Careers & Ed: No Executive Washroom Here

Nonprofits need businesspeople, and businesspeople seeking new directions may need them?but there are necessary adjustments.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

The recession may have an effect few people are aware of: it could be giving nonprofits a new recruiting edge in the search for managers and employees with business skills, says Jennifer Elder, owner of Sustainable CFO, which provides on-demand CFO services and consulting to small businesses.

There are roughly a million and a half nonprofit organizations in the U.S. (to say nothing of nonprofits functioning abroad with American sponsorship and/or participation). They operate in a myriad of fields, from health to human rights to politics, culture and the arts. They employ over 12 million people and move nearly $350 billion a year, about a third of which goes for personnel costs.

Nonprofits have traditionally suffered from a lack of business-savvy leadership, partly because many of them tend to attract people whose life goals just didn't include making or managing money until they were faced with the financial needs of their often underfunded organizations (though the world of nonprofits includes some organizations that are extremely well capitalized).

Now they may be able to take advantage of the current shortage of jobs to draw on the skills of people who are leaving employment in the business sector, says Elder. But the nonprofits themselves will have to polish their recruiting skills in order to do it, she adds.

To that end, she offers several suggestions. First of all, the nonprofits themselves must recruit more actively, rather than simply waiting for people with a sense of mission related to the mission of the organization to come to them, and hoping those people will be qualified.

Then, given that the salaries they can offer are low compared to salaries in for-profit companies, they must proudly promote what they can offer to compensate for the difference in dollars: the satisfaction of doing work connected with great issues, and having a positive effect on the world; the chance to work with others who are devoted to the organization and to a shared vision; opportunities for learning.

And, even in organizations without much hierarchy, opportunities for some form of advancement should be provided—if not promotions or significant raises, then opportunities for varied experience through cross-training, or assignments that will keep the employee's interest alive.

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The typical picture of the life of a nonprofit staffer or manager involves long, tiring hours shadowed by the ever-present possibility that his or her job will disappear because a funding stream has dried up—all of that capped off by low reimbursement. A master's degree in nonprofit management can get you a salary of $30,000 to $80,000, but probably not the latter unless your organization and your longevity in it are quite durable.

Ironically, by now things are so bad in the for-profit sector, what with the demons of stepped-up job demands and fear of layoffs, that the demanding, precarious life of a nonprofit worker seems less harassing by comparison than it used to seem. That may spell opportunity for nonprofits looking to hire people with proven financial and managerial skills, if those people are able to tolerate reductions in income.

But the nonprofit must look out for its own interests by making sure the applicant has not only the skills the organization needs, but kindred values. If the job candidate has ever done volunteer work related to the nonprofit's mission, for example, that's a good sign.

Another important issue is whether someone accustomed to working in a corporate environment with support staff, set procedures and physical amenities is ready for an environment that's apt to be rather Spartan and a schedule that may be unpredictable. People accustomed to carrying a key to the executive washroom may find the nonprofit setting, with barely adequate physical facilities and sudden, unexpected calls on their time and skills, a tough adjustment.

For information about the new mindset a person may need to begin navigating the nonprofit world, it's worth checking out the resources available through ProInspire (proinspire.org), a website maintained by a group that offers businesspeople help with job searches and counseling about how to adjust to the nonprofit environment.

Michael Alexander, CEO of the United Way of Fresno County, Calif., suggests that someone thinking of making the transition from the for-profit world to a nonprofit ponder these questions:

Do you have a passion for the cause or organization?

Can you work in a nonprofit culture?

Are you comfortable leaving the office and talking with people?

Meanwhile there are many signs that recent college graduates are going into work related to public service, either with the government or with nonprofits. The New York Times has reported that in 2009, the number of "young college graduates" working for nonprofits was 11 percent higher than in the previous year. AmeriCorps got nearly three times as many applications in 2010 as in 2008.

But though entry-level jobs with nonprofits often pay salaries comparable to those paid by starter jobs with for-profit companies, by the time workers arrive at the management level, those working for nonprofits are earning 22 percent less than their counterparts in the for-profit world, the Times found. What won't be known for years is whether the young, as they take on the financial responsibility for families—and baby boomers retire, freeing up jobs in business—will gravitate away from the small, crammed offices, the anxieties and ideals of the universe of nonprofits.

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