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Secrets from young people on how to hire for entry-level positions

Monday, January 23, 2017
Human Resources

It’s not a secret that nonprofits face challenges in hiring the right staff. Given the scarcity of resources and ever-increasing demands, providing competitive salaries, a healthy work culture, and career development opportunities is difficult. Our recent study looking at the experiences of young early- and mid-career nonprofit workers indicates that hiring for entry-level positions is particularly challenging. In this blog post, we suggest some straightforward steps (aka secrets) nonprofits can take to hire the right people for these positions and avoid missing out on young workers who are passionate about creating social good.

Secret #1: In job postings, emphasize key competencies & hire for adaptability.

Entry-level nonprofit positions are frequently multi-functional roles that emphasize multitasking and flexibility. Many organizations find it extremely challenging to recruit the adaptive and continuously learning employees they need for these positions.

Based on what young nonprofit workers told us, part of the problem is how these positions tend to be described in job postings. Frequently, postings contain lengthy lists of skills and qualifications, far beyond what one would reasonably expect for an entry-level position. In their search for flexible, adaptive candidates to fill multi-functional roles, employers are providing long “wish lists” of skills that successful employees might draw upon to thrive in the role. However, recent research indicates that job applicants don’t tend to see such lists the same way. By far the most common reason potential applicants give for not applying for a position is believing they do not have the skills and qualifications listed. Young early- and mid-career nonprofit workers, who tend to have had fewer opportunities to develop their skills and qualifications, are particularly disadvantaged by this.

Nonprofit employers should take particular care to ensure that entry-level job postings focus on key competencies, rather than exhaustively listing all possible skills and qualifications. If the position requires multitasking and flexibility, be explicit in specifying the need for adaptability and an ability to learn. Focusing on whether candidates reflect the spirit of the position – rather than whether their previous experience precisely matches the role – will increase the likelihood that younger candidates will apply. Ultimately, employers need to look for the best fit for their organization – not someone who checks the most items off an arbitrary list.

Secret #2: Don’t overlook volunteers, but be mindful of risks to existing relationships.

Most young workers in our study said they obtained paid nonprofit employment through volunteering. They described a typical sequence where volunteering led to contract work and contract work led eventually to more stable paid employment. When seeking to hire for entry-level positions, nonprofits should be aware of possible candidates among their young volunteers.

However, the experiences described by our study participants also make it clear that organizations need to be particularly careful when hiring volunteers. Mishandling this process can easily compromise existing valuable volunteer relationships. Organizations need to be continuously mindful that not every volunteer applying for a paid position will be successful. They should implement transparent policies and practices for how volunteers are considered for employment opportunities and ensure that volunteer applicants are aware of them. Additionally, they need to be particularly attentive to ensuring that communications with volunteer applicants are timely and respectful. Volunteer applicants need to feel respected and that their candidacy is being taken seriously, regardless of the eventual outcome.

When nonprofits successfully hire young entry-level staff from among their volunteers, it’s a win-win situation – the organization gains an experienced, knowledgeable and passionate employee and the new hire can be paid for the work they love. However, when the hiring process is mishandled it can sour relationships between an organization and its strongest supporters.

Secret #3: Target early-career workers right out of school.

A key challenge for the nonprofit sector is that our workforce is far less diverse than the communities we serve. Research by the HR Sector Council found that visible minorities are significantly under-represented in our workforce and that organizations are struggling to attract minority job candidates.

In large part, this appears to be driven by the stringent demands nonprofit employers are placing on young applicants for entry-level jobs. Participants in our study report that employers are increasingly requiring post-graduate degrees and extensive volunteer or paid experience. These requirements privilege more affluent young workers and act against applicants from low-income and traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds. The young workers participating in our study believe that nonprofit employers are so exacting not because the positions truly demand it, but because so many candidates compete for them.

Nonprofits need to be mindful that over-stringent demands shrink the pool of potential hires and tend to make it less diverse. In addition to concerns about workforce diversity, many young workers in our study were unconvinced that narrowly focusing on formal education and prior experience actually leads employers to hire the best candidates – for the organization, the cause, or the sector. From their perspective, more intangible factors such as adaptability, flexibility and passion for the cause were ultimately more important. Even though these factors can be more difficult to screen for, there are advantages to including them in hiring criteria. Most importantly, organizations are able to recruit earlier in the educational process, before candidates are scooped up by other employers from other sectors, or return to school for degrees that might make them better suited for work in other sectors. While getting the best candidate possible is always a priority, employers should remember that recruitment for entry-level positions is an opportunity to attract eager, motivated workers to the nonprofit sector.

Mishaps during the recruitment and hiring process cause nonprofits to miss out on talented young candidates who go to other nonprofits or even other sectors. Clarity, transparency – and a bit of empathy for these young candidates – go a long way to making hiring more effective. These simple improvements can help get talented young workers in the door and set them on a successful career path in the nonprofit sector. Definitely a secret worth sharing.


4 Myths about Young People and Nonprofit Work

Why are young people leaving the sector? The exodus of young workers for other opportunities has been observed throughout the sector, but we don’t fully understand why. To gain perspective we interviewed 13 young nonprofit employees, who offered their views on the myths that have hindered youth employment, and how to fix them before it’s too late.

Read more

To learn more about this subject, look for the full research report, coming in spring 2017.


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Submitted by Benjamin Miller on
It would be great to see some discussion of how campus clubs factor into the recruitment pipeline. For instance, volunteers who have founded and/or run on-campus chapters may well have more experience is leadership roles in the organization than just any volunteer. Additionally, reserving a decision-making role for clubs representatives may give them early insight into the governance of the organizations that others do not have. I would be curious to hear it this accurately reflects the experience of any non-profits.

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