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Employer Branding: An opportunity or a challenge for NPOs?

January 13, 2017

The purpose is twofold: being perceived as innovative and creative

Gone are the days when businesses receive tons of applications and hence were faced with lots of options when it came to choosing the best candidate. Today, it is the other way round: In order to be able to win the battle for talent and attract the best people, businesses need to be proactive. Many companies spare no expense to ensure that current and potential employees perceive them to be as attractive an employer as possible. Employer branding is omnipresent, especially in the for-profit world.

However, NPOs are not spared from having to compete for the best people. Far from it. But in what ways does employer branding work differently in an NPO context, and what strategies can non-profit organizations use when it comes to creating an authentic and attractive employer brand in the face of scarce resources and a challenging overall environment?

People sitting at a table and listening to speakers.
The working environment in non-profit organizations is different from the for-profit world because of its special employee composition, funding situation and working-time schemes.

It is precisely these questions that the Professional MBA Social Management student, Simone Diensthuber, explored in greater detail in her master's thesis. The following is a brief summary of my key findings.

Volunteerism and acknowledgement by funding partners

A special feature of many social-sector NPOs is that their workforce includes both salaried employees and volunteers. People who commit themselves to doing pro bono work to help a cause want to be sure that they invest their time in something they can identify with 100 percent. This is one of the most important aspects that NPOs need to keep in mind when it comes to employer branding. Supporting volunteers in their development, for instance by making it possible for them to take part in training courses and networking events, acts as a powerful incentive and can be the deciding factor in their decision to get involved in a particular organization.

Another challenge facing NPOs is the fact that funding partners, and in particular those from the public sector, do not acknowledge that organizations should use (financial) resources for internal and external employer branding in order to ensure not only that they will remain attractive places to work in, but also that they will be able to provide their social services on a long-term basis. For this reason, NPOs have come up with a range of innovative alternatives to traditional employer branding.

Employer branding, but that's not what it's called

Most NPOs are much more active in terms of employer branding than outsiders may realize. Frequently, communication measures are not referred to as employer branding because this term is widely considered inappropriate for the non-profit world.

In the social sector in particular, many organizations have developed a special strategy for making people aware of what they have to offer as employers. NPOs operate websites that are well organized and appeal to the emotions, and - instead of relying on big advertisements and other promotional activities - many of them focus on being active in the network of social-service providers, where word of mouth is the primary communication channel. Non-profit organizations reach out to individuals who are potentially interested in working for them directly at the schools and universities that train social workers, nursing professionals or educators.

Woman holding a pen to her lips and thinking.
Many organizations have developed a special strategy for making people aware of what they have to offer as employers; however, the use of the label “employer branding” is avoided.

When it comes to filling key positions in administration and management, many NPOs say that “people find them” because more and more frequently highly qualified individuals who have experience working in the for-profit world are looking for meaning in what they do. They are eager to take advantage of their knowledge and their experience to support the meaningful causes of NPOs, e.g. in the social sector; making money is not their primary concern. Regarding the authenticity between an organization's brand promise, its concrete actions and the way the members of the workforce perceive these actions, NPOs have to meet extremely high demands. What matters in this context is not so much what an NPO does but that the organization’s actions are consistent with its employer brand and mission.

Tried-and-tested approaches that are special

On the occasion of welcome days for newcomers, for example, many NPOs do not just present themselves as employers. The board and management take the time to talk to (new) members of the workforce. They then discuss the results as a team and subsequently incorporate their findings directly into the organization’s strategy.

What is also crucially important, apart from this focus on participation, is working-time schemes that make it easier for people to balance their family and professional commitments. This is especially true given the high proportion of women in the non-profit sector and the acute shortage of qualified professionals in, for instance, nursing and education. NPOs support individuals in returning to work; they organize get-togethers in order to keep employees who are on leave up to date about what is going on in the organization, and more and more often non-profit organizations also provide attractive in-house childcare.

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