News Release

Winning the Talent War: New Brookings Survey Finds the Nonprofit Sector Has the Most Dedicated Workforce

October 3, 2002

According to a new survey of 1,140 randomly selected nonprofit employees, conducted by the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Service and published in the Fall 2002 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, the nonprofit sector possesses the most dedicated workforce in the nation.

“No one talks about the need for organizations to be more businesslike these days. Enron, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart changed all that,” stated Paul C. Light, director of the Center for Public Service and author of the survey report The Content of Their Character: The State of the Nonprofit Workforce. “Instead, they should be talking about how they can find a workforce as good as the one that works for America’s 1.2 million nonprofits. The nonprofit sector has the most motivated workforce—its 11 million employees have a greater sense of mission, a deeper desire to make a difference, and a greater love of their work than any other workforce in America today.”

“To the extent that one measures the health of a public service workforce by its commitment to the common good, the nonprofit workforce is healthy, indeed,” stated Light.

“The good news is that nonprofit employees come to work for the right reasons and have jobs that give them a chance to make a difference,” says Light. “They care deeply about what they do, have deep pride in their organization, and show great confidence in the sector’s ability to accomplish something worthwhile for their communities and their county.”

Compared to parallel studies of federal government and private sector employees conducted by the Center for Public Service, the nonprofit sector has the healthiest workforce in America. Nonprofit employees surpassed their federal and private sector counterparts in dedication to their organization’s mission, motivation and commitment. Nonprofit employees could more easily describe how their jobs contribute to their organization’s missions than their federal or business peers, and were much more likely to say that they personally contribute to fulfill that mission.

Further, nonprofit employees were more likely to say that they come to work in the morning because they love their jobs and want to help people, and much less likely to say they come to work for the paycheck, security, or benefits. This is exactly the opposite of the motivations cited by federal and private sector workers, who are more interested in the monetary benefits of their jobs than in the opportunity to make a difference. The differences in motivation and commitment between federal, private sector, and nonprofit employees are illustrated in the chart below:

The Workforce Wars: Federal, Private and Nonprofit


Federal Employees

Private Sector Employees

Nonprofit Employees

Strongly agree that they are given the chance to do the things that they do best




Say they are very satisfied with the opportunity

To accomplish something worthwhile




Say that they are very satisfied with their jobs overall




Cite their paycheck as the reason they come to work




Say that they joined their organization for the for the chance to make a difference, rather than for the salary and benefits




Strongly disagree that their work is boring




Say that they trust their organizations to do the right things just about always




However, Light notes that the nonprofit sector is not without fault. “A healthy nonprofit workforce does more than recruit talented people and give them the chance to accomplish something worthwhile. It also should give its employees the tools, training, and technology to succeed.” The survey provides evidence that the nonprofit sector is lagging in its ability to provide access to the information, training, technological equipment, and personnel necessary to perform well. To a lesser degree, this lack of access to resources is a problem that plagues federal and private sector employees as well. The lack of resources in the nonprofit sector may explain why 41% of respondents strongly agree that it is easy to burnout in their job.

“The nonprofit sector can only win the war for talent in the coming years by giving its workers what they want most—not just the chance to accomplish something worthwhile, but the resources to do so,” said Light. “Promoting a stronger image with the public at large means building organizations that provide resources on time and training on demand.”


The random sample survey of 1,140 nonprofit workers was conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA) under the direction of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Service. Interviewing occurred between October 29, 2001 and January 2, 2002. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The sample size of the other surveys cited are 1,051 federal government employees and 1,005 private sector employees. The margin of error for these surveys is also plus or minus 3 percentage points. This project was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies.

For interview requests with Paul C. Light, director of the Center for Public Service and author of the survey report State of the Nonprofit Workforce, published in the Fall 2002 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, or additional information about the surveys conducted by the Center for Public Service on the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, please contact Gina Russo at (202) 797-6405 or [email protected].

About Brookings

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to conduct in-depth, nonpartisan research to improve policy and governance at local, national, and global levels.