happy employees at their laptops

Navigating HR in the Nonprofit Sector

The challenges of navigating human resource (HR) management in the nonprofit sector are really no different than in the for-profit sector but with one large caveat—we’re trying to attract quality talent on a bare bones budget. The key is finding those people who have the heart and passion for what your organization does. When you can marry someone’s experience to their passion, it can be a rewarding partnership for everyone.

I learned this lesson early in my career with a small local firm in Milwaukee, WI. It had built its audit practice around nonprofit clients. Our audit partner had a huge heart for community service—something he did nearly every week in his off hours. This is what drove him to build a business that could help those who help others. He was fulfilling his own passion.

However, what I still recall to this day is the excitement and passion the folks I met had for the cause they chose to call work. These people were not working on ergonomically correct workstations. 

Most were on mismatched furniture (if they were lucky) while many others might be on folding tables and chairs, often in the less expensive areas of town. What struck me was that these people were very experienced. Very talented. They could have been working anywhere and for much higher pay. But they didn’t. Why? 

They all wanted to make a difference in the communities they call home. It was impressive and I found myself on a quest to marry my experience to an organization that matched my passion. 

[Related: A Nonprofit’s Guide to RFPs]

How to Hire Your Ideal Candidate

Skip ahead many years and I found myself working for a globally recognized nonprofit organization overseeing the HR, administrative and finance functions. I needed to know how to do my best navigating HR in the nonprofit sector. In the shadow of companies such as Amazon and Expedia, attracting and hiring quality talent was a real challenge. In talking with the folks that worked at the organization, once again I was reminded of the passion these people had for the work they were doing; they were changing their communities through the causes they supported. 

That was it! To attract talent, we needed more focus on the cause and less on the compensation package, especially salary where we really struggled to be competitive. We began tailoring interviews around why we were here personally, while educating applicants on the work and the vision of the organization. The interesting thing is when you believe in what you are doing, even the most operational employee can be a salesperson for the organization. 

How to Implement Employee Retention

Now you hired your candidate, so how do you keep them?

Make employee retention your #1 goal. That’s a real challenge for all companies—turnover is expensive. You don’t want to be filling positions every year. It’s hard to advance your cause if you’re constantly hiring and training new people. Start by building your culture to be a place where people want to come. 

Spend time thinking about ways to make your culture better such as more time off, flexibility, and offering a pet-friendly office space to name a few, and provide opportunities to bring your team together in a non-work situation. Engage your senior staff. Engage your employees. What do they want—and can you provide it? Afterall, your employees are giving up time with family and friends or doing the things they love to do. Make work one of the things they love to do.

[Related: Founder’s Syndrome: The Third Sector’s Challenge]

How to Increase Employee Happiness and Engagement

How do you make your employees love their work? 

You need to know your team and what makes them tick. There are several tools to help you understand your employees. One way is to ask them. As part of onboarding paperwork, use a form to ask questions and get to know your employees better. Ask how employees like to be rewarded (i.e. time off, a bonus, praise, etc.). 

Ask what their favorite restaurants are, what coffee drinks they enjoy, etc. Do this so that managers get to know their team members. It allows managers to say thank you in ways that are personalized to the team member. A thank you can go a long way, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot.

The Birkman Method

Another tool I highly recommend is The Birkman Method. It’s a tool that identifies an employee’s interests, the things they enjoy doing, and what they need to be successful. The Birkman will tell you what behaviors to expect from your team if those needs are not met. To be successful, you need to weave this into every aspect of your culture. 

We implemented Birkman at the nonprofit I worked for and dedicated budget dollars to educating our team about the data collected. It was a fantastic resource for navigating HR in the nonprofit sector. This taught our team how to read and interpret the reports and then use the information to interpret their co-workers. We did team building exercises as part of the training and education. I always referenced the Birkman on any occasion I had to talk with an employee having issues with another co-worker. The more teammates could see the Birkman as a valuable tool to build relationships, the better our culture became. 

Patrick Lencioni in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” said, “Not finance. Not Strategy. Not technology. It’s teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive goal both because it’s so powerful and so rare.” Teamwork starts with building trust because from there relationships can have the foundation to grow; the Birkman is a great tool to develop that foundation.

[Related: Considerations for Mergers & Acquisitions]

Build a Better Culture

In summary, find people who have the same passion as your team does for the work you do and work hard to build a culture where they want to stay. Find out what that means for your organization, as one size does not fit all. Your employees spend many hours at work. If they don’t like what they are doing or who they are doing it with, they will look elsewhere. 

Conversely, if people love what they are doing, feel as though they are making a difference, they will stay—even in lieu of higher wages and benefits. While building a strong culture and navigating HR in the nonprofit sector aren’t always easy, the reasons to do it are just that simple.

Connect with Jacobson Jarvis Today

Interested in checking in on your nonprofit’s financial health, or considering a tax or audit consultation? Jacobson Jarvis provides an unmatched quality of work and customer service for the entire nonprofit community. Interested in learning more? Contact us today to get started.

Featured image via Pexels

About the Author:

Meryl Newman started her career in public accounting auditing a variety of industries. She has held positions with small to mid-size companies overseeing the accounting, finance, human resources and administration for nonproft and for-profit organizations. In 2010, she started A La Carte Finance, where she provided part-time and interim CFO consulting to a variety of clients. She enjoys using her experience to advance projects in her community; she was active on her daughters’ PTA board where she led a campaign to raise funds for the school’s new playground. She sat for and passed the CPA exam, first sitting, in 1993, and held an active license through June 2010. Connect with Meryl on LinkedIn.