What Top Nonprofits Look for in Job Applicants

The “war for talent” is an overused phrase, but it’s a real dilemma for many organisations. Non-profits claim that finding enough employees with the right skills is more difficult than ever. Results from Nonprofit HR’s 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey reveal it’s the sector’s second largest challenge after the ability to pay competitive wages. This is due in part to growth – in the U.S. alone the number of non-profits and the amount of revenue they generate has been rising steadily for over a decade.

On the flip side, interest in non-profit careers is increasing, especially among younger applicants: “Each year more and more entry level professionals demonstrate that working for a non-profit after graduation is important in their career journey,” explains Patty Hampton, vice president and managing partner at Nonprofit HR, a Washington, DC-based human resources consultancy that works exclusively with non-profit organisations. While that’s encouraging news for the sector, it means stiff competition among job seekers. If you’re one of them, you’ll need to demonstrate you possess the knowledge and experience a non-profit needs in addition to a commitment to the greater good.

What are the desired hard skills?

Hampton cites grant writing and impeccable written communication skills as the competencies most sought after by organisations. “As more non-profits compete for foundation dollars, it is critical that people have skills to write and manage grants,” she stresses. In addition, online marketing and branding experience will attract a hiring manager’s attention as building and maintaining a strong presence on social media is now a must for non-profits.

As for other functional skills in demand, those related to direct services (the hands-on delivery of services offered by the organisation) are crucial. Yet, Nonprofit HR’s latest survey points out that retaining staff in this functional area is more difficult than in any other. The skills for direct services are wide-ranging, of course, but common ones include counseling, teaching, medical care and community outreach.

Regardless of their size, non-profits also need employees with many of the same hard skills as for-profit companies seek out – chiefly project/programme management, financial management, IT and HR.

Which soft skills do nonprofits want most?

Personal qualities are important to success in nearly all career fields. But Hampton offers a list of the soft skills most non-profits look for in employees and that you should highlight when applying:

  • Ability to collaborate with diverse groups, both internal and external
  • Genuine authenticity
  • Self-motivation / self-starter attitude
  • Approach to work that is resourceful and innovative
  • Long-term commitment to and passion for mission-driven work
  • “Millennial advantage”

Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) may be the best thing that’s happened to non-profits. Not only do these workers come wired with many of the soft skills organisations want – they generally embrace flexibility, innovation, and meaningful work, for instance — they are also eager to change the way business gets done. Hampton believes Millennials are “causing a brilliant disruption in the status quo,” bringing with them a keen thirst for knowledge and an entrepreneurial approach. This group is transforming how non-profits operate, from recruiting talent to solving problems, while at the same time pushing for a work environment that prioritises “living life”. She encourages non-profits to leverage the skills and vision Millennials offer for greater impact but also to keep this generation’s values in mind.

Editor’s note: Not a Millennial? No problem! It’s more about the attributes that are associated with this particular generation, so when you’re job searching, be sure to put the focus on those attributes themselves, rather than your age! Demonstrate your own abilities to embrace flexibility and meaningful work, as well as your most innovative wins.  

How will your competitive strengths be compensated?  

Some nonprofits now adopt for-profit best practices to stay competitive. As a job applicant, you must show you understand how these organisations use business principles to their own advantage. “The saying that it’s about passion not profits can certainly be applied, but nonprofits also care about revenue,” says Hampton. Success in fundraising relies on creating and delivering value, satisfying customers’ (i.e. donors’) needs, constant innovation, and investment in hiring talent.

If you are set on a position in a non-profit, you’re striking at a good time. There is opportunity for those with the requisite skills and the right attitude.

This article was originally published on The Economist’s Executive Education Navigator

About the author: 

Kate Rodriguez is a former senior career search researcher and government analyst who covers career development and higher education marketing for The Economist Careers Network.

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    • John Smith
    • June 10, 2016

    “Non-profits claim that finding enough employees with the right skills is more difficult than ever. Results from Nonprofit HR’s 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey reveal it’s the sector’s second largest challenge after the ability to pay competitive wages.”

    Hmm, seems the two might have something to do with each other? The talent is out there, the compensation is not. Maybe the first challenge is compensation and there is no talent challenge?

    Organizations overlook qualified and talented candidates due to education standards. Today’s mentality that you have little to no value because your educational achievements do not include college degrees or the right amount is akin to discrimination. It’s a lose-lose situation.

      • Carolina Wertz
      • July 6, 2016

      John-this is a bit long, but I hope you find it helpful:

      I’ve worked in the nonprofit world for 17 years and I can tell you that, unless there is a sector revolution, there will always be a compensation challenge. And not because the nonprofits don’t recognize the value of their employees or wish to pay them competitive wages, but because there will always be a revenue challenge for the nonprofits, who must relentlessly fundraise year after year. This is heightened by the growing number of nonprofits in the field. Trust me, I’ve been “underpayed” for years, but I’ve also had robust benefits (which nonprofits tend to offer) and the chance to apply and broaden my skills in ways my private sector friends have not because nonprofits are also often understaffed and willing to let employees wear various hats, run with ideas, etc. I am one of the few people I know who feels like I won the lottery on a career because it is has been such a rich and rewarding road, despite the fact that I don’t make as much.

      As for your point about the education standard, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Here’s my advice: Apply to a social justice-oriented nonprofit (not just an advocacy organization, but also consider those that work on helping certain populations overcome challenges/level the playing field-like disabilities, poverty, etc.). Why? Many of these organizations are starting to challenge themselves to “walk their walk” and face the internal ways that they may be perpetuating discrimination and throwing up barriers to others. Ignore their education requirements when you apply, but be explicit in your cover letter that you believe your skills meet their requirements despite this and that your qualifications sans degree would help enrich their work environment by diversifying it. If the population they provide services to tend to earn degrees at a lower rate than your average white or Asian, then politely mention that your lack of degree but solid skill set may represent the experience of those they serve.

    • Jacqueline Nichol
    • June 10, 2016

    Education does not seem to be enough either. In fact, I am quite certain that employment by nonprofits has one thing in common with other organizations: it’s more about WHO you know. I’ve applied for many jobs with a willingness to accept lower wages, yet, despite my high education and otherwise clear qualifications, I havent had a response, because I have no “connections”. Really disheartening to read articles like these (which gave me SO MUCH hope when I started my NPT job search one year ago.

    1. We hear you on the prerequisite to “know” someone at the organization. However, it might help to reframe it so that it feels less like a popularity contest and more like building a relationship. In other words, if your first attempt to connect with someone at the organization is after you’ve submitted your job application, it may be a little too late. However, being proactive and reaching out to key players are organizations where you’d like to work, or having a frank conversation with an employer at an organization where you volunteer, might yield great results. We have published several articles about networking such as 20 Ways to Network that Don’t Feel Like Networking, 3 Ways to Casually Grow Your Network, and Knock-Out Networking. To your success, Victoria

    • Rita Heckathorn
    • June 15, 2016

    i do not agree to give millennial this approach. this is why, nowadays, older hard working people are not getting jobs. RH

    1. Hello Rita, thank you for sharing your thoughts on Idealist Careers. Please note that this article is a guest post that was originally posted on The Economist’s Executive Education Navigator blog. The Editor’s Note (from the Editor of Idealist Careers) clarifies our take on the guest author’s comment about the “Millennial advantage” – it is our belief that it is NOT the age itself that is a strong point but the characteristics of this particular generation that employers are finding appealing. The attributes are not exclusive to Millennials and can be exhibited by anyone. We advocate for job seekers of all ages to embrace this particular skill set that has become attractive to employers, and demonstrate these skills in their job applications and subsequent interviews.

  1. Uhm, not sure I should be happy to read this or not. I am not a millennial, though I have 20 years hard office experience and just finished a Professional Certificate program in Non-Profit Management. But the main gist of this is, they want kids, not grown ups… just like the rest of society, I suppose.

    1. Hello Quigon, thank you for taking the time to comment. This article was written by a guest author and includes a note from our Editor. As I mentioned to Rita, we advise job seekers of all ages to embrace the skill set mentioned in the article, rather than focus on the idea that one particular generation has an advantage over another.

    • Zequek Estrada
    • August 3, 2016

    Kate, I’d say that you’re right that non-profit careers are becoming more appealing. While I was in school, I met quiet a few people who were interested in joining non-profit organizations. There tend to be so many out there, but I think it just takes time to search and find out if it suits you.

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