Non-Profit boards and talent management

      By Fermin Diez

      The Business Times, 14 August 2017

      People can make all the difference between a good and great organisation, all things considered equal.

      The sad reality is that many boards seldom take a second look at the overall people practices of their organisation. For commercial boards, this is usually because too much of the focus tends to be on the immediate bottom line. Non-profit organisations (NPOs), on the other hand, are usually focused on their beneficiaries and fundraising.

      However, NPOs are usually set up with the explicit purpose of creating social impact and making a difference in people’s lives. With such mandates, managing people and talent within the organisation is critical and must be seen as a strategic function within the NPO, rather than simply an operational function.

      The long-term goals of an NPO would typically include:

      • Achieving the NPO’s vision to serve its beneficiaries well,
      • Achieving efficiency of its operations,
      • Creating social impact,
      • Building goodwill, trust and social capital with donors, beneficiaries and the wider community,
      • Adhering to ethical standards to ensure accountability and inspire confidence, and
      • Ensuring continuity of the NPO’s legacy and overall sustainability of mission.

      Without doubt, such long-term goals depend on the people driving the organisation.

      Guiding talent management strategically

      The NPO board, as a group of committed volunteers tasked with stewardship of the NPO, is best placed to guide talent management in the NPO to ensure that its strategic goals are met.

      The role of the NPO board in talent management is varied and covers many different aspects.

      First, the NPO board has to ensure that the NPO walks the talk of its stated mission, translating the organisation’s values into criteria for talent and core competencies within the organisation. For example, if the NPO empowers older women, it must be open to hiring women beyond a certain age as long as they have the requisite skills and experience.

      Second, the NPO board should be providing leadership to the chief executive and senior management of the organisation while not undermining the executives’ decision making. A productive way is to form a human resources committee that may act as a bridge to communicate with the CEO (or executive director or general manager) on matters ranging from assessing talent suitability, to setting benchmarks for staff and evaluating performance.

      Board members, often being from other industries, may contribute ideas on alternative approaches to talent management such as inclusiveness, different sources of recruitment, different types of staff training, outsourcing, flexible work arrangements, non-monetary benefits and greater use of variable bonus that may help to motivate and retain staff.

      Third, the NPO board has a role in helping the organisation plan and forecast people needs with a long pipeline of talent. For instance, the changing nature of social service delivery in the social service sector today demands that skills and expertise are constantly and regularly updated and upgraded to deliver maximum impact to beneficiaries. Boards can and should plan and forecast talent needs in advance, with respect to the strategic goals of the NPO. To address the NPO’s needs, for instance, it may start with helping to bring in mid-career transfers by recruiting talent first as volunteers, and then groom them to serve on a volunteer committee, be appointed as a board member or even become a full-time staff later on if skillsets are compatible.

      Fourth, if board members have professional credentials outside of the NPO, the board is well-placed to develop partnerships with the private sector and other NPOs to identify future talent for the organisation. For example, board members may open doors to corporate social responsibility programmes in the private sector to get more people interested in the NPO’s mission. Boards may also connect with the relevant government agencies to prepare suitable and dedicated retirees for a second career in the social sector.

      Last but not least, the NPO board serves as the most dedicated eyes, ears and feedback channel of the NPO it serves. Board members ensure that the organisations’ values, policies and systems are aligned with the wider demands of society. This may encompass various aspects such as greater donor expectations, revised charity rules and compensation structure. The NPO will do well to heed its board’s views on staying relevant.

      Talent management of the NPO board

      While it plays an important role in strategic talent management, the NPO board must also be mindful that talent on the board similarly needs to be managed.

      One key issue around board talent management is the tenure of board members. When tenures are kept short (say, below three years), board members may not be incentivised to consider the long-term future of the organisation. On the other hand, passionate and committed board members who may stay on for ten years or more, can sometimes hinder talent renewal on the board that may in turn impact the effectiveness of the NPO.

      So while driving talent management in the NPO, the NPO board must also have a clear policy to renew its members, imbue diversity on the board and strike a balance between having experienced and newer members. Whatever strengthens the board will in turn enhance the NPO they serve.

      Fermin Diez is a member of the SCA Best CEO Award Working Committee of the Singapore Institute of Directors.