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Nonprofits Are Back to the “Old Normal”—A Big Skills Gap


Nonprofits Are Back to the “Old Normal” …

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By Frank Connolly
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning

As the U.S. economy struggles to return to a post-pandemic “new normal,” the nonprofit sector is once again confronting its “old normal”: a serious skills gap affecting both leaders and paid staff.

Even before COVCID-19 disrupted the global economy, nonprofit leaders saw the skills gap as a serious problem. A 2020 survey of nonprofit leaders by Wipfli LLP found that staff recruitment and workforce issues were the number-two challenge facing the nonprofit sector, cited by nearly half (48%) of all survey respondents. At the time, analysts actually identified two different skills gaps: a lack of vital skills among leaders, occasioned largely by a wave of Baby Boomer retirements, and a separate skills gap among paid staffers, caused by a combination of technological and economic forces.

The COVID pandemic only made matters worse. The rise of remote work and the ensuing Great Resignation roiled the labor markets for all employers, not just nonprofits. In 2023, the Wiley Closing the Gap survey of HR professionals found that 69% of respondents saw a big gap between the skills their organizations need and the skills their employees possess. That figure represented a 14-point increase in just two years.

The number of nonprofits actually increased during the pandemic, but fundraising and staffing took a hit. According to Scion Nonprofit, the number of nonprofits increased by 3.5% in 2021 alone, largely in response to greater need among underserved communities. But private fundraising and government funding both tailed off, and staffing levels declined.

In 2023, the Council of Nonprofits found that almost 75% of nonprofit organizations were reporting job vacancies, with a majority saying that they had more open jobs than before the pandemic. And Nonprofit HR reported that 45% of nonprofit employees will be looking for different jobs by 2025, and only half think they will stay in the nonprofit sector.

Taken together, these findings indicate that nonprofits in general are facing a post-COVID staffing crisis that threatens their ability to deliver needed services and advance their missions. The principal reason for the staffing shortfall is salary competition from the private sector—but employee burnout, changed expectations among younger workers, and a lack of affordable childcare for employees are also major factors.

This staffing crisis, in turn, exacerbates the skills gap: when nonprofits are having a hard time hiring any new employees at all, it is all that much harder for them to find highly skilled workers who meet the organization’s particular needs. This is true at the leadership level as well as at the staff level.

What’s the solution, then? How can nonprofits meet their overall staffing needs and find enough skilled workers who can improve the organization’s performance and advance its mission?

At the staff level, there are a few approaches that offer at least some stopgap solutions:

  • Nonprofit Collaboration: Organizations can gain access to more skilled workers by collaborating with other nonprofits that have similar missions or serve the same geographic area. Fundraising, social media, communications, and technical support are areas where two or more organizations can benefit from collaborative “shared staffing.”
  • Skilled Volunteers: Skills-Based Volunteering (SBV) is a form of volunteering in which volunteers with highly specific skills volunteer at a nonprofit organization that needs those skills. The organization benefits from having more skilled workers, and the volunteers benefit from giving back to the community and seeing that their efforts have a specific and quickly felt impact. Some nonprofits may try to recruit Skills-Based Volunteers on their own, but it is more usual that volunteers offer their services through employee giving programs—when an email marketing firm, for instance, might encourage employees to donate some of their time to a local nonprofit that needs their help.
  • Emphasize Remote Work and Organizational Culture: Remote work and hybrid work arrangements have become the norm since the pandemic, and they have a particularly strong appeal to younger workers. To the greatest extent possible, organizations should allow these flexible work arrangements. Similarly, organizations that have a strong and inclusive culture will find that they have an advantage in recruiting new talent.
  • Address the Childcare Dilemma: Organizations that find a way to offer free or reduced-cost childcare will find they have a major advantage in the talent wars.

At the end of the day, however, these approaches are really only Band-Aid solutions—ways to improve skills recruitment on the margins. The best long-term solution—for staff recruitment and even more so for leadership recruitment—lies in training and upskilling.

It stands to reason: it is easier and more cost-effective for organizations to train the workers they already have, than to identify, recruit, and onboard new workers with specific pre-existing skills. Whether organizations conduct their own in-house training or provide tuition credits for outside skills-training courses, they are investing in their own employees. And organizations that provide access to skills training are also providing their workers with a highly desirable employee benefit, which should help improve retention rates in the long term.

The answer is clear: to address the nonprofit skills gap, skills training is the best way to go.

To check out the courses and certificates offered through MindEdge’s Nonprofit Skills brand, click here/

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