March 16, 2018
Nonprofits tend to sink or swim based not on mission and funding alone but on the talents of employees. Keeping good employees and equipping them for the work that needs to be done is one of the critical challenges frequently cited by nonprofit leaders, yet funders tend to invest much less in the "people" aspects of nonprofit organizations than they do in other areas. Indeed, businesses spend four times more per employee on leadership development than do nonprofits, while according to Foundation Center grant data from 1992-2011 less than 1 percent of foundation grant dollars are invested in nonprofit workforce development.
There are many reasons for this, from fear of getting tangled up in personnel issues to foundation charters that specify funding for programs rather than operations. However, as nonprofit organization Fund the People emphasizes, nonprofit people are nonprofit programs, and even modest investments in staff development can have significant impact.
At the Pierce Family Foundation in Chicago, our priority is capacity building and providing funding for the kind of "back office" support that keeps organizations strong and enables their programs to thrive. Given the particular experience of family members and founding staff in working for and running nonprofits prior to launching the foundation, a focus on supporting what it really takes to deliver mission was part of our vision from the beginning. It's only natural for us, therefore, to want to invest in the people whom nonprofits employ.
Below, I outline nine strategic and inexpensive ways we've invested in nonprofit staffing — and that we believe other funders interested in providing similar support can easily adapt for their own purposes.
1. Provide unrestricted general operating support. Capacity begins with staffing; do not underestimate the importance of supporting basic staffing costs by providing unrestricted general operating support. The more stable the general operating base, the more supported an organization will be in terms of staff retention, compensation, and morale. Staff also function better in non-chaotic environments that allow them to focus on how they can best put their skills to work. At the Pierce Foundation, 70 percent of our grantmaking takes the form of general op grants, and 30 percent is for specific capacity-building projects, from upgrades to CRMs and donor management software to consultant support for succession planning.
2. Offer an outside advisor for HR projects. Outside advisors can provide an objective review of a grantee's staff organizational chart, job descriptions, compensation levels, and personnel policies. We offer general workshops on topics such as "What Are You Paying and Why." We also offer private sessions with a consultant for organizations that are looking to revise their organizational chart or salary ranges, or (in a time of budget cuts) trying to combine two jobs into one. An outside advisor can make this process less painful and provide data and expertise that would not otherwise be available to an organization. We began experimenting with what made the most sense in this area because of the conversations our leading support specialist, Kris Torkelson, and Program Director Heather Parish found themselves having with grantees, many of whom did not know where to turn to for nonprofit-specific HR advice (much less a "reality check" with respect to job descriptions or comparables that can be shared with board members often reluctant to spend money on staff development).
3. Share salary data from national and regional surveys. We subscribe to the six or seven major nonprofit salary surveys because we know our grantees can't afford to and/or are unlikely to. One of our consultants combs and sorts through the surveys to identify "comparables" by position, type of organization, etc. and then shares that data with our grantees. This enables grantees to quickly see what organizations doing similar work pay their staff. Exposure to this kind of data often helps an organization understand why its staff turnover is high and can lead to needed adjustments to its salary ranges. We don't stipulate what our grantees should do with this data — that's not our role — but it typically feeds into the case for support made to their boards at budget time, as well as the longer-term planning done to ensure that an organization's ambitions align with its capacity.