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Managing ‘people stuff’ critical for nonprofits

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Heather Lee

Few would argue a nonprofit should meet its mission the best way possible, or that missions are rarely carried out without competent staff and volunteers.

Unfortunately, all too often, nonprofits become so focused on the end that the journey may be overlooked.

Let’s face it, human resources, or “personnel,” is an expense in any organizational budget.

From an accounting perspective, it requires care to allocate HR responsibilities across your budget rather than strictly in general operations.

Yet, nonprofits that ignore HR needs do so at their peril.

I’ve never met a nonprofit manager who deliberately hired the wrong person for their organization, but I’ve met plenty who didn’t have a clear idea of what characteristics were needed for success.

I’ve never met a nonprofit manager who didn’t know she had to pay her staff, buy I’ve met plenty who accidentally got into trouble because they didn’t pay them correctly.

I’ve never met a nonprofit manager who wanted an employee to fail because he didn’t have proper training, but I’ve met plenty who didn’t spend the money on training needed to get excellence from staff.

I’ve never met a nonprofit manager who intentionally condoned poor performance, but I’ve met plenty who didn’t manage it effectively.

I’ve never met a nonprofit manager who set out to spend thousands of dollars per year in employment law expenses, but I’ve met plenty who made poor choices and did exactly that.

Unfortunately, too many nonprofit managers are unwittingly condemning their organizations to less than optimal performance because of not recognizing what tools are needed to manage the “people stuff.” Regardless of the size of your organization, nonprofits must address five core HR areas:

  • Successful selection. If you don’t hire the right people, the wrong people will carry out your mission poorly and/or create unnecessary drama for you and others.

  • Legal and fair compensation. If you don’t pay adequately, legally and fairly, you won’t be able to attract the “right” people, retain them and avoid costly legal expenses.

  • Effective training and development. Once you’ve hired the “right person,” ensuring proper tracking along the organizational learning curve, development of needed new skills and maintenance of old skills is critical to meeting the mission.

  • Performance management. Even hiring the “right person” from a qualifications standpoint does not insure you won’t have to reinforce good performance to make sure it is repeated, and manage poor performance to discourage its continuance.

  • Basic administrative and employment law principles. The state of employment law in the U.S. requires that all employers meet a minimum of paperwork standards. Employers that want to be effective, as well as in compliance, meet higher standards.

While your organization may not be large enough to have a full-time HR person, all nonprofits must address these five HR functions in some way.

Whether they outsource their HR functions such as payroll, use consultants on a project basis such as for a training program, or hire an HR professional on a full-time or part-time basis to manage the five areas above, nonprofits need to make sure the basics are covered.

Your mission depends on it.

Websites on HR issues:

Books on HR issues:


Heather Lee, a certified senior professional in HR, is an associate professor of human resources and psychology at Peace College in Raleigh, N.C., and a partner at Developmental Associates in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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