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Nonprofits regained nearly 81,000 jobs in March, but still face a long road to full recovery

In our continuing effort to track the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on nonprofit employment, this report documents our estimates of COVID-induced nonprofit job losses through March 2021, as reflected in the March BLS Employment Situation Report. BLS data showed strong overall growth of 916,000 private, non-farm jobs nationwide during March 2021, reflecting the accelerated pace of re-openings in several states. What is more, while many of the job gains accrued to the leisure and hospitality and retail trade sectors, a significant number of these added jobs were seen in the education field—a key area of nonprofit activity. Indeed, all fields of nonprofit activity experienced significant job gains during the month for the first time since August 2020, though these still left nonprofit jobs well below pre-COVID-19 levels.

In Part 1 of this report we provide an overview of nonprofit job changes since February 2020 as of March 2021. In Part 2 we detail the recovery of lost nonprofit jobs over the past several months; and in Part 3 we provide an updated estimate of the time it will take the sector to return to pre-pandemic employment levels.

Part 1 | Nonprofit job losses as of March 2021

As shown in Figure 1, March saw a significant gain of nearly 81,000 nonprofit jobs over February 2021’s total—an overall recovery of 8.5 percent of the more than 900,000 jobs still lost as of February 2021.1 This represented the largest monthly rebound in nonprofit jobs since August 2020.

Of particular note is that over half—45,685—of these overall gains were seen in educational institutions, a 16.2 percent rebound over February 2021 numbers. But all other fields gained workers during March 2021 as well, with the crucial social assistance field leading the pack, gaining over 10,000 jobs for an overall increase of 9 percent over February 2021’s numbers. The hard-hit arts, entertainment, and recreation field gained nearly 10,000 jobs, increasing employment in this field by 8 percent from February 2021’s levels though, as shown in Figure 2 below, this field remains down by over 30 percent compared to pre-pandemic employment levels. Religious, grantmaking, civic, professional, and similar organizations added 3,100 jobs—a 4 percent increase over the previous month, and health care institutions added 5,000 jobs, an increase of 2 percent.

Table of estimated changes in nonprofits jobs, March vs. February 2021, by field. Jobs in all fields combined grew 8.9%.

Despite these gains, however, as of March 2021, the nonprofit workforce remained down by nearly 830,000 jobs compared to February 2020 levels, representing a 6.6 percent decline, as shown in Figure 2.2 These lost jobs include nearly 32 percent of all workers in nonprofit arts and entertainment organizations; 12 percent of nonprofit education workers; 10 percent of all workers in nonprofit religious, grantmaking, and civic associations; 7 percent of workers in nonprofit social service institutions; and 3.6 percent of nonprofit health care workers.

Table of estimated nonprofit job losses, March 2021 vs. February 2020, by field. As a whole, nonprofit jobs dropped 6.6%.

As shown in Figure 3, while March 2021 saw the most significant rebound in total nonprofit employment in recent months, there is still a long way to go to see a return to pre-pandemic employment levels. [Editor’s note: visit the original post to access field-level data.]

Bar graph of % of nonprofit jobs lost Jan-Mar 2021: Jan., -7.6%; Feb., -7.3%; Mar., -6.6%.

Part 2 | Tracking the recovery—June 2020 through March 2021

As reported in our 2020 Nonprofit Employment Report, during the first three months of the pandemic (i.e., March, April, and May 2020), we estimated that nonprofits had lost 1.64 million of the 12.5 million jobs they accounted for prior to the onset of the crisis. As shown in Figure 4, in June, July, and August 2020, significant shares of these initial job losses were recovered. Beginning in September 2020, however, this nonprofit employment improvement slowed significantly, with the months of September-February seeing only a 4.1 percent increase overall. However, 4.9 percent of these initial job losses were recovered in March—a promising sign, but one that will need to be sustained in future months to restore nonprofit employment to pre-pandemic levels.

What is more, all fields of nonprofit activity saw improvement in March. Leading the pack was the educational field, which regained over 14 percent of the initial 323,000 jobs lost during the first three months of the pandemic, reflecting the increased pace of school re-openings. [Editor’s note: visit the original post to access field-level data.]

Bar graph of % of initial 1.65M nonprofit job losses recovered each month, June 2020-Mar 2021.

Part 3 | Months to recovery at recent rates

Following the procedure laid out in our December report, we have updated our estimates of the possible time to full recovery of nonprofit employment back to pre-pandemic levels. To do so, we assumed that the average rate of nonprofit job recovery over the previous months (July 2020 through March 2021) will prevail over the foreseeable future. With an estimated 828,038 nonprofit jobs still lost as of the end of March and an average of 46,019 nonprofit jobs recovered per month, this suggests it would take the sector 18 months—or 1.5 years—to return to its pre-COVID level of employment, as shown in Figure 6.. This represents a significant improvement of nearly 6 months over our February estimate.

Also shown in Figure 6 are the recovery rates of nonprofit employment in the various fields of nonprofit activity using the same approach, but with one notable exception—education—which had previously seen only marginal month-over-month gains. In light of the Biden Administration’s prioritization of school reopening and its push to speed up vaccinations for education workers, we anticipated that this previous record of exceedingly slow improvement in this field would likely turn around quickly. To account for these hopeful trends, we combined an upper-bound estimate based on the average job gains in this field over the full 10-month recovery period (i.e., June 2020-March 2021, for an average of 8,747 restored jobs per month), with a lower-bound estimate based on just the three months of June, July, and August, which witnessed the first truncated effort to open schools and which saw an average of 46,773 jobs restored per month. As it turned out, this hopeful prediction began to be borne out in March’s sizable jobs gains in this sector. As a result, our combined estimate of these two projected growth pasts yields a current estimate of 8 months until nonprofit education employment returns to its pre-COVID level. Given that this timeframe roughly corresponds to the opening of the 2021-2022 school year, we believe that this estimate is the most realistic expectation for this sector, barring major setbacks in gaining control of the pandemic.

Bar chart, months to full recovery of npo jobs, based on avg recovery rates July 2020-Mar 2021. All fields total = 18 months.


March 2021 saw the largest overall recovery of nonprofit jobs since August 2020. While this is a hopeful sign as we head into the spring and summer months, with an estimated over 820,000 nonprofit jobs still lost, this recovery will need to be sustained for a significant period to restore nonprofit employment to pre-pandemic levels. Whether this will be possible in light of the appearance of new, and potentially more lethal, virus strains, remains far from clear as of this writing.


1. Our February update found that, as of February 2021, nonprofit job losses stood at an estimated 926,045. However, BLS revisions for January and February resulted in a new estimate for February, which we have incorporated in Figure 1. BLS monthly revisions result from additional reports received from businesses and government agencies since the last published estimates and from the recalculation of seasonal factors. For more information, see: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March Employment Situation Report (4/2/2021).

2. To estimate nonprofit job losses, we began with the latest available Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on nonprofit employment by field, which cover 2017, and calculated the nonprofit shares of total private employment by field as of this date. We then applied these shares to the monthly changes from pre-COVID (i.e., February 2020) levels in private employment by field as reported in the monthly BLS Employment Situation Reports to derive our estimates of monthly changes in nonprofit employment by field, such as those reflected in Figures 1, 2, and 3 of this report. For more on these estimates, see: Salamon & Newhouse, “The 2020 Nonprofit Employment Report,” Nonprofit Economic Data Bulletin no. 48 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, June 2020).

Reprinted from the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies.


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