Engaging Your People and Driving Your Mission:
Effective Human Capital Strategies for High-Performing Nonprofits

Many nonprofits grapple with questions about the best ways to develop and motivate staff, particularly in a tough economic climate. "Engaging Your People and Driving Your Mission: A Discussion of Effective Human Capital Strategies with High-Performing Nonprofit Organizations," an event hosted by Korn Consulting Group, On-Ramps, and the Research Center for Leadership in Action generated practical recommendations on a variety of talent management issues. They include:

How do you manage shifts in culture when your organization undergoes dramatic change?

Strategy #1: Define the ideal organizational state two to three years ahead. The culture should then be defined as the one needed to build that success state. Change should be based on a gap analysis and should be framed in terms of output and impact. Be sure to explain to current staff how the culture will evolve to match new goals for the future organization.

  • Strategy #2: Address competing cultures explicitly. Figure out where the intersection between the original culture and the new culture is. Focus on that intersection point when defining the culture and the organization's values, and get everyone to buy in.
  • Strategy #3: Culture needs to be disseminated from the top-down, and each supervisor needs to be action-oriented.
  • Strategy #4: Develop the hiring and on-boarding strategy that reflects the culture as you want it to be. Hire people who reflect the culture you are working toward. Be transparent about the organization's value proposition (i.e.: are you recruiting people for a life experience or a job) and then deliver against that value proposition.
  • Strategy #5: Run staff meetings with an eye toward accountability, focusing on output and success against goals. This will help the organization continue to build an action-oriented culture.

How do you maintain effective communications in a dispersed and growing organization?

  • Strategy #1: Continue to host staff meetings, but alternate location so that everyone has a turn to attend some convenient and some inconvenient meetings. This will decrease resistance to meetings initiated by headquarters.
  • Strategy #2: Do fewer meetings and more calls. Likewise, where appropriate, use technology such as Blackberries to keep staff connected.
  • Strategy #3: Ensure staff meetings are both interesting and valuable so that people are engaged and interested in participating. Don't hold meetings that could be email updates. Consider making meetings theme-driven.
  • Strategy #4: Implement a brown bag lunch meeting series with the Executive Director. This should be an open dialogue with no script. This can have huge value in terms of building culture and sharing knowledge.
  • Strategy #5: Do grassroots research on what the staff in the field thinks. Go out to sites where the work occurs to get a pulse on how much the staff is aware of the national agenda and share that information with leadership. This both helps leadership and makes the line staff feel valued.

How do you motivate and retain staff in a cost-constrained environment?

  • Strategy #1: To release high performers from responsibilities about which they are less enthusiastic without hiring additional staff, leverage interns and volunteers to fill in some of the gaps created as the superstar dedicates more of her or his time to the job components that are most engaging.
  • Strategy #2: Develop a program of cost-effective rewards. These could include spot bonuses, extra vacation days and the opportunity to grow professionally through managing an employee or interns or being mentored by a board member.
  • Strategy #3: Have the high-performing employees lead a high-profile task force. That creates additional responsibility, visibility, and perhaps the opportunity for growth if the task force leads to the launch of a new initiative.

What professional development opportunities should you invest in for staff?

  • Strategy #1: There is a difference between promotion and growth. Worry less about promotion and more about growth. Stay focused on an employee's opportunity to build new skills and offer intellectual and creative freedom as long as it is meeting organizational needs. This leads to significant career satisfaction even if there are not frequent opportunities for promotion.
  • Strategy #2: To measure the effectiveness of professional development activities, institute upward evaluation to see if the skills that were expected to develop were, in fact, developed. Do not lose the sense of whether the organization is meeting its mission and stay focused on the critical question: Has the organization learned to develop managers that can take on more responsibility?
  • Strategy #3: Target outcomes, and have executives hold managers accountable for those outcomes.
  • Strategy #4: Have people who participate in professional development commit to being able to refer back to the training six months out.
  • Strategy #5: Host a session around personal leadership competencies. Bring in a coach for a moderated feedback session for high performers.
  • Strategy #6: Develop a partnership with a local university to offer a low-cost course of interest to the staff, or hire a graduate student to help develop skills lacking on the existing team.
  • Strategy #7: Draw on the resources of your board members.
  • Strategy #8: Consider what kind of skills you are looking to develop in managers and how this fits in with your overall strategy. If you are developing portable skills they can utilize with you and beyond, be explicit about this and use it as a way of attracting top talent and keeping that talent tied to your organization.
  • Strategy #9: Include retention and employee engagement in your evaluation of effectiveness.
  • Strategy #10: Spend more time, money and effort on your high achievers. Handle resistance to this by accepting that some turnover is good turnover and consider adopting open admission processes for training programs so that selection is transparent.
  • Strategy #11: Build a cross-functional team of middle managers tasked with specific challenges that the organization needs to solve anyway. Tie professional development to skills that the team needs to develop to solve the challenge at hand. These activities could be branded and replicated.
  • Strategy #12: Consider high-impact, low-cost professional development, such as brown bag "lunch and learn" sessions, book clubs and experiential programs.
  • Strategy #13: Consider adopting a field-based perspective on leadership development with a network of organizations.

"Discussions among nonprofits at the top of their game about the strategic investments in staff that will enable them to excel in the future are particularly timely in light of The White House Office of Social Innovation's plans to scale-up nonprofit programs with proven impact and duplicate them across the country," said RCLA Executive Director Bethany Godsoe. She continued, "A key lesson here is that there is no formula for success you can reproduce. You need constantly evolving strategies for developing a performance culture and the staff competencies to consistently produce results regardless of change."