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A Different Way to Think about NPO Staffing

At a time when nonprofit organizations are entering a new financial environment for fund raising – as difficult as any I have seen – it makes sense to think about solutions in a completely new way.  I do believe that nonprofit organizational structure will be very different once we have emerged on the other side of this recession, influenced as much by technology and entrepreneurship as by the economics of the times. 

 Let’s look at what has been happening already in each of these areas.

  • Technology.  Workplace capacity has expanded through:
    • remote servers (e.g. Basecamp);
    • cell phone networks (and other increased access to the internet);
    • powerful yet inexpensive laptops; and  
    • the workstyle of the younger generation.

All of these advances and more have enabled nonprofit staff to operate in virtual offices rather than being tied to an office with phones, equipment, and a desk.  This change in thinking about the place where nonprofit work occurs has even begun to alter the location of services. 

One of my clients has begun to operate their program for seniors out of another organization’s space.  This has the benefit of making more efficient use of existing space – space appropriate for the programming, but not being used during these service hours.  In addition, my client does not need to put more money into expanding or improving space on a permanent basis.

Nonprofits now are not confined to accessing needed expertise only from their geographic community.  They can connect with needed knowledge, skills, tools, and processes wherever they are in the world.  This past month I participated in a meeting that took place in three states with local leaders in the “room” with me.  I could see and talk with them all, simultaneously, through the internet and some large screen monitors. 

In addition, advances in the social media enable people who have similar interests to interact as a community very inexpensively (Facebook, blogs, Ning, Twitter, etc.).  This provides everyone with quick access to knowledge and information from the smartest people that can be found.

  • Entrepreneurship.   It has been years since people in the workforce zeroed in on one company and one job and built their career there.  Data show that the average person in the workforce is likely to change jobs 9 times by the time they are 34.  This means that people are looking at creating their own career paths rather than relying on the corporate HR department to do it for them.  More and more individuals in the workforce are comfortable serving as consultants, taking on part-time project work, signing time-limited contracts to provide services, and not holding allegiances or loyalty to an organization but rather to a field of work in which they are developing skills. 

This changing way of thinking about the world of work is being accepted by younger members of the workforce as their reality, while older workers have had to operate this way because they have lost their jobs.  This past month I worked with eight people on different projects all of whom consider themselves consultants.  They are working with many organizations and bringing their skills to the table at “just the right time” from the perspective of the organizations with whom they work.  They operate independently or in small groups and are not part of any large firm.  They view their service area as anywhere in the country and in some instances the world.

  • Economics.  For the nonprofit world 2010 and 2011 are projected to be difficult fundraising times for all the reasons I have discussed in earlier blog entries.  So it will make sense to focus on the expenditure side of the budget for nonprofit leaders.  One way to keep costs down – both in the present as well as on the other side of the recession – is to avoid making long term commitments on equipment, space, furniture, and staff with specialized skills.

The simple solution to this is to contract out for some of the work that needs to be done on a project basis.  This will place the costs for these items on the contractor.  Even if you are paying more for these items through the contract on a monthly basis (and it is likely that you may not be), when the project is completed these costs go away.  I say that you may not be paying more because when you figure the real cost of keeping staff it is frequently two to three times the cost of their salary and benefits.  Consider rent, computer, printer, phone (land and cell), supplies, insurance (liability, space, and equipment), internet access, vacation, sick leave, and infrastructure staff (HR, IT, finance, etc.). 

I am working with one client who has grown his organization dramatically yet has kept his staff relatively small by having contract agreements with 7 consultants for project work including marketing and communication, finance, IT, planning, board meeting arrangements, community engagement, fundraising, policy and advocacy work, and some direct service work.  Were he to have hired staff to fill these organization needs, he would be paying significantly more for the work and is only paying for actual work performed, not down time.

So how should you think about nonprofit staffing for the future?  Given what I have outlined above, one way to think about it is to build a core of multi-skilled staff who are flexible, able to change functions easily, and are good project managers.  This group is augmented with temporary staff and consultants who bring skills to the table when they are needed.  This will keep costs down and keep the organization nimble and able to more easily and quickly shift direction in response to community needs and funding. 

This kind of vision about staffing nonprofits in the future will require leaders to think differently about staff, growth, and signs of organizational success.

What do you think nonprofit staffing will look like in the future?

Posted in Management, Planning. Tagged with .

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