Job interview for nonprofit role

What are hiring managers looking for in nonprofit employees?

It’s undeniable that for some the prospect of working in the nonprofit sector will be infinitely more fulfilling than holding a traditional job at any typical company selling goods or services. This may well be true for you. But just because your responsibilities aren’t tied to corporate quarterly sales goals or things of that nature at a nonprofit doesn’t mean you can enter this field without being exceedingly skilled in your area of interest and always working hard.

Ideally, your role may not always feel like “work” in the classical sense. But if you aren’t completing your assigned tasks to the fullest extent of your abilities, you run the risk of being dismissed just as you would in any for-profit, 9-to-5 job. Taking this into account, those who are weighing the possibility of joining the nonprofit universe to work in organizations bolstering the greater good should know exactly what skills are essential to this field, so as not to be caught off guard in a do-or-die interview for a job. Additionally, take stock of what higher education can do for your nonprofit prospects. The courses required to earn a Master of Public Administration from Rutgers University will be beneficial to all who are becoming part of the public service community.

General nonprofit skill requirements

In January 2011, the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, one of the most prominent advocacy groups focused on betterment of the nonprofit sector, released a major report on the state of the field. Entitled “The Skills the Nonprofit Sector Requires of its Managers and Leaders,” the study emphasized the need for nonprofits throughout the U.S. to find and develop new staffers. Among its findings was the fact that by 2016, 80,000 new senior managers would have to be in place throughout nonprofits for the sector to continue functioning at optimal effectiveness. 2016 has come and gone, and nonprofits still need leaders and staff.

Many of the skills that successful nonprofit workers must have are no different than what you would need in a private-sector job: Per the 3,200 nonprofit managers surveyed in the NLA’s report, entry- and mid-level nonprofit staff benefit most from the following:

  • Marketing and PR efficacy.
  • Prudence regarding the planning, implementation and evaluation of organizational initiatives.
  • Understanding of fundraising principles.
  • Risk management.
  • Information management and technological skills.

Administrators, meanwhile, rely more on accounting and financial skills, understanding of legal issues and any risks the nonprofit will encounter, in addition to general management abilities.

The NLA also identified what it referred to as “Historical and Philosophical Foundations,” which is one of the competencies assessed to receive the group’s Nonprofit Management and Leadership Certificate, as being quite important to many nonprofit leaders. This differs somewhat for every organization, but generally means the social, economic, political and humanistic context in which the group operates. For example, the context of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA analysis and other advanced forensic tools to reverse unjust convictions, is criminal justice. That group needs its members devoted strongly to seeking social justice and freedom for the wrongly accused. And a group like Greenpeace, by this rationale, wouldn’t have much need for a project manager who didn’t particularly care about environmental conservation and sustainability.

Inspiration from corporate America?

Some essential nonprofit skills may not be as present in the sector as they should. According to a piece in Forbes, project planning abilities are vital to nonprofit groups – many of them define themselves in the public eye through their fundraising activities, after all – but are not always readily evident among staff who don’t have experience in the corporate world. Beth Kanter, widely viewed as an expert in the management and organizational structuring of nonprofits, spoke to the financial industry publication and said that these groups might want to consider looking to their sponsoring corporate partners for tips in this regard.

“There needs to be a whole conversation upfront about what nonprofits need, and then a whole plan around what can be done,” Kanter told Forbes. “What is a doable project? What are the specific pieces of the strategy? What are the expectations in terms of deliverables?”

For some, the idea of running a charitable public service organization like a corporation will not be an enviable prospect. However, it should be stressed that adopting certain tactics is not mutually exclusive with a cultural makeover of the nonprofit. Making use of such techniques can be as simple as having greater structure to department meetings and communications, or formalizing a chain of command between the organization’s top brass, middle managers and entry-level staffers.

Tech-savvy integral to nonprofits’ future

It must be acknowledged that our society has become massively reliant on technology, particularly with the advent of concepts like the internet of things and systems such as cloud computing and mobile payments. The nonprofit sector hasn’t managed to be an exception to this.

According to Fast Company, the ability to aggregate, store and harness data will be extremely important to nonprofit organizations both now and in the foreseeable future. Social media skills, too, are as precious a commodity among nonprofits as they are to private businesses. Both can benefit massively from increasing the reach of their marketing efforts, and social networks ranging from Facebook and Twitter to LinkedIn and Pinterest can be of considerable assistance in reaching this goal.

Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of the nonprofit Direct Relief, explained the need for technology- and media-savvy nonprofit staff in somewhat dramatic but not hyperbolic terms.
“If anyone is a behavioral economist [who] can do infographics and engaging, 15-second, virally shareable videos after having analyzed enormous amounts of disaggregated data, and also translate the findings into coherent, low-cost activities that demonstrate results – you are desperately needed today and will be worshipped!” Tighe said to Fast Company.

Millennials are projected to comprise approximately 50 percent of the American workforce by 2020, and this generation is often stated – accurately, for the most part – as being extremely tech-savvy. Fast Company also pointed out that individuals belonging to this demographic have, on average, a greater commitment to social justice than their forebears. The combination of these two factors naturally entails that nonprofits can likely count on this demographic to fulfill some of its staffing needs.

This necessity of forward-thinking attitudes is not limited solely to the use and optimal application of technology. As noted by Nonprofit Quarterly, the capacity for handling multiple tasks across a variety of different disciplines will also be extremely important. Partnerships are a fundamental aspect of nonprofit management, considering how frequently charitable organizations need to forge relationships with corporate partners and other high-profile benefactors, and successfully navigating the various hurdles involved in making such connections is, in large part, contingent on cultivating cross-sector, cross-disciplinary skill sets.

In a nutshell, there may be no skill more important to those looking to enter this sector than the facility for thinking outside the box. That is exactly what those who dive enthusiastically into a graduate MPA program at Rutgers University Newark will learn.

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The online Master of Public Administration from Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) gives students a broad understanding of the field and its relevant issues. Students become competent at defining public problems, analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, developing and communicating creative solutions, and implementing ethical and practical courses of action.


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