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Human Resources Guide for Small Nonprofits:
Where to Start

Now that you have a clear organizational philosophy and all of your current staff understand and embrace it, you want to find others who will share your philosophy and be moved and inspired by it. Of course, they also need to be able to meet the demands of the job. Before you can begin to search for these people, you need to know who you're looking for. This is not always an easy thing to figure out when your organization has many needs, and lines between jobs are blurry. It's typical for employees in small non-profits to work together on many projects and pitch in wherever is needed at the moment. (Flexibility would therefore be a good quality to look for!)

Creating the job description

You probably have a core set of tasks in mind that this new person will be hired to accomplish. There are most likely additional tasks that this person may be called upon to tackle. Think through all of these carefully and prioritize them. This will help you when you need to determine the minimum qualifications for the job.

There are many resources that can help you in writing the job description. They'll probably emphasize that it should be clear and comprehensive. No disagreement here. But if you need someone stat, have a million other things to do, and can't find focus...don't panic. The first thing that goes when things get chaotic is the ability to prioritize and focus, so writing a job description is like pouring salt on a wound.

It doesn't help when you consult other resources and they talk all about lawsuits and disgruntled employees and how important it is to be detailed in your job description. You probably have enough legal stuff to consider regarding your services that the last thing you want to worry about is a lawsuit from a fellow dream-builder over a miscommunication of expectations. While this advice is not without merit, you can probably get around some of the details by being up-front and including a catch-all about the nature of the work. A practical way of doing this is by adding a bullet point to your job description that says something like: "And other duties as assigned." You may want to emphasize that working in non-profit is a team sport. It's important to be honest, especially with those who are unfamiliar with life in a small non-profit. In this world:

  • Sometimes you get stuck collating and stapling all day when you planned to do something else.
  • You don't always get your own office, or even your own desk.
  • You may have to share a computer with others who all need it at the same time you do.
  • The fax machine may be second-hand and break down everyday and you can't afford a new one.

Sound familiar? The list goes on. Now, you don't necessarily have to spell these things out in the job description, but be sure to clearly convey the reality of the job so there is no misunderstanding. Think about what qualities a person would absolutely need to handle a job in your environment and put them in your minimum requirements. There is a tendency to want to portray the ideal in your description, but this may not serve you in the end.

A word about new positions (or maybe a few)

If your organization is expanding and you are creating new jobs, there are a few things you may want to consider. New positions change the dynamics of an organization and should be handled with care. Think about what it will be like to bring in a new person.

  • How will this person relate to other employees?
  • Who will this person report to?
  • How will other employees view this person's role?
  • How will this person contribute to the team?
  • How will this person's presence affect the feelings and perceptions of other staff members?

Answers to these questions might influence where you place the new position in your organization's hierarchy. If you understand what is meaningful and important to your current staff members, you will know better how to navigate your way through the expansion process. For example, status in your organization may be particularly important to an employee. If a new person would change this employee's status, or perception of their status, you would be wise to consider how this would affect the team and proceed with sensitivity.

Creating a new position not only affects your entire staff, but affects the future of your organization. Don't just consider your immediate needs and try to fill them, but think about the future. Go back to your vision. Where are you going? What do you want your organization to look like in five years? In ten years? Start with this picture and work backward to make sure that the decisions you make now keep you on the path that gets you where you want to go.


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