Nonprofit Hiring & Talent Trends: What to Watch in 2021

Read Time: 7 minutes

2020 brought more changes to the nonprofit hiring and talent management landscape than any other year in recent history. What can we expect in 2021? We spoke with three of our Executive Search team members to learn what they are watching as we move forward.

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Keep reading for our conversation with Kris, Marian, and Dan. We discussed the future of remote work, how racial justice has influenced nonprofit hiring, what skills will be in demand in 2021, and more.

Moving into 2021, how do you expect the pandemic and economic downturn to affect the nonprofit labor market?

Kris: So many of us are now working remotely because of the pandemic. Prior to 2020, I often heard of organizations telling their employees that it is impossible to work remotely. That has been disproven again and again over this past year. We’ve shown that remote work and remote teams can be effective.

Dan: I think the legitimization of remote work is likely one of the most positive outcomes of the year, particularly for national organizations. National organizations tend to want to hire leaders who are going to be working in their headquarters, and those headquarters may be in Washington, DC; Dallas; Los Angeles. If they think exceptional talent could be anywhere in the United States, that transforms exponentially what talent development will look like over the next decade.

Marian: In the near term, I think we will see some additional layoffs in this unstable market—but we don’t know where or how deep those cuts will be. At the same time, the past year has highlighted the importance of so many nonprofits and their services, from organizations that focus on hunger relief to anti-racism and beyond.

I also expect to see more nonprofit mergers, especially as some smaller organizations question whether they will be able to survive in the current environment.

Racial justice is front and center on the national stage. How is this influencing nonprofit hiring and talent management?

Kris: The effects have been significant. All our clients want diverse pools of candidates, and we are getting more requests for BIPOC leaders. It’s clear that organizations are making this a priority.

Dan: Absolutely. In the West region of the United States, where I do most of my work, there is even greater demand for leaders of color. This is particularly true for CEO and executive director roles. In many cases, organizations have a predominantly white board with no history of a person of color in a senior leadership position. This is a huge hurdle to overcome. Leaders of color will be wondering: is your organization ready for me?

These are not new challenges for our Executive Search team—the three of us have all been focused on diversity and recruiting leaders of color for close to two decades. Two of us are consultants of color. It’s advantageous to partner with a search firm that reflects the diversity you want within your organization.

Marian: I agree. And at this stage, if your organization is not already tapping into diverse audiences during the hiring process, you’re behind.

What skills will be most sought after for chief development officers in 2021?

Kris: The job of chief development officer is always expanding, and that will hold true in 2021. I think they’ll be asked to deliver more in terms of raising money, managing staff, and managing up—especially in organizations that have reduced their staff during the pandemic.

Marian: We’re seeing it already. On day one, CDOs need to come in with the ability to manage a remote team. And in addition to that, I think organizations will be looking for CDOs who demonstrate creativity in how they reach and engage donors.

Dan: Organizations will also be looking for a track record of building a strong individual giving program, with an emphasis on high-net-worth individuals. The world of event fundraising was hit hard by the pandemic, and organizations heavily reliant on fundraising events are scrambling.

They are realizing that they need to boost their major giving operations, and they will be looking to the CDO to do that. It’s a different skillset that requires expanding the top of the donor pyramid. That should be a key driver in 2021 and beyond.

What about for CEOs?

Marian: Again, the ability to manage a team remotely will be so important for incoming CEOs. They will also need to set a vision in a remote environment and move the organization forward amidst all the uncertainty. Flexibility will be another key factor. If we’re optimistic, people might begin to return to offices towards the end of 2021. CEOs will need to remain nimble and adaptable throughout that process.

I also expect that we’re going to see more CEO retirements—professionals who weathered the Great Recession and are ready to move on—and with that, an increased market for CEO talent.

Kris: In addition to managing staff remotely, organizations will need a CEO who can work well with a remote board, who can recruit board members remotely, and who can expand those networks to reflect more diversity. How do you bring people together when you can’t bring them together? Organizations will rely on CEOs to navigate this complex situation.

Dan: Beyond what Kris and Marian have mentioned, I think crisis management skills and emotional intelligence will be in demand. Demonstrating the ability to diversify revenue streams will also be at the top of the list. Leading with grit, displaying resilience, navigating ambiguity, developing creative solutions—organizations will be looking for all of this in their next CEO.

The role hasn’t changed, but the context has. Organizations need CEOs who show genuine empathy, who can say, “I know it’s tough for you right now. We’re going to do this together and come out on the other side.” This is always a good skillset for the CEO to have because an organization never knows when they might confront a major crisis.

So many nonprofit teams across the country are still working remotely. Do you think this will continue after the pandemic?

Marian: I really do. It’s completely upended work. People will still come into the office, but it will be because they want to be in the office. As Kris mentioned earlier, this year has taught us that you don’t need to be in person.

I think we have all experienced the downside of remote work. It can be difficult to be virtual for everything in our lives. That’s why I think people might choose to go back to the office—so they can have some separation. But I still don’t see highways and public transit being crowded every day with people going to work.

Kris: In so many of our searches this year, the location has been flexible. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues at the same level a couple years down the road. I’m also interested to see what this year means for people who are newer to the workforce. There are new employees who are learning to go to work like this. How will that change the way work is completed five or ten years from now?

Dan: The future of remote work might look different depending on whether you work for a local nonprofit or a national organization. I expect employees at local nonprofits to regularly go into the office, with opportunities to work remotely. At national organizations, I think we’ll see an increasingly remote workforce.

Many successful nonprofits don’t uproot their staff. For instance, if you’re living in Santa Fe, why should we bring you to San Francisco where the cost of living is so high?

I’ve worked remotely for five years. I never thought I could do it. I loved being in the office and closing everything down at the end of the day. But now I can do that easily. Organizations need to change their mindset if they are in the habit of always relocating and localizing talent.

What’s the overall hiring outlook for 2021?

Kris: I think it will improve, given that we have vaccines. Even now, there are a lot of open development positions out there.

I encourage organizations to be flexible. Hiring managers will need to be open to people who were downsized. Sometimes they don’t want to be, but they’re overlooking a lot of good candidates.

Dan: This is where I typically say, “optimistic yet cautious.” This year, I’m flipping them. I’m very cautious about the upcoming year with the new strain of the coronavirus, but I’m optimistic as well.

There are still so many unknowns, and we need to be prepared for that. I agree with Marian’s earlier comment: I expect to see a lot of CEO roles come open soon. You cannot delay hiring a CEO, particularly during these unprecedented times.

With other positions, I’m not as certain. But we know that fundraising remains a core need for nonprofits. It’s only going to increase in importance, especially for nonprofits that rely heavily on earned revenue. Contributed revenue can help you be crisis-proof when you have committed donors who are willing to step up. Building that loyalty with your donors is going to make a difference in the next crisis.

Marian: I’m moderately optimistic for a few reasons. First, the increased need for CEOs that we’ve been forecasting. Second, there are organizations that let people go because they felt they had to, and some will start to slowly bring people back.

And third, there are positions we have not conceived of yet that organizations will create as a result of this pandemic. We don’t know what they are, but I suspect they’re going to be focused on program and engagement. Organizations will have a different way of working with and reaching donors and constituents, and these new positions will help with the transition.