Groups like Habitat for Humanity were able to expand through the recession, new statistics show. (Vasha Hunt/AL.com via AP)

The great recession of 2008 hit most business sectors hard, leading to layoffs and downsizing. But according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least one type of enterprise kept adding jobs all the way through, poor economy notwithstanding: Non-profits.

Here's what employment in the non-profit and private sector looked like from 2007 through 2012:


That shows that the non-profit sector played a counter-cyclical role in the last recession, staffing up when the everyone else was cutting back. Non-profit watchers had suspected as much during previous downturns, but didn't know for sure until the bureau came out with numbers about employment.

"In times of greatest human need, the non-profit sector is there," says Shena Ashley, director of the Center on Non-profits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute. "As a field, we’re really excited about these results. They show that the model works."

Now, the increase in the number of jobs wasn't a reflection of the amount of charitable giving flowing into non-profits. Donations tended to fall after the crash pinched household and foundation budgets. Here's what that looked like, according to an Urban Institute analysis:


But private giving isn't the only way non-profits take in money. Federal government funding was extremely important in helping them expand services, especially as state and local governments cut back. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumped millions of dollars into education and training groups, for example, to help workers who lost their jobs.

At the same time, organizations dipped into rainy day funds to stay afloat, resulting in a decline in asset levels. Some workers may have accepted lower wages for non-profit work because of the poor job market, boosting employment as well.

All of that is also why, when the bureau next puts out employment numbers, the figures might show a decrease: Resources are depleted, and the need also isn't as great. To Ashley's mind, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"We are seeing some organizations start to shed emergency staff that they had to bring on," she says. "We’re not trying to support this huge non-profit infrastructure. We’re happy to see that it can serve when it’s needed."