Putting People First in the Nonprofit Sector

James Weinberg for Commongood Careers

Nonprofit organizations don’t create change. The people who work for nonprofit organizations create change.
Imagine your favorite nonprofit. Maybe you work for one, maybe you support one. Now imagine if that organization had no money in the bank, no data on its computers, no branded materials for its mailings. Imagine that all that’s left are people…staff, board members, advocates and volunteers. We’re willing to bet that this group could get a lot of good work done.

Now what if we took away the people but left all the money, technology and materials? My guess is not much is going to happen. How much good can happen if you don’t have the right people in place to service an organization’s mission?

More than any other work sector, it’s the people, first and foremost, that dictate our ability to do good in the world.

Ask any nonprofit leader and they’ll tell you the same. But then why do so many nonprofits find it so hard to put the management of their people – essentially their greatest asset – first? In recent surveys, nonprofit leaders cite their top priorities as fundraising, financial planning and infrastructure building. But in effect, none of these things can happen without a proper investment in hiring, developing and retaining the right people. Essentially, nothing can happen unless organizations put their people first.

In theory, putting people first makes total sense and is something that nonprofit leaders can commit to. That is until the 3 or 4 more urgent, but ultimately less important, things come up to address. The sad reality is that human capital management tends to take a back seat to the many fires that come up daily for nonprofit managers.

The best nonprofit leaders, however, have proven that if we truly think and act on a PEOPLE FIRST basis, we can get even more done, with even less, and make greater strides towards our organizations’ missions. With a people first mindset, we can dramatically:

  • Increase our revenue streams,
  • Improve our programs results,
  • Scale our operations and
  • Change the lives of millions of people… in a way, and to a degree that simply is not possible without this mindset.

And it is NOT JUST about getting the right people on the bus, which is important.  It’s also about how we on-board, compensate, evaluate, manage, develop, and retain our people. 

We want to ask nonprofit leaders to make a commitment. Whether you are a social entrepreneur, a funder, a government employee, or a thought leader in the sector, we ask you to explore what it would look like to make human capital your organization’s number one priority.  Think about how you would go about doing it.  What would change?  And what benefits you could expect to see from that shift?

What happens when we prioritize our people can be truly game changing. When we put people first, we can build a nonprofit sector that is better, stronger, smarter, more efficient, more effective, grows more rapidly, and brings increasingly high levels of social change to a world that needs it.


James Weinberg, President and CEO
Commongood Careers

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