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Into the Light Alleviating the Isolation of Nonprofit HR Professionals

It is easy for human resource professionals in nonprofits to become isolated and secluded. However, there are ways to avoid having HR become lost within an organization.

December 21, 2006
The basic differences between nonprofit and for-profit organizations are that nonprofits have different tax implications, have smaller operating budgets and, by nature, cannot turn a profit.

    Still, not all nonprofit organizations are alike, especially when it comes to human resources management.

    Often the small organizations have only a few staff members to perform all of the needed operational tasks and to run the programs providing health and human services.

    Many HR professionals in smaller nonprofit organizations have a variety of responsibilities, some not related to human resources.

    Often the human resources department consists of one or two people, such as a director/manager and an administrative assistant. Some organizations even combine human resources with the finance department to share certain functions like benefits administration and payroll.

    Unfortunately, it is too easy for these human resource professionals to become isolated and secluded. However, there are ways to avoid having the HR personnel lost within their organization.

    First, it is imperative that upper-level management, including the CEO and board members, understand the importance of the HR professional. The human resources department has changed substantially during the past few years. It encompasses more than just hiring, paperwork and payroll. The current version of the HR department creates policy and procedure manuals, acts as an objective third party regarding employee/employer relations, handles recruitment, selection and retention, and takes an active role in employee training and development. These components are essential to the organization’s stability and growth--items not to be rushed or done without careful planning.

    They must ensure the proper HR placement as an essential business partner. This may include having to define roles, responsibilities and partnerships both internally and externally. The human resources professional must also be situationally appropriate as well as assertive. The HR professional must recognize his or her own importance and be able to communicate this to upper-level management. The staff of the organization will act and react accordingly to the attitudes toward the HR professional. Thus, if the staff perceives a lack of upper-management support, they will put little faith in the HR department. This may lead to unruly behavior, and failure to comply with the company’s policies and procedures. Upper-level management buy-in helps the HR professional stay involved in the organization.

    Another challenge facing HR professionals in smaller nonprofit organizations is often having smaller operating budgets—contingent upon their annual fundraising results.

    Legal counsel is not always available. Not every organization is able to afford having a lawyer on retainer. This is problematic for HR personnel facing challenges involving sexual harassment, labor unions and subpoenas. To help alleviate this challenge, HR professionals should check with local law firms or industry newsletters for free or low-cost employment law seminars. These seminars can provide updates on current events and issues concerning the legal aspects of human resources. Plus, these seminars provide an environment for networking.

    Smaller HR departments can become isolated from the ideas and networking opportunities afforded to larger companies. This problem can be alleviated by purchasing memberships to industry organizations such as the Society for Human Resource Management and the Central Florida Human Resources Association. SHRM also has student memberships available at discount rates for professionals continuing their education. Both of these professional associations offer current information and other resources.

    Another way to expand the HR network is to develop a roundtable composed of HR professionals from other small nonprofit organizations.

    The HR Roundtable provides a forum for human resources professionals to meet monthly to share ideas, concerns and best practices. It also creates a positive environment for networking and support. The group rotates meeting places to learn about other organizations and resources available to nonprofit organizations.

    For example, the Philanthropy Center at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, offers many resources to local nonprofit organizations. Membership also includes discount rates to use OpportunityKnocks.org, which is a recruiting tool commonly used by nonprofit organizations. The Web site allows nonprofit organizations to post employment opportunities as well as to search through résumés submitted by job seekers.

    In smaller nonprofit organizations it is common for HR personnel to take on many unrelated tasks, which prevents human resources from performing its key functions effectively and from being recognized as a prominent business partner within the organization. This loss of recognition can hinder full cooperation from the staff and also from upper-level management.

    Limited access to resources such as legal counsel, support and ideas can limit the HR professional--and the quality of their work. Yet, by combining diligence and creativity, the isolation of the human resources professional may be prevented.

    There are a number of creative ways that HR professionals working in nonprofit organizations can link themselves to the wider world of workforce management.

    Use the Internet to find Web sites related to human resources. Discuss having the organization absorb the fees to join professional associations such as SHRM. Look to local industry newsletters and local agencies such as the county bar association for free or low-cost legal seminars. Develop or join a committee comprised of other HR professionals within the industry who are working in similar roles.

    In summary, the HR professional is a key component in any organization. By looking outside of his or her office, a new light can shine on what can otherwise be a dark and lonely department.