In September, I highlighted five false “facts” that are harming the nonprofit sector and undermining impact.  I’ve been taking a closer look at each of them. Next up: the idea that nonprofits just can’t recruit top talent. 

Throughout the sector, organizations can’t fill open positions – so leaders are doing extra work … and burning out. In a regional report released in October, The Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego notes that 80 percent of the organizations surveyed were actively hiring, and 87 percent reported it was at least somewhat difficult to find qualified employees.  I’m seeing that play out across the country. Why? I think part of it is the persistent and dangerous belief that salaries should be lower in the nonprofit sector – the nation’s third largest employment sector.   

Here’s why I think this notion is particularly harmful: 

  1. Knowingly paying people less than they are worth is just NOT ok.  In a sector that stands for justice and equity, paying people less because we can get away with it ultimately undermines our values. The movement to encourage nonprofits to publish salary ranges in job postings and encourage open conversations about salaries is tied to this idea. If we are cagey about salary, we waste time and positions stay open longer. If we only hire people who can “afford” to take less money, what leaders do we miss? If we continue to take advantage of people who are driven primarily by mission, how can we remain surprised when they leave and we struggle to replace them?
  2. There IS top talent in our sector.  When we say we can’t recruit top talent (and we hear these words spoken all the time), what message are we sending to the people we have? That they are second tier talent? Every day I see top performers who choose to work for nonprofits they believe in that value their contributions, invest in them as leaders, and support their well-being. It can be done. We just have to decide it matters.
  3. It’s NOT TRUE that we have to pay less as a sector.  Is it hard to convince top talent to take dramatically less money than they could make elsewhere? Of course. But too often, nonprofits claim they don’t have any other option. Where does that stressor originate? Funders? The board? Or is this just a case of a sector fallacy perpetuating itself? When I talk to funders or nonprofit boards, I don’t often hear them say salaries should be lower in the sector.  In fact, I more often hear their concerns about turnover and their impact on the mission. There is a solid business case for hiring – and paying – the people we need to accomplish the work.  If revenue is in the way, start by investing in revenue infrastructure (that’s why so many organizations love our Fuel Series). When leaders make a case for how hiring the right person can drive revenue and impact, they can confidently and unapologetically talk to funders and board members about salaries.  

I’ll be blunt. If nonprofits continue to cling to the notion that they have to pay employees less, we will see positions stay open longer, turnover continue to accelerate, and we will struggle even more fulfill our missions.  

This isn’t going away quickly. Some economists are predicting labor shortages will take years to sort out, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a decline in labor participation rates over the next decade.  Job seekers have more options than ever. Still, I am convinced there are people who want jobs that fuel their passions and make positive change in the world.  We just need the commitment and conviction to find them and pay them.  Our missions may depend on it.