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HR Is No Longer a Nonstarter at Nonprofits, Research Shows

Nonprofit organizations are increasingly recognizing that a focus on strong talent leads to stronger output.

August 11, 2014
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, HR and Workforce Trends, The Latest, HR Administration, Workplace Culture
Nonprofits August 2014
It seems that the groups known for helping people around the world are finally turning inwards and realizing the importance of focusing on improving and empowering the people within their organizations.

Almost 50 percent of the 260 nonprofit organizations surveyed in XpertHR’s recent report, “HR Staffing, Costs and Structures in the Nonprofit Sector,” said their human resources department’s influence had increased in the past year, and none of them reported a decrease in HR’s workload.

But why did it take so long for nonprofits to jump on the HR bandwagon?

According to Lisa Brown Morton, the CEO of Nonprofit HR who served as an adviser for the survey, the “reluctance” to prioritize talent development stems from a longstanding focus on “programs, fundraising and finance.”

Nonprofits’ desire to increase the efficiency of their organizational functions, however, has led them to place a higher premium on HR and human capital management, Morton said.

“They’re increasingly recognizing that, like the for-profit world, their competitive advantage is in their culture and in the talent that they hire, and that the talent they have in place can make the difference between sustaining and not being able to continue with their mission,” she said. “Now they’re seeing the need to invest in leadership development, recruiting, retention and engagement.”

Kimberly Currier, the American Cancer Society Inc.’s vice president of talent management, agreed. According to Currier, the cancer society uses “strategic talent initiatives” to strengthen the crucial relationship between the individual’s performance and the organization’s performance.

“Companies’ most important asset is their talent, and working to create an organization and a culture that has intelligent and strategic talent practices will benefit the organization’s outcomes, people, retention and overall performance,” Currier said.

These organizations also have a certain set of challenges to which a strong HR department can be a valuable asset, said Peggy Carter-Ward, head of content at XpertHR.

The concept of volunteerism, for example, is unique to the nonprofit sector, and requires a competent HR strategy to be effectively managed. Additionally, Carter-Ward said, most nonprofits have a specific mission that “flows through the whole organization” that HR plays a critical role in sustaining.

Teach for America Inc.’s mission is “to best provide kids with the educational opportunities they deserve,” according to Marion Hodges Biglan, the organization’s vice president of people partnership and coaching, and the organization’s Human Assets department “enables this by partnering with teams to find, empower, develop and sustain people to do great work and lead with our core values.”

It thus makes sense that organizations like the American Cancer Society and Teach for America have recognized and acted upon the need for a strong human resources department in their human-centric organizations.

“People are at the core of most nonprofits, including Teach for America,” Biglan said. “We rely on mission-driven people to advance the work, and so it’s critical that HR ensures the people are well-positioned to have maximum impact.”

The rise of HR’s influence in the nonprofit sector was inevitable, experts say, and the results of XpertHR’s survey show that the department’s importance will definitely increase in the future.

“What’s important is that HR continues to measure its contribution and impact to an organization so that there can be continued investment,” Morton said. “As HR approaches the function in a strategic way, and continues to add value to the strategic direction of an organization, the organization is going to be more likely to invest in it.”

Andrea Park is a Workforce editorial intern. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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