Now Is The Time To Commit To Long Term Investments In Nonprofit Staff

The John’s Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies has just released their latest analysis on nonprofit job growth, and folks, it isn’t great.

Large numbers of jobs were lost in health-care organizations, human services, arts and recreation. If it wasn’t for the 24,000 jobs added by educational nonprofits we would’ve been looking at a large net loss rather than a modest 5,158 gain.

Now for that big jaw dropping number. The total nonprofit workforce is still 958,000 jobs down than when the pandemic took such a devastating hold on society back in February of last year. That’s a 7.7% decline for the third largest sector employer and these number show that it will be a further two years until we get back to pre-pandemic levels.

The cuts could’ve been and ultimately could get worse with President Biden only recently pledging that 600m doses of the Covid-19 vaccine available by the end of July, meaning that the critical mass of vaccinated citizens needed to start moving out of the fog of the pandemic would be achieved. 

That will be almost 18 months since we all grabbed our valuables from our offices and took up residence in temporary office space in our spare bedrooms, kitchen tables and whether we put down the ironing board for the day. It’s been quite the ordeal, and no doubt one felt acutely by nonprofit staff nationwide, and one that can still continue to have reverberations across the social sector through to the end of the year. 

During natural disasters many of our societies systems and infrastructure are exposed. Exposed for their neglect and underinvestment. Exposed for a lack of planning and mitigation, and exposed for a lack of foresight. Organizations can be eerily similar in certain aspects and nonprofit leaders need to understand that the possible next test of their organizational resolve is the exposure of their talent pipelines. 

This forecast is coming more and more into focus. When job-holders were asked about their motivations for staying in their current role, 74% cited some variant of “sheltering in job,” according to LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index. 

Those responses included collecting a steady paycheck (59%), enjoying a company’s perks and benefits (30%), waiting for a more favorable job market (15%), and having no time or energy to make a switch (14%). 

My simple message is this. Having to let staff go because of decreased revenues is difficult. Losing staff shortly after the pandemic ends – after you have fought so hard to keep over the past 18 months, tinkering with budgets, being more flexible with working conditions and expectations and other measures – could be a big blow to your organization bouncing back quickly when society and the economy gets moving once more.

So now is the time to start investing in your staff. Not just for your organization, but for the broader region you serve.

Working in the social sector is hard, but it’s a palace where you can make a real difference in peoples lives and to help advance positive change for the causes you are most passionate. The noblest motive is the public good and is best served by a commitment to fairness, equality and creating systems that lead to opportunities for all.

Working in the social sector is hard, yes, but life is hardly easy.

I speak often about what I call the ‘professional cliff face.’ I feel that by not engaging emerging leaders and putting them on a pathway to leadership to which they can see, contribute to, and in a small way control, then we risk losing them as a true civic asset to our communities in the future. And by ‘civic asset’ I mean someone who is actively participating in the progress of their community in a multitude of ways, helping move money for good, leading on boards and committees, volunteering and leveraging all of their skills and influence to make their region an even better place to live and work.

The ‘cliff face’ in this instance is that we are constantly built up earlier in our career, fast-tracked to middle management by our late 20’s, very active in our local community (mainly because of less responsibilities and a larger disposable income), and there are a vast array of emerging leadership programs available to help build up and sharpen our talents, knowledge and networks.

Then come our 30’s. Life happens, we get into more serious relationships, we get married, we have kids, yet more importantly we find ourselves still in middle management. Those that sit above us in senior leadership roles have been there what seems like an eternity, waiting for their own chances to lead (they were effectively in the same position as us a decade or so ago).

So we drift. We find more connection and purpose in family life. We get a mortgage, we care for our elderly family members, we coach our kids soccer team. We continue to work hard and try to block out other distractions to ensure we get that promotion, because then that will make our lives more complete, or so the story goes.

The reality of the matter is that once you fall into a different routine, it is more difficult to re-engage with your community in the ways that most excite you about it. Justifying knocking on doors for a few hours on a Saturday morning for a ballot measure over your kids dance recital is a difficult ask. And when you add the compounding effects of stress, fatigue and frustration, it’s much easier to reach for a glass of wine and the remote in the evening than it is to hop in your car to city hall and speak to why a dog park in your neighborhood is a positive thing.

I hear about it way too often and excruciatingly more so, see it way too often. People in my eyes who have all the traits and tenacity to lead our community to greatness, slip through our grasp because of the log jam of leadership. They move to a bigger city with more opportunity, they move out of the social sector to the corporate world saying they will be back, more enthusiastic than ever to help make that change we always discussed—and they never do. Because life happens and we default to newer talent because they have more time to support campaigns in a variety of ways, and be ready for populist fights in real time, not waiting a few hours to get back to you as they renegotiate who is cooking dinner that evening.

It’s a vicious cycle. And you know what? When that person above you or that long-serving CEO leaves, they rarely hire from within, citing the need to change gears and bring in new ideas and experience. Most of the time this comes in the form of someone from another city or state entirely. Sometimes you just can’t win.

I’ll be blunt: The social sector is the worst at pipeline management and we might be about to find out how much so.

But we can do something about it. We need to look beyond those rose colored glasses that everything will be alright when the vaccine comes and we can get back to normal. You see, the world has changed, work has changed. People have reflected on what they want and will be geared up to chase their dreams. It’s going to look like New Years Resolutions on steroids.

We need to do something about it or risk losing a huge amount of talent in the coming year. 

I encourage social sector leaders to sit down with staff and begin a formal process that allows your employees to advance their careers to higher levels of salary, responsibility or authority or risk losing them in what is going to be the biggest nonprofit talent free agency in a generation. And if you lose them, there is no doubt our communities are going to lose them to a certain degree and with the current state of our country, it’s something we can ill-afford to do.

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