Developing Your Nonprofit Staff

Nonprofits must get the most out of their people and developing leadership and management talent is a critical piece of the equation. “Good leaders motivate individuals to give their best, but great ones also figure out how to develop their people to their full capabilities—so they can and will give even more,” explained Bridgespan Group Partner Kirk Kramer, in a recent interview. However, offering development opportunities can be challenging for many nonprofit organizations. In fact, in a Bridgespan Group survey, nonprofits ranked their ability to provide development and growth opportunities to employees as their fourth greatest management weakness overall.

Bridgespan surveyed nonprofit leaders who participated in the  Bank of America’s Neighborhood Excellence Initiative® (NEI) about whether–and how–they provided new leadership opportunities to their employees.  The responses were broken down into six broad categories:

  • Team leadership and management
  • Communication
  • External relations
  • Fundraising
  • Business and Finance
  • Project management

Because some of the ideas were so interesting and innovative  and required no tuition or fees or time away from the office, I thought I’d share some of them with you over the next few posts, starting with team leadership.

One of the most commonly used methods is putting staff in charge of organizing meetings and events. This included leading monthly staff meetings; participating in annual or strategic planning with board members and organization leadership; and identifying organizational challenges and leading working sessions with other managers to address them.

At the Cara Program, a Chicago-based job training and placement provider for individuals affected by poverty and homelessness, employees plan and lead staff meetings, including facilitating brainstorming, team building, and ice-breaker activities. One example is the organization’s staff development seminar series. Once each quarter, staff from multiple departments select the topic of greatest interest across the entire organization and orchestrate an intensive professional development day. They leverage external subject experts, as well as create their own home-grown courses.  Staff develop their creativity, capacity to facilitate, ability to negotiate with external parties, ability to create budgets, and essentially, engage in mini-event planning.

Another innovative approach is to allow leaders-in-training to assume responsibility for managing and training junior staff. A variation on that approach was overseeing interns who were assigned to the organization through training programs (e.g., college preparatory high schools or information technology training programs).

A number of the survey respondents said they also develop team leadership and management skills using training and apprenticeship programs. These approaches for developing promising staff members included having them participate in leadership or management training run by the organization’s senior managers; assigning them to support specific board committees; and having them work on committees and task forces outside of their regular job (i.e., a program manager participating on a human resources committee). One organization arranges once-a-month “shadow days,” during which up-and-coming leaders spend time with senior executives to learn leadership skills through direct observation. Another organization rotates staff into temporary leadership and management roles when their assigned managers are on vacation.

Mary Riedel, president and Chief Executive Officer of Women in Distress in Broward County, a Fort Lauderdale, FL-based domestic violence center, said her organization tries to identify high-potential staff members and give them a “stretch” assignment that is out of their usual scope of responsibility. For example, the director of outreach services, who had previously worked in financial services, is working with the board chair to help create the organization’s new strategic plan. “She has great strategic thinking skills and a financial background,” Riedel said. “But in her direct service role, she has had limited exposure to the board. This is a critical assignment that will help us develop a really good strategic plan and also give her experience in a different arena.”

In my consulting work with nonprofits, I often ask my client to identify a high-potential staff member who will shadow me and assist me with a specific project.  This has been a very satisfying project for all of us; I have access to someone who ‘walks the walk’ on a daily basis; the employee has access to a skill set or project that otherwise might not have been available, and the client develops a better-rounded (and typically more satisfied) employee.

How about you?  Can you share some ways that you’ve been able to develop your nonprofit staff?



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