How Association Leaders Can Bust Myths About Nonprofits

A recent survey shows the persistence of nonprofitdom's negative reputation. An unsettled economic time might be a good time to debunk them.

The nonprofit world has a certain reputation: slow-moving, low-paying, and providing little room for advancement. And a report last month from Nonprofit HR shows that the conventional wisdom is persistent. A survey of more than 1,000 workers in both nonprofits and for-profits found that half of them would be seeking work in the next five years, and that 23 percent of those wouldn’t consider work at nonprofit. Among the most common reasons given for that were the low pay, lack of advancement opportunities, and a sense that nonprofits are “not well-run businesses.” Time for everybody in nonprofitdom to do another walk of shame.

But hang on. All is not lost.

Polls have shown for some time that disengagement in the U.S. workforce is pervasive, and that half of all employees are actively looking for a new job. So the finding that workers feel comfortable holding tight for five years is no indictment on nonprofits’ ability to attract and retain employees. Nor is the idea that three-quarters of the people who are thinking about leaving their jobs would consider working at a nonprofit. After all, according to some measures by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonprofit workers earn as much if not more on average than their for-profit brethren.

Myths can be stubborn though, so what to do about that 23 percent? Nonprofit HR CEO Lisa Brown Alexander bemoaned the situation in a release related to the report. “The social sector, rich with diverse and rewarding career opportunities, has long faced the misperception of being low-paying with limited opportunities for professional growth,” she stated. “These results confirm how pervasive this misperception is across the nation and re-ignites urgency in refuting this myth.”

Forty-five percent of nonprofits say that attracting hiring diverse talent is a top recruiting priority.

All this myth-making has put pressure on leaders at associations and other nonprofits, but there’s some evidence that they’re stepping up. A recent report in the NonProfit Times found that more nonprofits are exploring incentives ,such as signing bonuses for executives, performance bonuses for other employees, and all-staff perks that focus on wellness. Though two-thirds of nonprofit employers don’t have a formal talent management strategy, according to another Nonprofit HR report, more than half say they are prioritizing compensation and benefits in 2020. And according to a PNP Staffing Group report, a majority of nonprofits plan to offer raises this year.

We’ve entered complicated times for hiring and retention: In the past month, we’ve gone from a battle for talent in response to a boom economy to a global epidemic that’s prompted a bear market that’s raising questions about the stability of the global economy. Associations tend to take a hit on this front—their bottom lines, not to mention their sense of purpose, often hinges on connecting people, and more and more opportunities to connect via meetings are being cancelled. But one lesson learned from the last recession is that a strong sense of mission is meaningful to current and potential employees.

So there are a couple of heartening data points from another Nonprofit HR report, on talent management. One is that nonprofits are making putting diverse hiring first: According to the survey of 345 nonprofits, 45 percent say that “attracting/hiring diverse talent” is a top recruiting priority; respondents also report that assessing and improving its organizational culture are priorities as well.

Compensation and benefits matter in the competition for employees, of course. But in challenging times, the message that a mission-driven organization is focused on creating an inclusive and open work environment can resonate with the people who work for you—and who you want to hire. It’s a message that already resonates with members, who come to your association not just for professional support but also a sense of belonging. And that message is just as meaningful to employees, who may learn that those myths are just that.

Are economic concerns changing how your association is thinking about hiring and retention? Share your thoughts in the comments.

(Viktoriya Kuzmenkova/iStock/Getty images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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