Feature article: Employment outlook for nonprofit communicators:

These days being a communicator in a not-for-profit can feel like playing a game of Jenga.

By Kirsten Lambert

These days being a communicator in a not-for-profit can feel like playing a game of Jenga. Little by little, support for the communications function is removed: No more administrative assistance, less funding, smaller staff, fewer outside vendors at your disposal. Then new duties are piled on: Web content, fund-raising pieces, e-mail marketing. Even if you’ve been around for a while, you may be biting your nails, wondering when your carefully constructed program will come toppling down.

Though it’s been tough to keep your balance in the past few years, things are promising if you’re still standing. At least that’s what you’ll hear from those who keep an eye on the employment outlook in the nonprofit arena. They say the jobs—especially mid-level ones—are out there for those with Web skills, a corporate background as well as nonprofit knowledge, an international mindset, an understanding of fund raising, and an interest in health care or defense.

Job market rebuilding
Some recruiters say the employment landscape is improving.

“There’s been an explosion in the jobs in nonprofits because there are more nonprofits than there used to be,” says Lynn Hazan, principal of Lynn Hazan and Associates in Chicago. “When jobs were cut after 9-11 and the Internet bubble burst, no hiring was being done so there was a gap in the pipeline. Now that the economy is picking up again, new products and services are being launched, and companies are wondering who’s going to do the work. Now there’s a gap in the pipeline.”

Ned Lundquist, founder of the subscription e-mail newsletter Job of the Week, is a bit more reserved in his assessment.

“The market has been pretty steady over the past year,” he says. “It hasn’t been great—not hot—and if the economy turns around and really pumps up, a lot of opportunities will open up and a lot of people will jump from associations and go for higher-paying jobs. I think there are a lot of people with pent-up dissatisfaction who will keep what they’ve got until the market opens up.”

New jobs based on global economy
As for where to find those positions, two possible industries include health care and defense, according to Lundquist.

“Health care is hot. I hear that from executive search people. I don’t notice a lot more health-care jobs, but I’m hearing that from search people.” He adds, “Homeland security and defense is a growth industry, and there are a lot of new associations growing around that. The government has cobbled together various agencies, and they have to combine 22 different cultures and traditions and create a new sense of belonging to the Department of Homeland Security. If everything goes well today, nobody will hear about it. But if something goes terribly wrong, your agency will have failed in its goal and you have a big crisis.”

Nurys Harrigan, general manager of Washington-based staffing firm Professionals for Nonprofits, says the demand for communicators has spiked since Sept. 11.

“It definitely has gotten stronger in some sectors because of the need to get the word out,” Harrigan says. “They have to respond to a crisis quicker; they have to work with the IT department and put up links for requests for funding and where funds can be received.”

Harrigan says global organizations are growing more than national organizations.

“International organizations are in growth mode,” she explains. “They are getting most of the government money nowadays, if you look at funds being given. Most funds are going to international organizations, but national groups need funding too.”

Development and tech skills vital
Hazan emphasizes the need for solid development skills in environments where raising money is the priority.

“If you look at the professional societies, they have pages available of those who do development,” she says. “If you can influence grants and fund raising, you can almost write your own ticket. Anybody who can help bring in money will always be a valued member of the team.”

Harrigan, however, says communication and development are starting to stand alone.

“Going by requests of clients, the skills they are looking for have changed,” she says. “Five years ago they would combine communication with development so you would also do fund raising. Nowadays more and more, those two focuses are being separated.

“Nonprofits are not looking for someone to handle just communication; they want someone to do the Internet, write communication plans and communicate the mission/vision. Editors are asked to not only look at hard-copy newsletters and brochures, but also work on Web site content. So a skill that is needed for communication professionals is Web design. You have a nonprofit asking for someone who is a communication professional and can also design a Web site—someone who can help them revamp it to accommodate their fund-raising needs.”

Corporate communications background a plus
Hazan and Harrigan agree that corporate communicators possess a good foundation for moving into the not-for-profit world.

“In the past, not-for-profits would tend to have a mindset that, if you didn’t come from a not-for-profit, you didn’t understand their mission and how to communicate.” Hazan says. “What has happened, though—where the shift has taken place—is that many nonprofits realize that only hiring mirror images of themselves is going to get stale. If they are looking for those who are good communicators, it’s good to open your search to those from the for-profit sector.”

Harrigan concurs. “There’s now a willingness of nonprofits to see communicators with a for-profit background,” she states. “Five years ago they wouldn’t see people with corporate backgrounds. Now they are eager to see them; ideally [candidates] have both. Because corporations have more money to develop plans, people who have the tools can definitely bring those skills to a nonprofit but are willing to be paid less. [Nonprofits] are still not competitive but are getting better.”

Hazan says money constitutes only one part of the compensation structure for communicators in not-for-profits.

“Generally candidates in nonprofit communications tend be very cause-oriented. They often identify with the issue or cause at a deep level. They often choose deliberately to work in a not-for-profit because they are not motivated by money the same way a candidate in the for-profit sector is. For example, maybe they had a family member with cancer.

“I’m seeing a big change from candidates who have worked in major corporations and either peaked out salarywise or whose jobs were eliminated and then reevaluated their lives and are starting to question what to do next, and maybe it’s a good time to give back to the community. Also, frankly, many of them have been tapped out in terms of salaries and there are fewer corporate jobs now than there used to be, so the ladder of mobility has changed or disappeared because of mergers and acquisitions. Many of my candidates have gone into the not-for-profit sector and are loving it.”

Nonprofits bring different needs to the table
However, there are still two ways the game differs in the nonprofit world: politics and money.

“For candidates coming from the outside, they might be frustrated by the decision-making process and political world,” says Hazan. “It is more intense and magnified in a not-for-profit than in a similar environment in a for-profit organization. Also, it takes a longer amount of time for decisions to be made and all committees to put thumbprints on something.”

She adds, “If the not-for-profits are big enough and have staff do to communications, there are those positions. They don’t pay as much as in the for-profit world, and the people have to be a jack-of-all-trades; it calls for a larger skill set.”

Hazan challenges communicators in nonprofits to toss out the notion that they can’t get enough money to build effective programs.

“Often people who work in not-for-profits tend to put on the ‘victim’ coat: ‘There’s no money, we don’t have the budget for this.’ They come out of the ‘we can’t do’ philosophy. My philosophy is we can do this; we can empower people. We can spark the imagination and enroll people in our process.

“Look what happened with the tsunami and how much money people donated. We don’t want a tsunami to be the catalyst, but new causes become the darling. You don’t have to go for the high drama, but don’t be a victim. And small budgets are a reality. Budgets get cut, but there are always new programs being developed.”

Kirsten Lambert is principal of Watermark Communications, a Chicago-based communications and marketing consulting firm. She has worked with numerous corporations and not-for-profit organizations for the past 18 years.

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