Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about staffing and organization growth. Our world is full of organizations of all kinds: NGOs, contractors, churches, orchestras, football teams. They have different goals, methods, structures and all — but they have some common constituent elements.

What makes up an organization? Here’s how I break them down in my head:

People — your staff or members

Physical assets — computers, cash, land, or other items you own or can access

Processes — policies, practices, and systems that allow you to accomplish something

Perceptions — how others see you (including your reputation and relationships)

These categories aren’t hard-and-fast. You might include work culture, or see that as a combination of people and processes. Other observers (like accountants) might see different categories entirely. For now, let’s work with these.

The relative importance of each element will vary by sector and organization. For example, an agricultural business likely finds physical assets and processes to be far more important than perceptions and people. A political campaign would have a different take.

Another way to think about the question of importance is to ask: How difficult is it to increase or replace each component? Each can be built over time or lost to decay. We should value the ones that take the most effort to build and maintain.

For aid and development organizations, the order of importance then looks something like this: people, perceptions, processes, physical assets. The people are the most critical component for any kind of high-skilled work, but even more so in a sector where tacit knowledge of context and external relationships (perceptions) are important. Those are hard things to replace.

Take all the computers away, throw the policy manuals in the garbage, and we could be back at 90% capacity in a few months. But if you take away our people, or even if you replace them with equally skilled outsiders who lack the relationships they’ve built — then we’re in trouble. The lag on output will be palpable. Your people are your organization.

So why doesn’t it always feel that way? Why are HR and recruitment — not to mention retention — so undervalued in the sector? I’ll share my theories in a future post. In the meantime, why do you think that’s the case?

  1. Fundamentally, I think this is an issue because the nonprofit sector has a serious taboo about providing competitive pay and other benefits to its employees. Like so many maladaptive practices in the nonprofit world, this is ultimately driven by donor incentives, but in this case is ultimately supported (at least in the US) by societal expectations. It’s considered wrong to become financially successful while doing good.


  2. All that could be aplied to the social base (like volunteers) too. Perhaps someone leave the organization as a worker (with salary), but if he/she really belongs to the social base of the organization, the know-how remains because that person will continue the colaboration… With volunteers, the great rate of movement difficults that transmission, sometimes the colaboration in a Development NGO is only a step for that person… (like a “school”). That’s right too, but I think that the key is finding new ways of colaboration for those people with large knowledge (workers or not) in the organization.


  3. […] wrote last week about how your people are your organization’s most important asset. That’s why recruitment, retention and staff development are critical functions in an […]


  4. […] recent posts about staffing and growth didn’t just come out of nowhere. They were prompted by a lot of internal planning […]


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