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Real Responses to Real-Life Questions

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I just started at a nonprofit and am baffled and a little concerned about what seems to be a complete lack of HR services. Is this the norm in the nonprofit sector?

I recently made a big career move from a position with a large corporation to that of performance measurement director of a small nonprofit. I really care about our mission and I like everyone who works here. Plus I enjoy the more relaxed and caring atmosphere of my new work environment.

That said, I am more than a little shocked that there seems to be little or no HR support, services or oversight for the staff. I don’t have a proper job description and there are no documented employee policies and procedures. Our executive director seems to “shoot from the hip” when it comes to processing new employees, terminating staff members and, on more than one occasion, strictly following legal guidelines.

This director is very sharp and committed to our cause and our staff. Perhaps she does not understand the essential role of HR in providing people with policies and practices that support productivity and clarity. It’s also possible that this very busy woman simply lacks the training, time or information about what constitutes a basic human resource foundation for our nonprofit.

Is what I observe typical of nonprofits or is it just my organization?

Gary says ...

"What you are describing is very commonplace in many smaller non-profits. The “luxury” of HR support is frequently replaced by the need to provide sufficient funding for other needed programs and services. That said, your executive director should be aware of HR-related issues and trying to find solutions to address them. I would highly recommend finding a qualified HR expert who would be willing to donate their time and volunteer to help establish some of the basic policies and procedures your organization seems to need. A good volunteer can help establish these practices and a good director can always find a way to continue them. There are tons of resources out there to help in these kinds of situations.

If your agency has some financial resources, outsourcing these types of functions is always a possibility. A creative team can always find a way to get the services you need."

Kathryn says ...

"I expect that your guesses are all correct, especially in smaller nonprofits (and in small businesses as well). My experience in managing and consulting with literally thousands of nonprofits is that HR is an area sometimes completely overlooked or dealt with as a squeaky-wheel, crisis response.

HR services firm CBR notes that nonprofits face challenges when it comes to developing and managing human resource related standards and practices. As a former executive director of several nonprofits, I agree with all the challenges listed:

  • Limited funding that prevents access to HR professional staff
  • The use of volunteers (in executive roles)
  • Limited understanding of current state and federal laws, which affects compliance
  • Centrality of the organization’s mission, which sometimes over-rides other organizational basics, such as HR
  • Accurate management of payroll tax burdens — plus changing legal requirements regarding payment of employees

Perhaps you can help. Sit down and talk to your director about your observations. Please don’t blame this overworked, deeply committed and probably underpaid professional. Instead, offer to help address the issue. You come from a corporate environment and may be able to identify an HR expert who would help the executive director get the basics in place — either as a volunteer or as a consultant at a reduced rate. Perhaps there is some money in the budget to outsource HR duties. There are also many online tutorials on HR basics that your executive director or accountant could attend.

This is an important issue and the absence of HR standards and practices can lead to legal problems. Employee-related complaints or even lawsuits can directly impact the organization’s well-being and, in some cases, create some legal or financial liabilities at a board level."

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Disclaimer

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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References

CBR: 5 key HR issues facing nonprofits (Feb 2017)

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