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Jan 5, 2017 | Insights

Five Human Resources Tips for Valuing Your Nonprofit Staff

Down the FREE chapter on human resources from the Executive Directors Guide.



We know one of the things that keeps nonprofit managers awake at night is concerns about personnel. In the social sector, employees are an organization’s greatest asset. Nonprofit leaders naturally want to get that critical piece of their work right. But this can be particularly tricky in smaller organizations that don’t have a designated human resources manager on staff. Often HR functions are spread out among numerous positions — someone in the finance office does payroll, maybe the office manager posts open positions and orients new employees, and the executive director inevitably handles personnel issues. And this works well enough … until it doesn’t.

The human resources function supports employees’ effectiveness, but it also protects organizations by ensuring compliance with a host of employment regulations. And well-functioning organizations walk their talk or treat their staff in ways that are consistent with their mission and vision. Another way to look at it is that the more effective the human resources practices the more impactful the organization. Even with few resources to address this important component of organizational success, there are a handful of steps groups can take to align basic human resource practices with the values that guide their work.

1. Revisit job descriptions: Job description are often the first hand shake a potential employee has with you organization.

Make sure your position summaries describe your workplace values and culture. In addition, ensure that the qualifications you require make sense. Review descriptions and make sure they don’t create unnecessary barriers that might keep qualified applicants from applying. Sure, some jobs require certain degrees or certifications, but does everyone need to complete a four year college degree to be successful in your organization? If they need excellent writing skills, say so. If they need to be able to address complex issues, say that. But don’t equate formal education with those types of skills.

2. Update the performance review process

Performance reviews provide staff with an opportunity to explore the ways and the extent to which their work contributes to your mission. This process also creates space for reflection and discussion not just about what an employee has accomplished but how they do their work. Be specific in performance reviews. Actual examples are much more meaningful than general observations.

Good: “You are always really collaborative.” Better: “You did a great job of seeking multiple perspectives from staff, board members and even clients, before choosing a venue for our annual fundraising event.”

3. Orient new employees

Be sure to go over organizational history, vision and values. Spend time talking about what the language in these statements really means. How does it translate into actions and behaviors?

4. Compensation and benefits

Nonprofit leaders often get in touch with us because they want to know if they are paying their people the “right” salary. But compensation is not just about numbers, market data and formulas. It is also about asking the right questions. Finding comparable salary data is only the first step. Translating that data into something meaningful to your particular organization means considering things like:

  • How internal equity and external market data impact one another. For example, do you want to reward long-term employees? Should two people who are doing jobs with similar levels of responsibility be paid the same? What if one has been working there longer?
  • Are there job duties or qualifications that are so valuable to the organization that you might reward them? For example, if you pull a Spanish speaking data entry specialist away from their desk on a routine basis so that they can communicate with visitors, perhaps that is a skill or qualification that warrants a pay bump, even if it isn’t directly related to their actual job.
  • What is your ideal ratio between the highest and lowest salaries? Is that consistent with your mission and vision for the world?
  • How much paid time off do you give staff? And what does that say about your organization? I know one organization that requires all employees, regardless of tenure, take four weeks of vacation. Their work is incredibly emotionally draining and the organization wants to provide ample opportunity for staff to refuel so that they didn’t burn out.

5. Build a culture that supports supervision

Supervisors model organizational values and they share important information about a group’s culture. Strong supervisors provide regular feedback around staff performance — accomplishments and the ways in which people work. Provide supervisors with training, not only to develop their skills but also to know how they should be walking the talk around your organization’s values.

The five steps above are pretty straight forward but tackling them at once might be a bit daunting. So start by reaching for low hanging fruit. If you are about to post a position, pause and really review the job description. If you’ve just hired, be intentional about orienting the newest member of your team. All of this assumes, of course, that your organizational values are clear and explicit. If that isn’t the case, you might dedicate some staff time to uncovering them — they already exist and define your way of being in the world — as a way of learning to walk the talk.

Download the FREE chapter on human resources from our Executive Directors Guide.