Looking for a job in a down economy is tough, but seeking a nonprofit position presents unique challenges. Some job seekers use a downturn as a time of self-reflection and discover that pursuing a transition to the nonprofit world might be right for them. At the same time, while many nonprofits are seeing an increase in demand for services, they are also tightening their belts to weather the uncertain economy.
To get a better understanding of what nonprofits are looking for in candidates’ resumes today, we talked with Karen DeMay, a senior director on the Bridgespan Group’s executive search team who has worked closely with dozens of nonprofits .
In this economy, is the nonprofit sector hiring?
Karen DeMay: Yes, hiring continues. We’re seeing a lot of finance and development opportunities because of the heightened focus on cash flow and budgets, but also positions for executive directors and some for program people. Hiring has not stopped -- the work still has to get done. In those unfortunate cases where organizations really have to look at all of their people and perhaps let the lowest performers go, they may have capacity to bring on more bench strength.
We’ve seen hiring freezes. For example, some organizations say, ‘OK, we’re freezing hiring for six months.’ But they then realize they really do need to bring people on board, so they resume their recruiting. So, I guess the message to the job seeker is: An organization may say it has a hiring freeze, but don’t necessarily write it off for six months. There might be an opportunity sooner than you think.
How competitive is the job market now compared to a year ago?
KD: There’s more competition, particularly in finance and development, and for the executive director and chief executive officer roles. Not only are there more people looking for jobs, but the challenges that senior managers will need to tackle in this economic environment are more complicated. This makes finding the right candidate even more critical for a nonprofit and increases demands on candidates to demonstrate their management expertise in the application and interview process.
How can job seekers make themselves stand out?
KD: All of the things that make a senior manager successful in a nonprofit -- being able to manage through influence; being able to work with a variety of disparate stakeholders; managing with minimal resources; and the ability to work in a consensus-driven environment -- all of those things become even more important in this environment because of the pressure and uncertainty that nonprofits are facing.
You need to go back to basics and be really clear about what you bring to the organization, your strengths and your achievements. Be clear about metrics around those achievements -- that really helps you get noticed. For example, if you oversaw a cost-cutting program, give the details of what you did and how much it saved the organization. You also need to recognize that organizations conducting searches have to look at many more applicants, so the labor involved in their searches is much higher, and you should focus on distinguishing yourself in your job search. Look at those jobs where you have a compelling interest in the mission of the organization, where your background really meets the needs of the job, and where you know you can serve the organization and its mission.
What really jumps off the resume for nonprofit employers during a recession?
KD: If you’re a bridger (someone making the transition from for-profit to nonprofit work), you certainly want to highlight any nonprofit board experience you have, making clear if it was volunteer experience. If you’ve been on a fundraising committee of a board, that would be important to highlight. Executive directors and CEOs are thinking about their cash flow and their revenue projections. Demonstrating that you have capability around fundraising will get you noticed.
Another skill to highlight is the ability to reduce costs. If you come in from another organization where you were tasked with tightening a budget, saying that very clearly will get you noticed. If you have had the experience of reorganizing staff, reorganizing processes, or reorganizing programs or any type of reorganizing with an eye toward cost-cutting, you should point that out, too.
An ability to focus on core programs is another skill leaders will notice. They’re going to be looking at ’What is central and core to our mission and what are the extra things we are doing?’ Past experience in tightening an organization, from finding out the cost of human resources programs to budgeting…all of those things should be highlighted.
Another thing to underscore in your experience is if you had situations where an environment changed quickly and you’ve been able to respond to an unusual market force by successfully moving in a different direction. Show an example where you have demonstrated nimbleness. Given the uncertainty of the economic environment, some organizations may be looking for a person who has more of a risk tolerance at this point -- someone who is accustomed to working in an ambiguous situation and even embraces ambiguity and challenge. If you have been in an entrepreneurial environment previously and have been successful -- whether it’s a for-profit or a nonprofit -- you should point that out. The experience could be a start-up or starting a new program within an organization.
We’re [also] seeing a lack of interest in relocating because of the poor housing market. If you can relocate, then that could work to your advantage. You would have to meet the requirements of the job, but if you can relocate, you may have an edge.
Do you think the current nonprofit job market is even more challenging for bridgers?
KD: I think [in-sector experience] makes a difference, particularly on the finance side because of the reporting involved and with grants. There’s always scrutiny about reporting to foundations, the government and corporations. Chief financial officer experience in a nonprofit setting could be critical, coupled with great performance at a past organization. On the other hand, there might be some valuable experience that bridgers offer in terms of cost-cutting and rigorous operational procedures, and strategies focusing on the core operations and reengineering of process. They can add a lot of value to organizations.
[Bridgestar, an initiative of the Bridgespan Group, provides nonprofit management content and tools designed to help nonprofit organizations build strong leadership teams and individuals pursue career paths as nonprofit leaders.]