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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

To recruit and retain top talent, challenge these nonprofit myths

attracting staff

A nonprofit organization is only as successful as the staff behind the mission. Building a successful team means attracting the right people for the right job, but what is the value of attracting the right talent if you cannot retain them? According to the Internal Revenue Service, there are more than 1.8 million registered charitable organizations in the United States, and nonprofits have the third largest workforce of any U.S. industry.

What does this mean?

Well, more organizations means more jobs which leads to more vacancies and the increase highlights the need for effective recruitment and retention strategies. A survey of over 1,000 nonprofit organizations throughout the U.S. was conducted by the National Council of Nonprofits in 2021 and looked at the rate of open positions at a given time. They found that nearly a quarter have 9% of their positions open, 34% reported a rate of 10-19%, 26% reported a rate of 20-29%, and over a fifth of those surveyed reported over 30% of their positions being open. That same survey reported salary, childcare, policies, stress or burnout, and the draw of remote work as factors that contributed to the vacancy rates.

Not only are current job vacancies a concern but so is the increasing rate of turnover. Chris Strub, with Forbes Magazine, reported that 45% of responding nonprofit staff have plans to find new employment by 2025, and over half indicated that they will be looking outside of the sector. The major reasons for the employment change stem from lack of pay, lack of career growth, and poor business practices.

A deeper look into the workforce crisis has uncovered misconceptions about the nonprofit sector believed by organizations, leaders, and the public. According to Branson, the idea that the crisis and high turnover rates are inevitable is shared by many nonprofit leaders which often stems from the notion of maximizing resources but comes at the expense of the employees.

This is hardly the only myth imprinted on the sector and Lisa Brown Alexander, CEO of Nonprofit HR was quoted stating  “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.” This also feeds into the public perception that the sector is not professional or financially successful when in comparison, the growth of the sector has produced an increasing need for professional and skilled talent, and employers must now compete for more educated, skilled, and in-demand candidates. Additionally, the possible expenses incurred when attracting talent have misguidedly been overshadowed by the idea that nonprofits must keep overhead costs low to fulfill their mission. This misconception hinders the funds that can be devoted to offering competitive wages and benefits, but overhead costs are not synonymous with success.

Recruitment and retention strategies for organizational success

Develop a recruitment strategy that focuses on understanding the motivation of the prospective candidates. Employees are more likely to work for an organization that aligns with their personal values. Additionally, determining the ideal candidate for the position will help narrow the focus of a recruitment strategy and further understand the motivation.

Curate employee policies with the input of employees based on their professional and personal needs. Employees who feel appreciated and heard will remain at organizations longer and productivity has been seen to improve.

Focus on benefits, whether monetary or not. Competitive salaries are the overarching elephant in the room and as impactful as that can be, it is not the only solution. Incorporating things like flexible schedules, working arrangements, and professional development could help tilt the scales.

Finally, work to change the misconceptions that linger in the nonprofit sector. The misguided beliefs are that nonprofit employees do not get paid, that there is no room for professional or personal advancement, that success is contingent on low overhead cost, and that nonprofits are not professionally run or staffed. These ideas not only negatively affect nonprofit recruitment by deterring candidates from applying but also affect retention by convincing staff that the only way up is out.

Through efficient recruitment strategies, inclusive personnel policies, competitive wages and benefits, and breaking the stigma that surrounds the sector, the workforce crisis can become less devastating. As nonprofit leaders, ensuring the organization advances its mission is conditional on the employees.

Randa Simpson is a 2023 graduate of the Masters of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Before that, she received a Bachelor's degree in Public Relations with a minor in Psychology from Texas State University. Randa was born and raised in Austin, Texas where she has worked for the Council on At-Risk Youth (CARY) since 2019 as the Administrative Director. Randa has a proven track record in effectively writing winning grant proposals and has been able to increase CARY’s operating budget to over $1 million in part to CARY being awarded federal funding through the Department of Justice for the first time in over a decade.

Image by Lillian Finley

Learn more with our Optimizing Human Resource Strategies in Nonprofits Certificate

The Optimizing Human Resource Strategies in Nonprofits Certificate is for individuals seeking knowledge and skills in nonprofit human resources, volunteer management, change management, and conflict resolution. Through this program you will learn how to recruit, manage, motivate, and reward both staff and volunteers in order to effectively utilize their strengths, effectively lead and champion change within an organization, and develop strategies to overcome internal and external conflict.

Randa Simpson


ASU Lodestar Center Blog