The vast and rapidly growing not-for-profit sector has some valuable lessons for its cashed-up corporate cousin.
NFPs come in all shapes and sizes, and their community-based focus makes them fundamentally different from corporate enterprises. But their common need to find ways to manage people better and achieve more with severely limited resources is an even tougher call than the corporate mantra of ‘how do we bring this in on budget?’.
It makes NFPs a tightly results-oriented zone, and even a testing ground, for HR practices and strategies that are relevant to any sector.
Early Childhood Management Services: more action, less planning
“You get a bit lazy with your HR skills in larger organisations,” says Mike Dawson-Smith, general manager of people and culture at Early Childhood Management Services (ECMS). “But in an NFP you have to start doing more, rather than planning, directing and delegating.”
Dawson-Smith is well qualified to make the comparison. Much of his 37-year career has been in senior HR roles in large corporate, local government and major health services.
Last year he joined ECMS, a small but fast growing Melbourne-based NFP working in early childhood education and care.
After managing large HR teams, moving to ECMS has been a shock to the system, but in a good way, he says. It has enabled him to “reconnect” with his profession.
Being in a smaller NFP with tighter funding, he has had to be more creative and effective. “Rather than just paying a consultant to fix the problem, you’re constantly thinking about cost effective solutions.”
He says it’s also about keeping an eye on the longer term because there’s a risk that juggling scarce resources, by putting some projects on hold while more urgent tasks are completed, may divert your attention from future critical needs.
Professional development is known as one way to increase employee engagement. At ECMS, it also helps to attract good-quality talent, says Dawson-Smith.
ECMS’s annual conference, using experts in the field as speakers, delivers valuable professional development (PD). The conference has become so popular that some 300 educators not working for ECMS also attend.
“Our PD distinguishes us from our competitors. We rely on it to attract people, rather than simply pay them more. It’s a different approach, but it has been highly successful.”
Fred Hollows Foundation: building across barriers
At the Fred Hollows Foundation, building capability is a strategic objective, and the organisation jumps many hurdles to ensure it happens.
First there’s the geographic challenge: 280 staff in 16 countries. Then there are the language and cultural barriers. Most staff are local and speak English, but not fluently. Some of the country managers don’t speak English at all. The foundation focuses on leadership development to give country managers the skills to develop and support their own staff.
It also occasionally undertakes big translation projects, such as a recent engagement survey.
Paper-based surveys were translated into all the local languages so everyone could participate, says Jenny Bond, associate director of people and organisational development.
“We had a 90 per cent participation rate and an 80 per cent engagement score,” says Bond. “It was the first time we’d done a global survey and it was a really pleasing outcome.”
While the survey highlighted some areas for improvement – “That’s why you do engagement surveys” – it was a positive sign that the organisation was “in a good place” with its employees after several years of substantial growth.
The foundation’s goal to increase skills amongst its employees, particularly in leadership, people management and performance management, directly relates to its mission, says Bond. “The better skilled our people are, the more people can access our services to end avoidable blindness.”
Australian Red Cross: resilience, communication, collaboration and leadership
On a bigger scale, the Australian Red Cross has turned its attention to a major career development program for its workforce of around 31,000 volunteers and 300 staff.
“We know people join Australian Red Cross because they’re committed to the organisation and what it stands for – its work in the community, its vision and values,” says HR director Chris Steinfort. “But they also join because they’re well-skilled people who expect to continue to develop their skills and their careers.
“It would be fair to say that, a few years ago, we didn’t provide as many career development opportunities as we should have, and that creates issues with turnover.”
Following much consultation, the Australian Red Cross has made a significant investment in a workforce development plan, aiming to work on technical competencies and behavioural capabilities. The plan was recently announced as a 2014 AHRI Award finalist.
“It’s a challenging sector, so we’re looking at developing strategies for resilience, communication, collaboration and leadership,” says Steinfort.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the November 2014 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Managing a mission’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.