How to Optimize Your People: A Guide for Nonprofits (2nd in a 3 part series)
Nonprofit organizations are often mission-driven but lean by necessity, running on purpose and people. There’s little room for inefficiency or poor performance. And perhaps as a consequence, people management strategy winds up taking a back seat to other priorities.
But nonprofits need and deserve equally sophisticated and effective solutions as for-profit companies. Given the pressure to stay accountable to multiple stakeholders at once — from donors and funding streams to recipients, partners, and the public — optimizing people is vital to the organization’s success, let alone survival.
More than Incentives
There’s no better way to maximize resources than having people that can perform at their best. When everyone is working to their strengths with little waste, redundancy or down time, funding goes the farthest. Part of that is motivation, to be sure. But one key challenge for nonprofits is that what motivates employees in a foundation may not match what drives employees in a corporation. Compensation and salaries tend to be structured differently. Objectives are directly tied in with mission - and projects, not profits, rule the workflow.
The culture of a nonprofit shouldn’t be geared towards ruthless competition or ladder climbing. But it should be geared toward high performance. While those attracted to working in the nonprofit sector may be just as ambitious for their careers, it’s not necessarily for the sake of a 7-figure salary or a fat commission. Engagement, in this case, has so much to do with simply the sheer ability to get the work done, stay on mission and meet organizational objectives. Employees need the freedom to excel day to day and over the long term.
Processes Are Key
Practical snags can subsume performance. Poor performance, in turn, can derail purpose. In a nonprofit, it’s often not a lack of clarity around mission that weakens engagement or productivity, it’s simply the way work is done. And as far as practicalities, it’s all about tools and processes. Provide the right blend of system and flow that ticks all the boxes, and people are free to perform at their best:
Sometimes the toughest challenges in a nonprofit workplace are the smallest. According to Unit4’s Global Productivity Study, a full one third (33%) of every working year is spent doing administrative or repetitive tasks. In nonprofits, too many roles are often weighed down by an overload of administrative tasks. Whether the reluctance stems from cultural, functional or financial assumptions, modern solutions can not only provide a means to streamline but also gain more insights due to improved reporting capabilities. Look for tools to monitor hours, activities, budgets and expenses, as well as generate automatic reports in real time, from granular to macro. Grant management functions can offset the traditional need to allocate endless people hours on compliance, auditing and regulations.
The more responsive and detailed the reporting and analysis, the better the accountability — and being able to better demonstrate tangible success can promote donor confidence, and improve the prospects of continued or further investment and spend down the line. But on an HR level there’s a lot more to this: accountability for individuals and teams is a key facet of performance management. Having a digital platform that does the heavy lifting in terms of accountability frees up employees from having to backtrack and keep their own records, and enables managers to focus on recognition, on learning and development, on team-building, and on working across teams. Retention is just as important an issue in a foundation, particularly in terms of institutional knowledge. Being able to recognize employees for their work can go a long way to keeping your talent happy — and present.
The last year-plus has exposed the need for any organization — for-profit or nonprofit — to be able to flex, adapt, pivot and respond to change and crisis. The impact of the pandemic has been irrefutable; for nonprofits it has raised the awareness that a mission is only as strong as an organization’s commitment to it. That’s not just board members or leadership; that’s everyone. Given the increased demands and continuing limitation on resources, people become the variable. The more aligned everyone can be with mission, the more it can be maintained. The more employees can respond to changes in giving behaviors — as happened during Covid-19, when there was a shift in giving that required quick moves to secure funding. Provide a centralized platform that can be customized and adjusted to meet new requirements and address new realities — with access, navigability, and simplicity. When any kind of adaptations have to be made, that limits down time, redundancy, and above all, frustration.
Evolution as a Gain
Digitally-enabled operations aren’t a thing of the future for any sector anymore. But the shift to remote presented tough challenges and obstacles for nonprofit organizations that still relied on legacy systems. With no lead time, managers and teams had to find solutions and close the gaps. Those servicing hard-hit areas had no time to spend replacing paperwork with digital data — the only workplace was a virtual workplace; the only way to access information was via a digital conduit. But the good news is that nonprofit leaders and their teams rose to the challenge. Those who had put modernization on hold were prompted to push the envelope, leveraging new guidance, new approaches and products, and creating new best practices as well. Enabling people to put their energy and commitment into larger goals — of service, of programming, of problem solving — has given nonprofits a new and central role in the recent crisis. Optimization with digital tools and strategies has not only empowered employees to grow, but made organizations stronger and more prepared for the future.