Land Your Dream Job
Careers that help you move from intention to action

What Top Nonprofits Look for in Job Applicants

A graphic that says 'Live Your Dream'.

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.

Explore Jobs on Idealist