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Nonprofit Human Sustainability: A Competitive Advantage?

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School's MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Val Miranda

Attention all values-based workers! There is a nonprofit down the street that pays like Google and lets you work from home. It offers flexible hours, a great work environment, and discounted childcare. Would you run to check it out? I bet the answer might be a loud 'yes.' It does not sound like any of the nonprofits I have worked for in the last twenty years, but I know there are quite a few out there.

For-profit companies like Google and Facebook market themselves as great places to work and recruit the best talent. It also adds to their image as innovators, which gives them a competitive advantage over their rivals, as they become THE place where many people want to put in practice their talent and creativity.

Google is actually hiring a director of employment marketing & branding, because it realized that recruiting and retaining excellent talent is vital to continue to produce amazing products and beat the competition. Though human sustainability may not be high on the company’s list of reasons to do that, it might certainly become an involuntary beacon.

Would nonprofits also have a competitive advantage if they became stewards of human sustainability and marketed themselves as such?
But nonprofits are known for having workers who run on passion and work for long hours for little pay or recognition. Work-life balance policies, though slowly growing in big companies, are still fairly rare in nonprofits. As a result, the turnover rates are incredibly high and organizations have to continuously recruit and train new employees. Does it have to be that way?

Non-Profit Times’ 2010 Annual 50 Best Nonprofits to Work For Survey interviewed nonprofit staff all over the country and came up with much the same list of perks mentioned above: a healthy work-life balance, positive work environment, and opportunities for personal and professional growth are what makes a nonprofit a great place to work for. So how come nonprofits are so slow to move in that direction? Many nonprofit leaders would answer: Money, money, and money! Non-profits say they don’t have the resources to properly compensate their staff and that funders do not want to fund overhead (a.k.a. salaries, benefits, and other administrative costs)! But as accountability expectations of nonprofits have grown over the last 15 years, it would be only fair to turn to funders and make the case that top talent is needed to deliver top results. A supportive work environment and creative compensation package could reduce the turnover and keep the brain trust intact. The ways in which nonprofits could make that happen financially, however, is a separate conversation.

So let’s assume for a moment that nonprofits make great strides towards human sustainability. Why should they market it? In Four Reasons Why NGOs and Nonprofits Should Publish Sustainability Reports blogger Leslie Black defends the idea that sustainability reports would help a non-profit set itself apart from numerous other organizations by highlighting their practices and that would potentially attract great talent and funders, especially in economic hard times. The leader of one of Nonprofit Times’ 50 Best Nonprofits To Work For, Concurrent Technologies Corporation CEO Ed Sheehan, Jr., said it best: “At the end of the day, the strength of our employees is what separates us in the marketplace.” Nonprofits, perhaps even more than for-profits, need to effectively market themselves as employers (and behave accordingly) to recruit and maintain the best talent they can afford.


Val Miranda, Creative Sustainable Solutions, is a consultant and coach based in Santa Cruz, CA.