Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Nonprofits – staffing and career potential

Posted in HR and personnel, nonprofits by Timothy Platt on January 3, 2010

So far I have looked a bit into strategy and operations in nonprofits and I have written a bit about nonprofit missions and visions (see Nonprofits and Social Networking), but I have not gone into one of the most important and at times vexing sets of issues of all: staffing and the people who make this all possible, and the problems and issues of managing nonprofit staff and staffing levels. I want to delve a bit into these issues here with a focus on the particular constraints that nonprofit business models impose on:

• Who gets hired, and for what.
• How they should be performance evaluated.
• Opportunity for advancement and for career development for individual employees within nonprofits.
• Human Resource operations as they impact upon and help to shape these issues and how they are presented to staff members in nonprofits.

The logical place to start for this is with a basic observation made in my earlier postings in this series, that tends to influence if not dominate everything in nonprofits – the ongoing and usually unrelenting need for and drive to do more with less and particularly where doing with more would expand fixed operational and other ongoing costs not directly expended in pursuit of mission. Good nonprofits are, if nothing else, completely mission driven and this issue of precedence shapes all else.

That is particularly true for issues like staffing and headcount as payroll is virtually always one of the largest single items in any organization’s expenditures – for profit or nonprofit. That means that nonprofits are driven by an imperative to keep headcount down and to continually adjust there for greater efficiency. I will get back to that particular detail – this fine tuning a bit later , as it can be effective but it can, if not properly managed be both demoralizing and self-defeating. But first I want to lay out some of the basic issues as they commonly seem to be played out in nonprofit business practice for staffing per se.

People are hired when there are sufficient “extra” tasks of sufficiently high priority on current staff member’s desks for one or more hiring manager that they and their hiring manager are willing to go through the stress and the extra work on their part to go through the hiring process. This much is just Business 101 for most any organization. People like to say that public speaking is stressful and that it is often viewed as about the most stressful task the average person can be called upon to do, but try putting that next to that stack of resumes to go through on top of an already full and pressing work schedule. Hiring is really stressful and that is true for everyone who has to do it and without exception. But assume that not hiring now looks even worse so you decide to hire, and you set out to craft a job description accordingly.

Headcounts are kept low and for that compelling reason already cited above – cost containment and maximizing per-person effectiveness. So any new hire is likely to find themselves carrying out a wider range of tasks and responsibilities than a corresponding hire in most any for profit business might. This distinction is particularly true where a standard nonprofit is compared to a Union shop where people are hired for very specific pre-determined job descriptions and significantly changing those job descriptions would require direct and explicit contract re-negotiations. But nonprofits are always looking for minimum headcount efficiencies so job descriptions can be wide ranging and pretty open and job requirements frequently change a lot with time for any new hire once on-board.

So nonprofits need people who offer a great deal of flexibility in what they will do and what they can do well. This is important for job longevity in a nonprofit and it has to have impact on performance reviews where ability to smoothly pick up new tasks and responsibilities and to finish up and close down old ones, or turn them over to others are crucial.

Of course limited headcount also places barriers to advancement within any given nonprofit except during very unusual periods of significant organizational growth. So career advancement tends to happen within the nonprofit business community mostly through moves between nonprofits and not within the ranks of any single nonprofit. This has impact on the individual employee and for their personal career and it also has impact on the organization they work in and move on from as a whole.

• This creates real opportunity for employee turnover and particularly for the people most nonprofits should want to hold onto the most – their best performers who cannot advance where they are and can only do so by moving, and who other nonprofits want to hire to fill their critical staffing gaps from people who leave them.
• This creates real opportunity for bringing in best practices as developed in other nonprofits that can be leveraged into ongoing practices where these new hires go.
• This means best practices do not tend to stay within any one nonprofit and the best of the best tend to become commonly shared standards of practice and excellence across wide sweeps of nonprofits in general.
• This means certain types of operational and other best practices can at best have short shelf lives as sources of individual nonprofit competitive advantage.
• That should at least influence Human Resources as well as overall nonprofit leadership as they shape both hiring policy and retention policy and initiatives.
• There are often disconnects there where what should be lessons learned are not, and turnover can be both excessively high and excessively costly to the organization and its potential for meeting its mission. I note here that not all employees are the same in impact of loss so while it may not be good to keep loosing newly trained less experience staff it can be devastating to loose the most experienced, key people who know the organizational history and who are its wisdom repositories. It can be devastating to loose the most creative staff members and the drivers of best practice performance. Those are the people who leave because they cannot advance in-house and know it and who have alternatives available to them where they can advance.

And this brings me to that little detail I mentioned above that I said I would come back to – fine tuning staffing and headcount. On the one hand this is something that every organization has to do as a general ongoing process – keeping staff aligned with business needs, priorities and goals. On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid over-active fine tuning where you are simply contributing to employee churn as it is called – staffing turnover and reduction for the sake of turnover and reductions. As a general rule this happens when short term fiscal perspective dominates over longer term considerations, and when a business – nonprofit or for profit finds itself pressed into a corner where short term has to dominate they are in dire need of change management.

• And I leave this posting with something of an open question, for which I do not think there is any one general, always effective answer. How do you best balance the (potentially and at least seemingly) visible impact of the short term costs of staffing change against the much less knowable value of stability in staffing for more distant requirements?

I mentioned office morale when I initially brought this up earlier in this posting and it and related issues are vitally important. When a nonprofit in effect breaks its moral contract with its employees with a downsizing, morale can go out the window for those who remain, and it is precisely the ones who have options, and who that nonprofit would want most to keep who are in greatest danger of heading for the exit, and for work in a competing nonprofit and perhaps as a career advancement step too. Running a good nonprofit is not easy and staffing issues can be real pain points in this, and sources for loss of vitality and potential for the organization.

My next posting in this series is going to be on business models and community needs, and on what community is for a nonprofit.

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