Nonprofits are still hiring, even in the midst of the worst recession in recent memory, and fundraising and budgeting skills are what they’re looking for, experts say.
Whether a job-seeker has been laid off, hopes to take a step up the career ladder, or wants to migrate from for-profit to nonprofit, the ability to find and manage money is critical as the number of open jobs shrinks and the sector becomes more discriminating, they say.
“It’s a buyer’s market,” says Sherry Heuser, president of Capability Company, a Raleigh, N.C.-based executive search firm serving the nonprofit sector. “Nonprofits are being so careful. They can’t afford to hire the wrong person and have six months of lost time.”
Focus on fundraising and finance
And given that cash is at a premium for almost all organizations right now, much of the hiring taking place is in the areas of fundraising and finance.
“Every job comes in now with people needing to understand a budget and their role in the organization’s fundraising,” says Heuser. “Everyone needs to be a friend-raiser and a fundraiser. And everybody needs to understand revenue generation and the expense side.”
As nonprofits are forced to do more with less, and donors and grantmakers are demanding greater accountability, budgeting and finance skills are in demand.
Strong candidates will have an understanding of all areas of finance, including budgets and being creative in terms of expenditures, staffing and planning, says David Edell, president of Development Resource Group, a search firm based in New York City.
“People will be even more accountable and will need to be even more creative,” he says.
And even if every request for funds doesn’t pan out, now is the time to cultivate donors. All interactions can be an investment in a friendship, which could yield donations once the economy turns around, says Heuser.
Edell agrees that employees at all levels now must have “a certain comfort level” with drumming up support for their organizations.
“Being able to think about funding issues will probably pervade the organizations and will have to be on the agendas of all kinds of people,” he says. “It will not be a challenge left only for the development department and the executive director.”
At the American Cancer Society, which employs about 6,200 people in its home office and throughout its 13 divisions, hiring continues.
“With the state of the economy, the future is less clear than we’d like it to be,” says Valerie Kennerson, managing director of talent attraction for the Cancer Society’s home office. “However, we still are bringing in talented people to help us accomplish our mission. Cancer isn’t taking a break.”
Across the organization’s divisions, there tend to be more open jobs related to income development, she says, with less activity in non-fundraising roles.
That said, the Society is sticking to its tried-and-true set of core competencies, built around collaboration and a constituent focus, that align with all positions, across all departments, at all levels.
“We’re always interested in finding the right person for the right job and the organization,” says Kennerson. “The economy isn’t changing our criteria.”
Get the skills
Edell says the “whole area of professional development has really exploded.”
Trade groups hold conferences, continuing-education programs, courses and workshops, while universities increasingly are offering curricula in nonprofit management.
Investing the time in developing skills is important for the learning, says Edell, and for what it signals to potential employers.
“In this environment, showing the initiative of wanting to enhance your professional credentials and capabilities demonstrates a commitment, desire and energy,” he says.
Heuser says there are other, less formal, ways to gain experience and skills.
Community and civic groups can be helpful, and serving on the board or finance committee of a nonprofit can provide a valuable education.
“If there’s an organization you’re interested in, now is the time to go ahead and volunteer or get on the board,” she says. “You’re better positioned to look for an opening and find out if it’s a really good fit.”
Getting that kind of first-hand interaction with an organization, while building skills and broadening experience, also allows you to get an up-close look while showcasing your skills, says Kennerson.
“Understand the needs and challenges of that organization,” she says. “That’s your entry point. That’s where you pitch your skill set.”
That kind of direct experience with an organization is even more important for people hoping to transition to the nonprofit sector from the for-profit sector.
“The nonprofit sector isn’t a semi-retirement job,” says Heuser.
There are organizational realities, challenges and lingo unique to the nonprofit sector, and a familiarity with that is important.
“If you don’t have any experience with a nonprofit, a nonprofit isn’t going to see themselves in you,” she says.
However, it’s important to volunteer in a significant way, says Edell, such as chairing a gala, serving on a finance committee or heading to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers.
Kennerson says making that transition is possible, assuming the candidate has the right experience, knowledge, skills and a little something extra.
“I’ve come from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector,” she says. “You work just as hard, but it’s for a different reason, not market share or earnings-per-share. Being able to be excited and rally around that reason is important.”
Once a job-seeker has the skills, Heuser says, it’s important to do some research, hard thinking and self-reflection.
Those coming through this transition best will be the ones who take the time and effort to reassess and regroup.
“This is an opportunity to rethink what it is about you and your skills and experience that makes you different,” she says. “Be creative in how you think about yourself and what you want to do, and be creative in your search.”
If diligent about that research, it’s easier to avoid the temptation of applying for every open position, she says, and it’s easier to distinguish yourself in a crowded field.
While a job search is one of the least enjoyed and most stressful activities for both seekers and employers, thinking creatively and openly about opportunities can help.
“They want to look at what they can get and at what price,” Heuser says of employers. “There aren’t as many positions to fill. You have to do your research.”
Edell says that, in a world of layoffs and cutbacks, the timing isn’t perfect for a job hunt, but hiring is taking place.
And he speculates the current environment may favor experienced executives over “the young up-and-comer who will take a couple of years to be ready and then will be great.”
But the opposite could be true, too, he concedes.
“We are entering a time where we’ll have to think of a new model of doing business,” he says. “There’s some sense that some fresher thinking will be more comfortable in figuring out what the new paradigm is.”