Nonprofits Need to Invest in a High-Performing Workforce

This is the second in a series of articles on investments that nonprofits need to make.  The first in this series discussed the importance of investing in R&D (see here). This article outlines the need for nonprofits to invest in their workforce.  I am writing from my office in Or
egon, having recently read an article in a local newspaper titled, “New overtime rules could hit nonprofits hard.” The perspective of the article is that the impending new overtime rules, when combined with the new Oregon minimum wage increases, have many nonprofit leaders struggling with the questions of “How are we going to do this? How are we going to make these changes simultaneously?” I must confess bewilderment at the “deficit thinking” of the article.  We are living in an age where the strength of your workforce is the strength of your nonprofit organization and the fundamental questions that all nonprofits should we asking is, “How can we invest even more in our workforce?

So when it comes developing a high preforming workforce how does a nonprofit invest?  I would like to offer the following ideas:

1.  Invest in a Living wage: Get over it, we have crossed a tipping point on a living wage and it is fast becoming the new norm. Agencies like the Alliance for a Just Society, 15 Now, and others have been advocating for living wages for years and for many nonprofits, they have already committed to the paying a living wage.  If your nonprofit is struggling with the idea that a living wage matters for all employees, then the starting place for your board to step up its learning, strategy, advocacy.  Without an educated board, committed to making living wages happen, and advocating with your funders to support a living wage, your agency will struggle with staff turnover, underperformance, and missed opportunities.

2.  Invest in employee empowerment: To the degree that is possible, nonprofits need to invest in employee empowerment. Research suggests that employee empowerment is fostered when nonprofit leaders build a culture of teamwork, a sense of community, a shared understanding of mission, a way to encourage reward innovation, and create informal opportunities for leadership and inclusion in decision making (great articles here, and here).  Around the edge of empowerment is giving employees more control in how, when, and where work gets done.  Remember if you help a team stay accountable to performance then it is okay to give them leeway to deliver performance on their terms. Performance delivery and not delivery mechanisms is most important.

3.  Invest in Diversity: Diversity is not just a buzzword it is the only word. If your nonprofit is failing to recruit and retain  a diverse workforce you will underperform. We can go back over a decade to a classic Harvard Business Review article Diversity as Strategy and read how Lou Gerstner led the turnaround of IBM and anchored that turnaround, in part, to a focus on diversity.  So diversity is nothing new.  However, the conversation needs to move beyond diversity to inclusion. As a study from Deloitte suggests, that “Leading companies are working to build not just a diverse workforce, but inclusive workplaces, enabling them to transform diversity programs from a compliance obligation to a business strategy.” (full article here)

4.  Invest in career pathways: I recently was talking with a nonprofit executive director who had a one of her senior program managers leave the agency.  Disclaimer, I have been working with this organization for years. As an organization, they built intentional career pathways in their job descriptions, created structured professional development, and developed a coaching and mentoring model of supervision.  While this investment in management takes work to develop and maintain, the payoff can be huge.  In this case, the Executive Director was able to promote from within, advancing two employees, and was able to push her new hire decision down to the entry level of the organization.  The benefits?  Continuity, decreased onboarding time, and higher employee morale, as staff members at all levels of the agency can see upward mobility.

This list is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of investing in a high performing workforce rather, it is designed to illustrate a point.  Nonprofits on the leading edge, those making the greatest difference, are those that invest expecting return, rather than conserving and reacting to the changing landscape of the social sector.  Today, thinking and acting strategically, making investments, are the required attributes of high performing nonprofit organizations and this reality makes investing in building your workforce essential.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.


Photo Credit: Startup Stock Photos

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.