The conventional wisdom on the campuses of elite universities used to be that the nonprofit sector could never compete for top job seekers against big-name Wall Street players like Goldman Sachs or consulting firms like McKinsey that promised a meteoric career path.

But that was before the rise of Teach for America (TFA), the unique nonprofit that recruits some of the nation’s best minds to spend two years right out of college in the most challenging urban and rural school districts. By appealing to students’ most altruistic instincts, TFA attracted a whopping 35,000 applicants in 2009 for just 4,100 slots — luring as much as 10% of the graduating classes at some leading private schools.

That’s why executives from a couple of the nation’s more established, traditional nonprofits — Girl Scouts of America and Mental Health America — joined experts from Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania at the University’s Fels Institute of Government to discuss innovative new approaches that might re-create some of TFA’s recruiting magic for their own organizations.

“If you have ever been to a Teach for America event, it’s amazing — they have the schtick down,” said Doug Lynch, vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Lynch compared TFA recruiting sessions to tent revival meetings, with swelling music and emotional presentations about combating poverty. “Their message is, ‘Come and change the world with [us] for two years.’ It’s a pretty compelling strategy.”

Girl Scouts and Mental Health America are part of a coalition of some of America’s best-known social-service nonprofits, charities and faith-based organizations, known as Leadership 18. The Fels program, held in conjunction with Leadership 18, was titled, “Human Capital Pipeline Challenges: Recruiting, Developing and Retaining Top Talent.”

Lynch and other program participants suggested that, as a first step, nonprofits need to consider forming clubs on the campuses of leading universities, while focusing on “immersion experiences” — such as internships and other hands-on projects — that would raise awareness of what these more established agencies do. Such programs would help to “break down some of the stereotypes and highlight innovation within the [nonprofit] sector,” according to Jeff Klein, director of Wharton’s Graduate Leadership Program.

“When students think about careers, we’re trying to have conversations that link passion and career — and that passion is [already] there,” Klein said. “I think that’s where [the nonprofit] sector differs from the for-profit sector, which is usually less about personal passion.”

Familiarity Breeds Disinterest

At the core of the conversation was a particular irony that the members of Leadership 18 — which actually is now 23 big-name nonprofits, including Catholic Charities, the Boy Scouts, the American Cancer Society, United Way, the YMCA, Goodwill Industries, the AARP and others — face in attracting and retaining top management talent. The issue, according to the discussion participants, is one of too much familiarity: In many cases, these well-established groups have been in existence for more than a century and are thus seen as neither innovative nor as a promising career path.

Kathy Cloninger, who has been the CEO of Girl Scouts of America since 2003, said that among the general public, her iconic organization is so well known for its network of two million volunteers that many people are not aware that there is also a full-time staff of 9,000 employees, including her. “When I tell people what I do, they ask me, ‘Is that a paid position?'” Cloninger said with a laugh. (According to a November 2008 article in Forbes, the CEO’s annual salary that year was $446,816.)

According to Cloninger, 55% of leaders at the nation’s top nonprofits are on the brink of retirement, raising concerns about the size and skills of the upcoming talent pool. In addition, 70% of the next tier of managers is in the same age bracket, and only a handful of these organizations are now run by dynamic leaders under the age of 50. Nonprofits need what she called “a robust pipeline” — finding ways to attract and retain top-notch young recruits as well as lure talented executives eager to make a change in mid-career.

In fact, in a recent study of the leadership requirements of nonprofits for the next decade, The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit research organization, found that agencies with revenues of more than $250, 000 “will need to attract and develop some 640,000 new senior managers — the equivalent of 2.4 times the number currently employed.”

The recession has been as difficult a time for the nonprofit sector as for the rest of the American economy — perhaps even more so, with a notable drop in large donations from individuals and from struggling corporations, and with many state and local governments cutting their contributions as tax revenues plunge. News reports earlier this year noted that even sales of Girl Scout cookies, which help fund the nonprofit’s local-chapter activities, were down noticeably — by nearly 20% in some regions.

But with increasing talk of a rebound taking place in 2010, there are indications that nonprofits may be able to hire more aggressively. A recent survey by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed that nonprofits, along with the government sector, had plans in the waning months of 2009 to add more than 28,000 new workers.

According to David Shern, the CEO of Mental Health America, which until recently was known as the National Mental Health Association, organizations courting college graduates should be equally focused on recruiting older career changers. Shern — whose Alexandria, Va.-based organization, with 320 affiliate chapters from coast-to-coast, advocates on a wide range of mental health issues — said the agency has been thinking about aggressively recruiting postal workers, who are in touch with local communities and aware of health issues. “We see [them as] natural helpers,” said Shern, who is also a psychologist and leading mental health researcher. “There are certain postal workers who can watch the elders in our communities. How do we enhance these roles?”

Lessons from TFA

The remarkable recruiting success of the newer nonprofit Teach for America has some lessons to offer the well-established members of Leadership 18, the program participants agreed. There was considerable discussion of how the older nonprofits could pool their resources for a common hiring effort that might rival the attention-grabbing efforts of TFA. Several noted that TFA is essentially a large-scale human resources organization, since the teachers’ actual work is done within the framework already existing in school districts, while conventional nonprofits are more mission oriented.

Barbara Hewitt, senior associate director of career services at Penn, said she recently helped two seniors on the Philadelphia campus start a social entrepreneurship club — a sign of the type of passion and commitment that conventional nonprofits could tap into. Moderator Harris Sokoloff, a professor of education at Penn, discussed the possibility of organizing “a rotational model” of students working on internships within the various Leadership 18 agencies to develop both skills and a career interest in nonprofit work.   

“There’s an opportunity to change perceptions,” said Lynch. “Everybody loves the Girl Scouts — the [problem] is that they’re not seeing it as a career or as an opportunity in which they can develop. Even when [working for] a smaller nonprofit, you may get thrown into a much more senior position than when working for IBM.”

Cloninger noted that there were important limits to the TFA comparisons. While that agency’s mission is focused on recruiting talent for just two years — with a promise by recruits to stay active in education reform after moving on to grad school or a well-paying private sector post — established agencies like the Girl Scouts are really looking for people who can make a longer-term commitment that might eventually lead to new blood at the higher levels of management. “I love Teach for America, but they are a unique situation,” she said. “We really want to work to create a sector that draws and retains people and is a legitimate career, so the strategies are longer term than just getting in and getting out.”

For younger recruits, career advancement is a big concern that nonprofits need to address. The participants noted that nonprofit executives often have opportunities to move between different groups like the Girl Scouts, the American Cancer Society or Mental Health America — a career path that isn’t well known or publicized. As in corporate America, there is no need to stay in one place when opportunities arise elsewhere. “We are just at the beginning of thinking how to position this whole sector [as a career opportunity],” said Cloninger. Thomas McKenna, a former national executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America who now teaches at Penn’s Fels School of Government, added that better collaboration among Leadership 18 members could help to promote job movement between the large agencies.

According to McKenna, studies show that while large nonprofits have a difficult time competing with Wall Street or with large corporations on pay, those same surveys show nonprofit careers offer higher job satisfaction, at least initially. “But what happens in nonprofits is burnout,” he added. “Essentially, studies show that workers don’t feel there are opportunities for them to advance, to learn new skills, to broaden what they can do.” At the higher levels of nonprofit management, conflict with board members is most frequently cited as a reason for leaving.

Cloninger noted that in well-established organizations like her own, change can be a struggle. “We’re innovating all the time, but we’re also sitting on a bureaucratic framework that has evolved over 100 years.” (The Girl Scouts was launched in the United States in 1912.) Conflict can arise when “young people come into the organization wanting to make a contribution, and they’ve got layers of management who say, ‘You can’t do that,’ or their idea is stifled, or the board doesn’t approve, or whatever.”

Ultimately, the participants agreed that traditional nonprofits stand the best chance of replenishing their management pipeline by tapping into the desire of successful young men and women to give something back to society. Lynch said that it’s telling that over the course of this decade, the other campus recruiting success story, in addition to Teach for America, has been the Central Intelligence Agency. “I would argue that it’s the same thing as Teach for America in that they have very coherent and concrete human capital strategies, and it’s all centered on the mission — whether it’s going into inner city schools or protecting the world from terrorism.”