By Ted Grossnickle, Senior Consultant and Founder of Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates

It’s been said that the “why” questions in fundraising and strategic planning for nonprofits are the most important ones.  And that is very true when it comes to the ways we are trying to help our clients and our practices attract and engage the best talent.

We have a near crisis in the field today. More than ever before, nonprofits require talented, energetic, innovative, and forward-facing persons who can help them engage donors and build strong support for their missions.

And yet, we know that positions in nonprofits are very tough to fill. We hear from many clients, from many Giving Institute members, and from search firm colleagues that we now have the largest gap ever experienced between who is needed and who nonprofits are able to attract. Why?

The recent past, notably the pandemic, has caused many of us to reappraise what is most important. That is an interesting “why” in and of itself. Today’s professionals want their work and time and effort to count for something which has real meaning to them and to others.

And, when teams are short-staffed or when key advancement positions go unfilled or take much longer to fill donors don’t get visited, or receive fewer visits, and other current initiatives slow down. Even worse, thinking ahead and ideation are often the first casualties of having unfilled positions because workload and distractions increase.

Why is this happening? There are so many wonderful organizations and causes which can and will compensate well and provide new flexibility in work arrangements. There is a strong demand for good people – perhaps stronger than ever. And yet we see and hear about many organizations that need to search and search, often having to start over when candidate pools are slim or anemic?

Here are some key elements that have consistently come up in talks with colleagues in search practices and with Giving Institute member firms, to bear in mind when seeking new talent for nonprofit roles – and for roles in our own consulting firms as well. These are cast in terms of key “why’s” or questions we might consider in searching for talent.

  1. What is the importance of money? Yes, compensation is important and a meaningful way to show that a person’s skills and talent are appreciated. But it is not nearly as predominant as a motivation as – say ten years ago. Many say it never was the sole issue, but it has certainly become a factor among more factors than ever before. We’ve seen highly paid positions go unaccepted because other key factors are absent.
  2. From whom can I learn? This has always been what job seekers have been wise to consider. My own early career choices made this question more important–to me at least– than compensation, work arrangements, and title. Who are the persons with whom the candidate wants to be associated with, learn with and from, and experience the joy of success together in funding a great cause or initiative? Do we have them in our organizations? And do we find ways to make sure they’re seen and talked to by candidates in a search process?
  3. Where will I be located? It’s clear that a revolution has occurred in how candidates think about workspace. By offering reasonable flexibility on time in office versus remote and whether the candidate must live nearby, many organizations have expanded the pool of qualified candidates. Not all positions and not all candidates may work best remotely but many more can and do than we might have thought just a half decade ago.
  4. What is the cause? We’ve all seen and read in the last few years, especially about the desire by many, and not solely persons new to the field, that the values of nonprofit organizations really do count – in ways that didn’t seem to get as much attention as before. Understanding the “why” here is crucial to attracting our talented new colleagues today. Are we able to articulate in a clear and compelling manner why our nonprofit makes a difference and how it goes about making that difference? (And by the way, this is not always well done by nonprofits and why so many Giving Institute member colleagues can add so much value to nonprofit searches.) Do we really make clear why the cause we work on is vital and should be considered by a talented candidate?

These are a few ideas. There are likely more to consider. But if we think about what fuels passion and creates meaning in lives during a challenging time, we’re on the right track. What are the “why?” questions your talent attraction can answer well?