributions, turnover, etc. Providing some level of exposure to the full staff can help Boards be more invested in human resource decisions.

What can we do about it?

I recommend a number of concrete, resource-light steps for social sector leaders to help turn around the talent and career path issues facing our field:

  1. Get creative with professional development. Pro bono resources (see: Catchafire as one example) can be found to provide staff trainings, executive coaching and more. Train each other: giving staff members the opportunity to share their knowledge helps everyone. And even if it’s a relatively small amount of money, make it a budget commitment each and every year.
  2. Stay updated on nonprofit salary trends. To ensure your salary ranges for all positions are competitive and appropriate, it’s essential to track the latest data for your nonprofit size, geographic area, mission area, etc. Bridgespan has a great list of salary survey resources and you can also find local surveys in most major cities. Recruiters who specialize in the nonprofit sector can also provide solid guidance. To better understand the perspective of candidates from outside the social sector, you might also consider benchmarking against salaries for similar positions, experience levels, etc. in government and corporate sectors.
  3. Address compensation gaps with a phased approach. If/when you find discrepancies between your organization’s pay scales and the sector norms, work with your Board to develop a realistic, phased plan for bringing your organization into alignment over several years. And then be open with staff about your commitment to change.
  4. Round out packages with other benefits. Pay isn’t everything, especially for individuals motivated to work in the social sector. Consider other ways to reward your team such as flexible hours, telecommuting, unlimited vacation time, etc. (see: Great article on The Muse by my friend Liz Kelly about no-cost ways to provide meaningful perks.) You will likely find an increase in productivity when you start to make these options available, even at the smallest organizations.
  5. Connect junior staff with external opportunities for professional growth. Don’t feel like you have to do everything! By paving the way for staff to learn and build their networks, you’re contributing – and they will appreciate it. Nominate staff for awards, recommend them for short-term externships or fellowships, connect them with industry mentors.
  6. Expose Board of Directors to junior and mid-level staff. As I mentioned above, I believe this is a key element of building a comprehensive culture of talent development. Boards need to know the people behind the scenes in order to understand why the investment of time and resources matters. This can be accomplished by selectively including junior and mid-level staff in full Board or committee meetings, organizing welcome lunches between one or two Board members and new staff, inviting Board members to present specific topics for brown bag lunch sessions, etc.
  7. Partner with other organizations to expand the impact. The reality is small and mid-size nonprofit organizations can’t stand alone on this issue; we need to work together. And partnerships will benefit all of us because this isn’t a challenge for a single organization; it’s a sector-wide issue. I believe there’s great potential in pooling resources (contacts, funds, etc.) for general professional development trainings. There are also ways to offer short-term rotation assignments between organizations to bring new ideas into teams and provide growth opportunities for individual staff members.
  8. Consider expanding hiring criteria. Talk to your HR lead and/or the department leads who conduct interviews and make hiring decisions to determine if your criteria are unnecessarily strict. Are there opportunities to consider non-traditional backgrounds or remain open to transferable skills from other industries or functional areas? What are the experience areas that are absolutely essential to successfully perform the job? How should experience within the organization be weighted?
  9. Make mentoring (formal and informal) part of your weekly schedule. I know your calendar is double and triple booked all the time, but mentoring is one of the best investments you can make in the future of your organization and the social sector. It doesn’t have to be a formal mentoring program; you can simply say “yes” to informational interviews, take a promising junior staff member to lunch, or help a former colleague navigate a job transition. One hour a week will make a difference!
  10. Seek gifts from major donors and Board members for leadership/talent development. There’s a lot you can accomplish through bootstrapping, but having access to a pool of funds (even a modest pool) for leadership and talent development will help you take great steps forward in these efforts. Make the case to donors who know your organization and understand the impact of investing in your people.

There is such great potential for all of us as social sector leaders to solve this puzzle and make meaningful career paths and talent development critical elements for the future of our industry! Kudos to all of the leaders and organizations who are already making this a priority – and to groups who are on the front lines of this issue every day, including Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, Talent Philanthropy Project, Net Impact, and many more.