Are Nonprofits the New Go-To Choice for Altruistic Jobseekers?

Public service students appear to be shying away from working in government, possibly worsening the sector's longtime hiring struggle.
A nonprofit's table at a job fair. (United Way California Capital Region)

Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene

Katherine and Richard are Governing columnists with expertise in government management. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

State and local governments have historically struggled to compete with the private sector. They almost never offer better pay, and pensions -- one of the biggest selling points for the public sector -- have become less generous.

To make matters worse, there’s another player on the scene: nonprofits. And despite the fact that they rarely offer better pay or benefits, they may be pulling job candidates away from states and localities more than ever before.

There are no statistics available about this trend, but authorities in and out of government have observed it.

Willow Jacobson, interim director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of North Carolina School of Government, has seen students’ interest in nonprofits rise over the past decade.

“In the last three years,” she says, “the balance of applicants has shifted to nonprofits.”

The movement away from government also hasn’t gone unnoticed by Randall Reid, director of performance initiatives at the International City/County Management Association.

“My personal frequent conversations with students … indicate that millennials do in fact see nonprofits, not local government, as the avenue for positive societal and community service.”

With each generation, more and more people report wanting to make a positive impact. According to a study by Deloitte Consulting, 60 percent of millennials chose their workplace because it gives them a “sense of purpose.”

So if so many jobseekers want to effect change, why aren’t they picking the public sector as the place to do it?

There could be a few reasons.

For one, the state and local workforce has been shrinking or stable. Meanwhile, "the nonprofit sector has grown by 20% over the last 10 years," according to a report published by PNP Staffing Group. People go where the jobs are.

Another perceived advantage of nonprofits is that they generally aim their resources at a specific issue, such as homelessness or education. That's enticing to people who have deep interest in or knowledge of a certain area.

“They see the mission as single-focused, and they’re attracted to the impact," says Michael Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

At his school, Pagano says about 75 percent of the urban planners go into nonprofits these days, but the broader-focused public administration majors still predominantly go into government.

 

While some see the narrow focus of nonprofits as a plus, others say the wide-ranging goals and jobs in the public sector are something to brag about.

“There are 60 departments in the city, and you have lots of opportunities to work in all kinds of fields [like] health care or public safety. It’s something we talk about in interviews,” says Susan Buxton, administrator of Idaho’s Department of Human Resources. “There are even opportunities for entrepreneurship because you’re seeing the government trying to run like a business in many ways.”

For some, though, the government will never be an option. The public’s trust in it has reached record lows in recent years. In some circles, the government has become the enemy. Ethel Williams, director of public administration, public affairs and community service at the University of Nebraska, says some people think “it’s government, and it’s bad.”

Of course, many Americans lack an accurate understanding about government altogether. Although it’s making a slow comeback, civics education largely disappeared from classrooms over the years. In 2014, only 23 percent of eighth graders attained “proficient status in civics.”

The numbers aren’t any better among adults. A survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center revealed that only 26 percent of U.S. adults last year could identify the three branches of government. That’s down from 38 percent in 2011.

Until people fully grasp how the government functions and the government better markets itself, the sector will likely lose more and more of the best and the brightest employees.

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