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Labor Challenges in the OC Nonprofit Space

Editor’s Note: Dr. Ramin Baschshi is CEO of Unlimited Possibilities, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that helps children and families with disabilities through six programs to look beyond limitations and grow toward a life of independence, joy and fulfillment. Unlimited Possibilities ranked No. 76 on the Business Journal’s annual list of nonprofits published in December, reporting $6.3 million in revenue for 2022; it employs 351.

In a labor shortage that swept across the nation during the wake of the pandemic, some industries, specifically the nonprofit sector, have found it more challenging than others to attract and retain top talent.

The numbers tell a somber tale about just how dire the need is for more able and willing workers. A report released by the National Council of Nonprofits illustrated how 34% of nonprofits surveyed had between 10% and 19% staff vacancies, and 16% reported vacancies higher than 30%.

Furthermore, the top factors affecting a nonprofit’s ability to recruit include salary competition and stress and burnout of employees.

A closer look at the numbers shows that the average salary of a nonprofit worker in Orange County is approximately 20% below the private sector. Additionally, salary data reveals that the nationwide average is just above $50,000, and as of 2023, the California average is around $49,000, which is about $23 per hour.

Of course, different roles, education levels and organizations must be factored into these averages. Bringing this closer to home, we’re seeing the average nonprofit salary in Orange County sitting around $63,000, according to research.

Compared with the cost of living in the Southern California area, it is challenging to live on a nonprofit salary alone. Hospitals, school districts and other similar fields are paying higher simply due to a different (nonprofit) setup.

The time to act is now. While the numbers are troubling, the reasons why nonprofits face staffing problems are, for the most part, actionable.

For example, while salary competition is viewed as a leading issue in recruiting, recent data indicated that toxic work culture is the biggest factor that led people to quit. Culture is also considered to be 10 times more important than pay in predicting turnover.

With a lot of work and special focus, culture can help draw employees who are passionate about helping others back to nonprofits and also fix the problem of stress and burnout that nonprofit workers face. Here are some helpful measures to take to help your organization do just that.

Develop a Strong Employer Brand

It’s about more than establishing a brand presence as a nonprofit—a brand presence as an employer is equally important. Seek to establish a clear and compelling message that communicates your organization’s values, mission, and culture in all hiring efforts.

Consider conducting focus groups or surveys to gather employee feedback on their experiences working at your organization. Use this feedback to craft a compelling narrative that resonates with potential candidates.

Additionally, make sure your organization has a strong online presence, including a user-friendly website and active social media accounts that showcase your nonprofit’s employee-first culture.

This will entice employees and help your recruitment team highlight the unique benefits of working for a nonprofit over any other company.

At Unlimited Possibilities, we established our brand philosophy, “Your journey. Our calling.” to emphasize the special bond we have with our patients and the care we provide.

This sentiment is communicated through all of our recruitment efforts and makes candidates feel confident in joining a group of people who are proud of their mission. We’re seeing an influx of interest from job candidates despite the challenge of the disconnect between what prospects salary expectations are compared to the reality of the industry.

It’s our goal to stay as competitive as possible with our rates while recruiting professionals who align with our vision and are excited to do the work. Overall, there has been a boost in engagement and the desire to collaborate with team members, and we’re excited about this shift.

Leverage Nontraditional Recruiting Methods

Nonprofit organizations often have limited budgets for recruiting, so it’s essential to be creative when sourcing candidates.

While traditional methods like job postings and recruiting events can be effective, they certainly do not reach a wide enough audience. Consider leveraging nontraditional recruiting methods like employee referrals, social media recruiting, and partnerships with local colleges and universities.

We’ve found a great boost in quality candidates through outreach to local schools and are pleased with the results, as we’ve connected with great employees everywhere in Orange County rather than in one particular city or place.

Employee referrals specifically are an excellent way to tap into your existing network and find, as well as retain, top talent. For example, research shows that referral hires have a retention rate of 46%, compared to only 33% of job board hires. Also, referred hires stay 70% longer, at least three years, compared to other employees, at just over a year and a half.

Setting clear expectations can help, as we’ve noticed challenges arise in the nonprofit sector because multitasking and handling duties that might seem outside of the scope of a job title is common.

On the other hand, a corporate setting will have firm guidelines within a job role—a role requires a list of tasks and responsibilities, and anything outside of that is typically not expected. The nonprofit world requires wearing multiple hats and evolving responsibilities. This alone makes it more difficult to find nonprofit employees in Orange County compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles because of the larger pool of candidates.

Unlimited Possibilities has established a strong referral program where we offer attractive bonuses to employees who refer a successful candidate. These referrals produce the best candidates because our employees seek out like-minded individuals who share the same passion for serving families of children with disabilities.

Offering incentives to current employees who refer successful candidates is a brilliant, cost-effective method that will ensure talent will be found with the utmost effort.

Invest in Professional Development and Retention Strategies

Once you’ve attracted top talent to your nonprofit organization, it’s essential to invest in their professional development and retention. This includes providing opportunities for increased knowledge, career advancement and maintaining a positive workplace culture that puts the workforce’s success and well-being first.

Focused professional development could include workshops, conferences, and continuing education courses at local universities or online. This is yet another way Unlimited Possibilities has improved our employee retention, with the ability to earn tuition reimbursement for continued learning and partner with local universities for internships that lead to full-time employment.

At Unlimited Possibilities, we have evolved into a culture-based company first because our employees’ journey is our calling and priority. It’s about matching passion with a workplace where people feel confident and comfortable. Because when people care about pursuing a career of helping others, they deserve to feel cared for too.

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