What It Will Take To Get A Nonprofit Job In 2020

From design skills to startup work environments, leaders from the most innovative nonprofit companies share how hiring is changing.

What It Will Take To Get A Nonprofit Job In 2020
[Photo: Dragon Images via Shutterstock]

Recent college graduates have been setting their sights on nonprofits more than private companies for several years.


According to The New York Times‘s analysis of data from the American Community Survey of the United States Census Bureau, 11% more young college graduates worked for nonprofit groups in 2009 than in 2008. A 2012 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the U.S. nonprofit sector grew an average of 2.1% between 2000 and 2010, while for-profit sector jobs declined by an average of 0.6% a year during the same period.

“Indeed, nonprofits have been holding the fort for much of the rest of the economy, creating jobs at a time when other components of the economy have been shedding jobs at accelerating rates,” the report reads.

To find out what the future of nonprofit hiring holds, we asked leaders from some of Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies in Not-for-Profit to help us better understand the growing need for top talent, and how nonprofits will have to work to get it.

Data-Savvy Skills Are Top

Technology and social media is helping nonprofits widen and deepen their reach to the people they serve. “From enabling the poor to access important information such as market prices and pay-as-you-go services, to enabling organizations to collect data faster, cheaper, and more efficiently, mobile is a key component of our future, and this will only increase as we hone new ways to measure social impact,” says Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, a nonprofit that raises charitable donations to invest in companies that tackle world poverty.

This increased access to data will also set the bar higher for talent, according to Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of International Relief agency Direct Relief. Because nonprofits’ success relies on being able to prove how they are making a difference, they will have an increasing need for people who can use data to tell that story in the most elegant way possible.


“If anyone is a behavioral economist that can do infographics and engaging 15-second, socially shareable videos after having analyzed enormous amounts of disaggregated data and also translate the findings into coherent, low-cost activities that demonstrate results–you are desperately needed today and will be worshipped!”

Designers With People Skills In Demand

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the public-health organization Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, predicts design abilities to be another important skill for the future nonprofit employee. “There will be exciting opportunities to influence behavior through design, such as the default settings in software or the layouts of physical spaces and neighborhoods,” she says.

Also, the ability to work across businesses will play a key role, since Novogratz predicts more cross-sector partnerships working together to tackle the biggest social challenges. This ability to connect with people will also come in handy, according to Tighe, to nonprofits that rely on private contributions. These organizations “must become deft at connecting with potential supporters in an increasingly sophisticated, constantly evolving, marketing-saturated world similar to any private commercial enterprise,” she says.

A More Diverse Workforce

With the economy on the rebound, we’ll likely see an increase in charitable giving, which lends itself to the prediction that nonprofits will do more hiring than the private sector over the next five years. “Coupled with the fact that more millennials are entering the workforce with the intention of doing good, the nonprofit sector will be a magnet for top talent, creating a pipeline of future leaders who are committed and skilled at delivering a double bottom line,” says Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation.

In fact, it’s predicted millenials will make up almost half of the U.S. workforce by 2020, and according to several recent studies, this generation more than any other generally places a higher emphasis on incorporating causes and big issues as an integral part of daily life.


Rodin also predicts the sector will become even more diverse, not just in terms of women and minorities in leadership positions, but also with the inclusion of a more global workforce.

“The perception of the nonprofit industry is changing significantly, from a ‘nice-to-have’ source of funding and work, to an essential component of a functioning society and economy,” Rodin explains.

She cites one reason as the diminishing business model differences between the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors. “Social-impact organizations are moving towards more operational effectiveness and sustainability, while traditional for-profits seek an infusion of social value and passion. This shift in perception is making us much more attractive as both an employer and a partner,” she says.

How Nonprofits Can Engage A New Workforce

A recovering economy also means the marketplace for top talent is more competitive than ever. “This requires that nonprofits be crystal-clear on their value proposition and what makes them unique–and be able to articulate these in a compelling way,” says Anna Maria Chávez, chief executive of Girl Scouts USA.

“Once an organization has this message down, it can incorporate it into strategies and communications that will attract the right talent,” she explains.


Tighe agrees, citing a nonprofit’s mission as the most powerful attractant of talent. To draw the best, he says, nonprofits have to close the gaps between the challenges they mean to address and how they plan to do so. “Just cursing the darkness of the challenges themselves isn’t particularly inspiring to anyone. The mission matters, but fulfilling it provides meaning to everyone involved, and connecting those pieces is an important part of the bargain when calling people to serve.”

Chávez acknowledges that today’s and tomorrow’s high-potential talent wants to thrive in an agile, fast-paced environment similar to that of the startup. Nonprofits, then, must create a similar environment that will allow people to demonstrate their abilities by implementing dynamic ways of work and removing barriers that might impede them.

One key way to do this is by allowing flexible work. “Where you work will not be as important as your ability to deliver with excellence,” Chávez explains. “Incorporating practices that support this environment will give nonprofits a clear, competitive edge.”

Tighe admits that nonprofits will likely never be able to match or beat the compensation available to top talent from the for-profit sector. This is further complicated, he explains, by higher levels of student debt for the rising generation of talent.

“But not all top talent is motivated purely by financial considerations, so finding ways generally to make the nonprofit workplace both more attractive as a job or career and as flexible as possible in inviting the talent to the causes will be essential,” he says. What’s crucial, though, is always ensuring these decisions are ultimately sensible and reasonable in advancing the organization’s mission.


About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on,, and elsewhere