CC Photo: Jamie Thompson

Based on an analysis of four years of federal government data on tens of thousands of nonprofit, for-profit, and government employers, there are some important and startling findings about employment trends in the nonprofit sector that should interest most nonprofit agency leaders and staff:

  • Overall, the nonprofit sector is generating jobs at a faster rate than the private sector. The resilience of the nonprofit sector—and of charitable donors—during a recession is noteworthy, especially as nonprofits perform critical functions in providing a safety net for the poor and disadvantaged during a recession.
  • Nonprofit-sector job creation, however, has been largely concentrated in large nonprofit employers with 1,000 employees or more. We would guess that these nonprofits are likely to be hospitals and universities.
  • There is a reasonably logical correlation of the growth in nonprofit sector employment with the arrival of federal stimulus dollars starting in 2009 and extending through 2010. We know that a significant portion of the stimulus funds were directed to programs run by nonprofit organizations. It is possible, however, that with the end of stimulus spending, the employment gains of the nonprofit sector in recent years could be reversed.
  • Despite the increase in overall nonprofit employment and an increase in the number of establishments associated with large nonprofit employers, there appears to have been a contraction in the number of small nonprofit employers. Perhaps small nonprofits have adjusted to the recession by shifting from paid personnel to volunteer staffing. If the recession ends up double-dipping, more small nonprofits are likely to disappear or be taken over by larger organizations.

Is this data from the Census Bureau? The Bureau of Labor Statistics? The Internal Revenue Service? No, these potential findings are drawn from annual studies conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), a little-known agency associated with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

No one collects undeniably accurate and reliable data on nonprofit employment, no one. Counts of employment by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, are really estimates based on samples, often stratified samples of employers or employees to make sure that information is collected for specific types and classes of employers and for specific geographic regions.

So it is a boon to researchers of the nonprofit sector that a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services also conducts an annual survey of employers—like others, based on a stratified sample—in order to collect health-insurance-related information. Every year since 1996 (with the exception of 2007), AHRQ has surveyed employers to identify and assess the “number and types of private health insurance plans offered, benefits associated with these plans, premiums, contributions by employers and employees, eligibility requirements, and employer characteristics.”

This data series, known as the Medicare Expenditure Panel Study (MEPS), includes an “Insurance/Employer Component” that gathers health expenditure and benefit information from a national sample of tens of thousands of public- and private-sector employers—including nonprofit employers. For researchers interested in the nonprofit sector, there is a side benefit: the data include estimated counts of nonprofit employers and employees by size of employer and by full-time or part-time status of the employees. When examined over a period of years, these data reveal lots of hidden nuggets of insight into changes in nonprofit employment and nonprofit employers.

AHRQ researchers interview a large number of employers via a detailed telephone and written survey, typically sampling some 38,000 to 40,000 private sector establishments drawn from the Census Bureau’s most recent business register. The MEPS response rate for the 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010 interview periods has typically hovered between 78 and 86 percent. That high response rate is due to several rounds of outreach, including an initial survey mailing, a second mailing if there is no response to the first, and a telephone follow-up if neither mailing secures a response.

Multiple years of data from these carefully constructed national samples reveal often-surprising trends concerning rates of nonprofit job creation, changes in full-time versus part-time employment, and the number and types of nonprofit firms and establishments. 

Job Creation

Like many other data sources, the AHRQ surveys suggest that the nonprofit sector is outpacing the private sector in job creation:

Table I: Nonprofit Employment by Firm Size


Total nonprofit employment

Less than 10 employees