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How to Find, Prepare, Grow, and Engage Your People

It was Peter Drucker who wrote, “People decisions are the ultimate—perhaps the only—control of an organization. People determine the performance capacity of an organization. No organization can do better than the people it has.”

But in their latest Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey, national Human Resources consulting firm Nonprofit HR Solutions found that nonprofits “continue… to be conflicted on the importance of the HR function.” Because so much time and energy goes to programming and fundraising, it can be easy to overlook the singular, highly valuable purpose of HR: advancing your organization’s mission through its staff. 

Nearly half of employees surveyed were planning to leave their current jobs—and most of those within the next two years.

Without effective HR practices, you won’t be able to attract or recruit new talent, you’ll have a hard time developing and retaining the talent you have on hand, and your strategic plan will sport a serious blind spot.

Of course, not every organization approaches HR the same way. Depending on your size, you may have a dedicated full-time HR leader on staff, an outside contractor managing specific HR tasks, or a number of managers who share HR responsibilities. No matter how the HR function is delegated, however, all organizations need to understand the importance of good HR practices.

Like the other components of a healthy nonprofit, Human Resources management should advance overall goals while supporting day-to-day work. When you plot those two components against the twin concerns of HR—people and processes—you get the four functions of HR: planning, preparing, growing, and engaging. It’s important to understand all four aspects, and how they fit into the most critical part of your HR efforts: finding, hiring, and keeping good employees.

Your Top HR Challenge

For most nonprofits, the major HR challenge is turnover. In the landmark national study Engaging the Nonprofit Workforce: Mission, Management and Emotion, conducted by OpportunityKnocks.org, GCN’s national HR resource, we found that nearly half of the employees surveyed were planning to leave their current job—and most of those within the next two years. Interestingly, 38% of those planning to leave their job didn’t plan to leave the sector, and just 15% planned to find a job with a governmental or for-profit agency. (Though it should also be noted that nearly half didn’t know where they were going next.) 

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So what does that mean? For one thing, it means enthusiasm for the mission is a powerful draw, but isn’t enough to keep employees happy: “No one leaves because they no longer believe in the mission,” said Michael Watson, senior vice president of HR at Girl Scouts of the USA, who collaborated with OK on the engagement study. “No one wakes up one day and says, ‘I no longer believe in children, or the environment.’”

For another thing, it means that pay, while important (especially in the decision to take a job), isn’t the determining factor when nonprofit employees leave—otherwise, you’d see far more heading to the for-profit sector. “You’ll never be able to buy someone with a salary,” said Watson, because there’s always a for-profit company ready to pay more money for talent.

Rather, employees leave when the more mundane aspects of the job—management, scheduling, recognition, advancement—fail to meet expectations. The mission gives you a built-in competitive advantage when it comes to attracting enthusiastic talent, but because most nonprofit staff positions function like any other—complete with a desk, a bottom line, and office politics—you’ll need to understand how to meet the traditional needs of an office worker. 

Employees are far more likely to appreciate, and stay loyal to, an employer that invests in their success: 70% of OK study respondents cited “professional development opportunities” when asked why they chose their job.

In addition, there’s evidence that those who get involved regularly in the emotionally intense, ground-level work of human services are highly susceptible to burnout; the OK engagement study found that more than half of nonprofit employees who report feeling “used up” at the end of the day plan to leave their current job; that figure drops to 36% among those who “sometimes” feel used up, and to 12% among those who “never” feel used up. 

So what does it take to keep employees committed to doing your vital work?  The OK engagement study and GCN’s on-call experts provide some answers.

Mission as Motivation

It’s clear that nonprofit employees care deeply about what they do. In the OK engagement study, “the ability to serve the mission” was the top answer when employees were asked why they chose their current job; it also found that nearly two-thirds volunteer for another nonprofit, which is more than twice the national average. 

Capitalize on that motivation by communicating the mission, the strategy, and your organization’s core values consistently and continuously. Take the time to share signs of progress—results, measures, analysis, achievements—and explain how everyone’s efforts have helped the organization advance toward its goals.

Find a Fit, then Blaze a Path

Keeping good employees has everything to do with hiring good employees. A structured hiring process, like the one outlined by author Dan Erling in his book MATCH: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time, will give you a way to compare candidates and single out the best one. That begins by defining the role you want filled, in terms of hard skills (technical proficiency, experience) and soft skills (interpersonal abilities, cultural fit) as well as responsibilities, expectations, and opportunities for advancement. Erling’s top recommendation, however, is to hire someone who’s a good fit: “You can always teach the technical skills.” 

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In fact, “professional development” was the most common response to the OK survey question, “What benefits are most important to you?” And for close to half of those respondents, it couldn’t happen soon enough—45% indicated they don’t receive the regular training they need to perform their jobs.

“People want to know what’s expected of them to get a good increase, to move ahead,” said Diane Tuccito, director of HR solutions at Atlanta’s Kinetix recruitment firm and a featured expert at GCN’s past Nonprofit Summits. “When you haven’t built any of that out, people start wondering, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

In addition to defining roles in preparation for hiring, employers must define a career path for each employee, and take an active interest in every employee’s development. That should include specific performance standards, opportunities to take on further responsibility outside of formal promotions (leading a project, for example), and the support and resources necessary to succeed—including professional training and other career-enriching activities like conferences and interest groups.

“There’s a widespread fear that employees who get training are more likely to be poached by competing employers,” said GCN Senior Consultant Mary Bear-Hughes, speaking at a recent GCN member expert series event. The truth, she contends, is that employees are far more likely to appreciate, and stay loyal to, an employer that invests in their success—indeed, 70% of respondents in the OK engagement study cited “professional development opportunities” when asked why they chose their job; “potential for career advancement” was the next-most-popular answer, at 56%. Unfortunately, a full 42% felt their career development needs were not being addressed in that job.

Mind Your Managers 

“Are our managers trained? How do we train them? Do we have the basic policies in place? What tools do we give them, so they can carry out those policies consistently?” These are the initial questions Diane Tuccito poses when advising clients on effective management. There’s a familiar refrain in HR that says, “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers,” but Tuccito points out that the converse is equally true: “Even if they don’t like the company, people will stay in a position because they like their manager. If you have someone who can lead, who can treat people fairly, that goes a long way.”

The ability to lead people, of course, doesn’t come naturally to everyone. “It can be especially tricky in nonprofits, where program managers often get promoted to a people-managing position,” said GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group VP Cindy Cheatham. It may be a natural move for the organization and the individual, but “the skill set required is much, much different.” 

”People stay because they like their manager. Having someone who can lead, who can treat people fairly, that goes a long way.”

That’s why management skills training is essential, in areas like communication, delegation, employee motivation, planning and forecasting, conducting performance reviews, and providing feedback. It’s also why the Certificate of Supervision and Management program is one of the most popular offerings at GCN’s Nonprofit University (the next six-part series begins September 19, 2013.)

To further ensure your managers are on the same page, it’s also vital that policies governing employee issues like sick leave, overtime, standards and discipline, and formal recognition are defined, documented, and disseminated to all staff—ideally in an employee handbook they can reference anytime. 

For organizations without these policies or a dedicated HR professional to establish them, Tuccito’s top recommendation is to hire an outside consultant who will work with leadership to ensure all policies, including the legal compliance aspect of HR, are in place. Another possible source of HR advice is your board—even if you don’t have an HR pro at the table, a board member may have access to one through her day-job.

Staff in the Spotlight

In the absence of meaningful recognition, the only measure employees have to gauge worth is their pay—and if your salaries are like most nonprofits’, they won’t compare favorably with those outside the sector. That makes formal recognition programs and informal acknowledgement efforts essential to keeping employees happy.

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Recognition doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate, but  it does have to be meaningful. Small tokens—a $10 gift card, a bunch of flowers, homemade baked goods—can make a big difference when attached to meaningful acknowledgement, the kind that’s achievement-specific, well-deserved, and expressed directly to the employee by both immediate supervisors and higher-level executives. Accolades should also be repeated to the team as a whole, through company-wide meetings or emails, to serve as inspiration and encouragement for other staff workers. Additional responsibilities, like leading a project, can also serve as a reward for work well done—but only when those responsibilities are fully supported through proper supervision and training.

Know Your Staff—And Vice-Versa

Most of these HR strategies come down to understanding and meeting the needs of your employees on an individual basis, and making sure they understand how their individual contribution meets the needs of the organization. That means building one-on-one relationships, finding out what’s important to them, and planning for their future with the organization, but also involving them in organizational decisions and soliciting their feedback. 

Staff-wide surveys on current issues—the execution of a new program, say, or marketing ideas for this year’s fundraiser—should be a regular part of your decision-making process, but don’t forget to ask for ideas and input in day-to-day conversation. Not only will their on-the-ground perspective help you streamline your processes, but you’ll also give them a greater sense of ownership and pride in the “big picture.”

When you understand and invest in your staff, provide them with a set of expectations and a roadmap for advancement, manage them with consistency and fairness, recognize them in meaningful ways, and act on their feedback, you’ll have an office environment worthy of the people working to turn your high-minded mission into hands-on solutions—and a set of tangible reasons for their continued loyalty.

Marc Schultz is contributing editor at Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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