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Views From the Talent Pool: Hiring Trends in 2012

Welcome to 2012. Many of us in the nonprofit sector will be more than happy to have 2011 in the rear view, and we're hopeful for continued economic recovery and positive changes throughout the sector (an increase in funding for Americorps and not messing with the charitable tax deduction would be a good start). To put it mildly, the recession and slow recovery have been catalysts for change and evolution for nonprofits, and the most successful were those that were able to get lean quickly. These organizations had to figure out how to do more with less while staying true to their program models and maintaining a high level of quality. As these groups get back on a growth trajectory and start hiring again, they're not just looking for bench strength and people to fill seats. They know how to be lean and deliver results. If they're investing in a new hire, they're looking to hire A+ talent with the potential to take them to the next level, and they won't settle for less.

At the same time, the leadership gap the sector has been bracing for hasn't been as dramatic as once feared. Fewer baby boomers than expected are retiring, more talent from the for-profit side has entered the market during the recession, and a boom of nonprofit-focused MBA programs have produced young leaders anxious to take the reigns. The talent pool is crowded, and only the most resourceful, skilled, and strategic job seekers will rise to the top.

What does that mean for the nonprofit hiring outlook? I thought you'd never ask.

Trend #1 - Specialization is the Future, and the Future is Now

It used to be that every organization had the need for at least one "nonprofit generalist." We all know them and have probably loved every minute of working with them. They're the type that, when called upon, can write a grant, manage a program, prepare for the board meeting, or do the taxes. They've kept their organizations — and the sector — afloat with their adaptability and resourcefulness during tough times. However, in recent years, the sector has experienced an increasing demand for individuals with specific expertise and content knowledge. In short, it's out with the generalists, in with the specialists.

One phenomenon driving this trend is the evolution of social entrepreneurs. In the late '90s and early '00s, we witnessed a boom in social entrepreneurship that resulted in a lot of startup nonprofits addressing broad social issues. At their onset, these organizations needed talented, hard-working generalists who were willing to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it took to get programs off the ground. As many of these organizations — from City Year to Teach For America — became large, national, and complex organizations, their talent needs shifted and they looked for specialist skillsets (public policy, statistical analysis, brand management) and content area experts (workforce development, social-emotional learning, or microfinance in the developing world).

In 2012, we don't expect that there will be across-the-board growth in the nonprofit sector. Instead we'll see big growth in particular areas such as charter schools, K-12 education reform, international topics, and healthcare. The majority of jobs available will be with organizations that are growing, have increasing sophistication in internal operations, and are headed towards specialization across the org chart. Job seekers who aren't positioning themselves as specialists in high-need functional areas could have a tougher time finding the right fit.

Trend #2 - Nonprofit Organizational Charts Will Resemble Corporate Structures

As specialization of roles increase, some departments in nonprofit organizations are beginning to look more and more like their for-profit counterparts. For instance, organizations are less likely to bundle marketing, communications, and fundraising under the umbrella of "development." Today, even organizations that wouldn't be considered large or "later-stage" are building out sophisticated marketing teams that include branding experts, copywriters, and public relations staff. Similar structural divisions are occurring in technology, finance, and operations.

In 2012 I predict that we'll see more movement between the private and nonprofit sector. Re-organization of functional areas means there are fewer barriers for sector switchers from the private sector. Those who have been in a more specialized or "silo" position in a larger corporate environment are seeing more nonprofit positions that match their particular skill set. As such, there's increasing competition from corporate sector switchers for nonprofit marketing, technology, finance, and operations roles.

Trend #3 - Demand for Research and Evaluation Professionals is on the Rise

In order to compete for foundation funding, nonprofits have responded to an increasing demand from funders to demonstrate their impact and outcomes quantitatively. Even small organizations are bringing the program measurement and evaluation function in house in order to up their game. The result is a huge demand for research and evaluation professionals, a demand that may be outpacing the talent pool.

Historically, there hasn't been a natural, strong pipeline of research and evaluation folks into the sector. PhDs, researchers, and evaluators have sought out the more traditional career paths in academia or consulting. To better attract these individuals to nonprofit organizations, there's a need for organizations to compete on a few levels, such as seniority of positions and compensation. Savvy organizations are making the case to this talent pool that nonprofit program evaluation and impact measurement is an incredibly challenging, dynamic, and engaging field. These organizations present their opportunities as being on the leading edge of an emerging field where there's limitless opportunity for innovation and impact. For the right research and evaluation professionals, this is music to their ears.

As more organizations begin to develop internal research and evaluation capabilities, this need will only increase, encompassing roles from associate to VP levels.

Overall, 2012 will be a very interesting and exciting time to work in the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit job market is rapidly changing. My advice to anyone considering a career move is to recognize these trends, become a student of the sector and its evolution, and then demonstrate the nimbleness and insight to compete in an increasingly specialized and crowded talent pool. Now go get that job!

Kevin Flynn is director of recruitment and candidate services at Commongood Careers, leading executive searches for nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurs in addition to managing the company's career advising program. He is a founding board member of the Boston chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and in 2011 was selected as an Independent Sector American Express NGen Fellow.