Planning your staff – Staffing your plan

| by Tom McGuire

Recent PhilanthropyBiz blogs have focused on the role of the board of directors in a successful nonprofit organization.  For the next few weeks our focus shifts to the complex issues of staffing in an effective organization. We will discuss individual staff roles in both small and large organizations, staffing challenges that are unique to the nonprofit sector, and specific issues such as succession planning for a founding or long-time director.

I used the word “complex” to describe nonprofit staffing.  For some readers, that may sound like an exaggeration…after all, how complex can the issues be in an organization with 5 or fewer staff members?  According to the most recent data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the majority, by far, of North Carolina’s approximately 44,000 501(c) organizations operate on an annual budget less than $500,000. Thus, I want to describe three staffing challenges that virtually every small nonprofit faces.  (Blogs in coming weeks will tackle staffing issues facing larger organizations.)

A small staff does not ensure simple, uncomplicated personnel situations – actually, the opposite is most often the case. The fundamental challenge for a 3-5 person staff is that just about everyone must be both a generalist and a specialist.  In my experience, every executive director of such an organization joined (or founded) the agency because he or she has a passion for fulfilling its programmatic mission, be it healthcare for the indigent, social justice, or arts education.  The same can often be said of the other 2 or 3 members of these small staffs.  And yet those individuals are constantly faced with operational demands that have nothing to do with their passion – leasing office space, creating communications, dealing with government bureaucracies, and, most important, raising money.

The second challenge for a small staff is a direct consequence of the first: because each individual is required to perform at least two important functions (one based on his or her programmatic passion and the other(s) required to keep the doors open), the staff is forced to focus most of its time and energy on day-to-day operations.  In many small nonprofits, these multiple demands leave almost no time to step back and take a broader look at how the organization can operate more efficiently and develop longer-term goals.  Instead, out of necessity, staff continues to do the same work, in the same way, year after year.  The result?  The organization may continue to provide a valuable service, but it risks staff burn-out and missed opportunities.

 The third challenge for small staffs is often described as “making sure that everyone is in the right seat on the bus.” (I would add to that image, “making sure they’re all facing the same direction.”)  Once the size of a small organization’s staff reaches what seems to be its budgetary limit, each new task is assigned to someone who is already there. Thus, the need to be both a generalist and specialist becomes even more difficult for everyone.  When growth demands new or different personnel functions, the first question is usually, “How can we re-shuffle our current staff to get this job done?” rather than, “What does this function require and can we find the resources fill it with the right person?”

There are no easy solutions. However, it is possible to strengthen staffing structures when both board and staff leadership make thoughtful, regular planning a top priority.  Many organizations understand the value of strategic planning as it relates to their programs.  But how often do they place the same emphasis on the most effective ways to staff their plans?

Is your organization taking the time to plan and make wise staffing decisions?  Join our conversation and share your experiences.


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