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9 Strategic (and Inexpensive!) Ways Funders Can Support Grantee Staff

March 16, 2018

Generic-supportNonprofits 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.

4. Look at how you can support the staff. If you fund in a program area, that means you tend to work with a particular set of organizations across an entire field. In our case, it's services for the homeless. Because we kept hearing it was needed, we recently funded an expert to create a training manual that equips new shelter workers with what they need to know about current thinking and best practices in the field. We've also done simple things like covering the costs of outings, dinners, and other types of support for staffers whose jobs mean they deal with extraordinary trauma on a daily basis and rarely get a break.

5. Invest in peer support for your grantees. This could be an occasional roundtable for IT staff or an ongoing program like Peer Skill Share, which we created to match our grantees with counterparts at other organizations for one-to-one problem solving and professional development sessions. Support for peer learning helps build networks and is a cost-effective way for grantees to gain new skills and knowledge while reinforcing how much talent and experience is available to them within their existing networks.

6. Send your EDs to boot camp. Sponsor new executive directors' attendance at "boot camps" for new CEOs, which are often available through a local university, nonprofit support organization, or leadership program. If your resources allow, you can also support programs for staff in other key positions. For example, we pay a facilitator to host our Top Talent Institute, a six-month professional development program for senior nonprofit managers that is part roundtable, part learning circle, and part technical assistance. We believe efforts like this help keep talent in the sector and better prepare future EDs for the roles they may take on down the road.

7. Take note of and fill gaps around training offerings. It's often much easier for nonprofit managers and executives to find a workshop about how to write a proposal than to find one that teaches them what they need to know about supervising staff after they've suddenly been promoted or how to hire and fire. Workshops dedicated to human resource issues — and that take into account nonprofit culture and realities — tend to be few and far between. In fact, we've created many for our own grantees, and they are always the best attended of all the workshops we provide.

8. Subscribe to a pro bono legal service. These services might be available through local law firms or others in the legal services field. We pay an annual membership fee for a group of our grantees to be part of an over-the-phone advice line run by a law firm that offers grantees free access to an HR attorney, basic HR templates, sample personnel policies, etc. Remember: Many, if not most, nonprofits do not have the connections that would enable them to identify a pro bono attorney and do not have an in-house HR director who can stay up to date with current protocols, best practices, regulations, and so on.

9. Set aside an annual allowance exclusively for professional development. Our core grantees get a $2,000 stipend to apply as they see fit to professional development, which can include conference registrations, training fees, professional memberships, coaching, etc. When nonprofits are forced to cut budgets, professional development is often the first line item to go. A grant specifically earmarked for professional development reimbursement or support helps preserve this critical aspect of a nonprofit's operations and helps staff stay current, connected, and empowered.

The strategies outlined above do not require enormous investments of dollars or time, merely a willingness to see nonprofit staff as key to building the kinds of effective organizations we all want to see achieving goals we all share. We believe investing in staff and staff development is essential to achieving the outcomes any nonprofit hopes to deliver. After all, you can't get a meal without a kitchen, or the cooks who prepare it.

[Editor's Note: The Fund the People Toolkit recommended above is a free resource that details how to maximize investment in the nonprofit workforce and features the Pierce Family Foundation in its "case studies" section.]


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Posted by Jim  |   December 06, 2018 at 11:01 PM

" Set aside an annual allowance exclusively for professional development. "..thanks for this suggestion. I will take a note on this.

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