Guest Post: Willing Workers, Wandering Eyes

Guest Post: Willing Workers, Wandering Eyes

The following guest post comes from two founding members of YNPN Cleveland, Katie Artzner and Kari Mirkin. Both currently serve on the chapter's steering committee and wanted to share some perspective on YNPN Cleveland's recent work.

Is it the dreaded snowbelt season? The fact that we don’t get a shot at the Stanley Cup? Is it some other factor beyond our control? When we asked young nonprofit professionals if they have ever considered leaving their home base of Cleveland, Ohio for the sake of their career, 82% said yes.

Ok, first things first – the Cleveland caricature persists: A rusting, hollowed-out metropolis wearing plaid-on-plaid with white bucks, the Cuyahoga River aflame in the background. In the foreground, residents hold the candles of bitterness over bad sports breakups. It’s an old but resilient story – not the kind of thing you shake overnight.

So, when we at YNPN Cleveland wrote the newly-released report, Building a Career in Nonprofit Cleveland: Focus on the Nonprofit Identity, we knew we’d encounter high numbers associated with geographic dissatisfaction. We also hypothesized, though, that geography alone would be a chimera; that if certain flagging aspects within the sector were recognized and improved upon, the entire outlook of working here could change. That’s because if Cleveland’s got one truly enduring quality, it’s the capacity for change.

Founded in 2009, YNPN Cleveland is an emerging chapter, and we wanted to learn more about the working lives of our chapter members. Our recent report is based on a member survey we initiated and followed by a series of focus group sessions. I surmise that many of report’s major findings will resonate in Detroit, in LA and elsewhere, which is why you find this article on the national blog.

Let’s start with the broad strokes. No surprise, for instance, that we found Cleveland’s emerging nonprofit professionals to be eager for a challenge and well-educated (97% have a 4-year or post-grad degree). Another basic theory proven true: they are, by and large, attracted to the sector by a commitment to a cause or by a desire to “give back” to their community.

Nonprofit – that means you don’t get paid, right?

But what exactly IS the nonprofit job?  Although the idea of working “for a cause” is typically ascribed to nonprofit work, the general public does not necessarily see the sector for its many disparate facets – world-class orchestras, billion-dollar private foundations, complex fundraising strategies, sliding-scale healthcare services. On several occasions I’ve been compelled to clarify that our chapter’s mission is not (solely) about promoting voluntarism; that our members generally seek for their nonprofit careers the same opportunities for advancement, training and benefits as their for-profit counterparts. So – is this misperception a marketing failure?

Are we so stratified in our goals that an over-arching “nonprofit identity” is simplistic?

Basically – is it drastic to say that the nonprofit sector has identity issues? Indeed, the low notes of an identity crisis are detectable in our survey; some of our respondents did not self-identify as nonprofit professionals, opting instead to describe themselves principally by subsector – as social workers, educators, etc.  How important is it, anyway, that we define and promote a nonprofit identity? A recent article on the ASU Lodestar Center Blog points to the value of “sectorness” in providing a unified voice, for instance in the areas of advocacy and in increasing the professionalism of the field.

 The ‘Swiss Army knife’ of careers?

Our survey found that while diversity of responsibility was rated as one of the main draws of the nonprofit career, job titles vary widely from position to position, making advancement across the sector a challenge.  One organization’s program associate, for instance, is another organization’s project coordinator.

By focusing on skills rather than job titles when crafting their resumes, emerging professionals might have a better shot at transitioning from subsector to subsector, should the opportunity arise.  Cleveland’s nonprofit leaders and university programs, for their part, could engage in an inspired collaboration to define the sector’s workforce skills by developing a taxonomy that could guide existing professionals on their career paths, help HR departments align titles with skillsets, and assist newly graduating students in understanding where their nonprofit career might lead.

And speaking of skills – formal training, mentoring and career goal-setting were the top 3 opportunities that survey respondents wished to see when asked about career development. Correspondingly, a low number reported that their current jobs offer such opportunities. If cash for training staff is not in the cards for some nonprofits, our paper suggests that employers consider flexible work schedules, allowing employees to pursue their own career advancement opportunities without having to take vacation days to do so.

Advanced degrees in nonprofit management are on the rise amid younger workers, and some of our focus group participants noted their ideas are not always taken seriously by their non-degreed co-workers and more-experienced managers. Since most survey respondents reported being employed in a nonprofit organization for under 5 years, we believe that this presents employers with an excellent opportunity to take steps toward instituting formal, in-house mentoring opportunities to bridge the gap between employees who are heavy on education but light on experience.

Further research into Cleveland’s nonprofit sector vs. other regions could clarify and build upon some of the survey findings that make up this report, but we hope our paper will generate some lively dialogue, filled with suggestions and ideas on how to move forward from here. One of the first solid initiatives to arise from this paper will be YNPN Cleveland’s launch of a formal nonprofit mentor program. We will begin accepting applications later this fall, with the goal of connecting interested chapter members to mid-career nonprofit professionals in their desired field or job type.

And while it’s anybody’s guess as to why some of Cleveland’s best and brightest might be considering a move elsewhere, anyone who’s visited Cleveland these days knows that Burning River is just really good beer.


About the authors:
Katie Artzner has a Master’s Degree from Kent State in Library and Information Science, and her background in public service has led her to embrace nonprofit work full time.

Kari Mirkin received her Master in Nonprofit Organizations degree from Case Western Reserve University in 2009. Her role with YNPN involves developing future nonprofit leaders in the region and promoting nonprofit work as a viable career choice.

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