“We don’t need HR because we’re all here for the same thing to focus on a centralized cause.”
“We’re like a family”
“Everyone is here for the mission and values so taking a pay cut is normal”
Do any of these sound familiar? Most non-profit organizations are founded with a shared mission to make the world a better place. As they grow, what was once an idea for change has now become a living, breathing organization filled with real, live humans. While the shared passion of non-profit teams leads them to work hard for their communities, things like HR policies, management training or even just vacation policies that actually allow for rest often go unaddressed. These aren’t just nice-to-haves; a lack of people programs at your non-profit can lead to burnout, resentment and turnover. Good HR isn’t “going corporate”; it’s having well designed systems to support the people doing the work. Your community is your why, but your team is your how.
Just like community initiatives are not a one-size-fits-all approach, neither is HR. You’ll want to build for your specific size and stage to ensure your processes actually work for you. Don’t be afraid to customize; creating work processes and policies that reflect and amplify your mission is an amazing opportunity to live your values every day. Below, you’ll find our top tips for modern, personalized HR for non-profits at every stage.
To bring our examples to life, we’ll look at the non-profit journey of a fictional organization, Secondairy. Secondairy is a community initiative with the vision to integrate community members through the power of ice cream. We’ll follow along with their journey from grassroots to becoming a major international charity, and what HR programs they built along the way.
Stage One: Grassroots
At this stage, non-profits are working with minimal to zero funding. Grassroots organizations are often small in size, but can also be organized networks of hundreds of volunteers. At this stage, you have a ton of flexibility and autonomy, which can be a big draw for a certain type of organizer. Grassroots organizations should start with:
A defined mission, vision & organization values. Values are how you’ll share the story of your organization and how you’re going to achieve what you’re doing. These are your north star; what everything else is built on. Your organization may grow or adapt, but these won’t change. Avoid using generic values like “trust” and get specific. Who is trusting who, and how does that show up in our everyday work together, and in our community?
A general understanding of who is doing what. You’ll need a strong plan to organize and coordinate volunteers, and onboard them effectively. Ensure your engagement with unpaid volunteers is non-extractive; people are choosing to spend time working towards your organization’s goals; we don’t want to cause harm in the process. In action, this means considering what the organization can provide volunteers in kind, involving them in decision making where appropriate, and allowing folks to opt in and out of events or activations.
Other things you may want to begin at this stage:
- Documenting your decision making. Consider using a central wiki like Notion, or even an organized Google drive, to keep track of projects, meeting notes, and repeatable processes.
- Beginning to research funding opportunities or partnering with grant writers and fundraisers
- Connecting with lawyers to ensure paperwork (non-profit registration, contracts, etc.) is up to date and compliant
- Though no formal board is usually established at this phase, consider onboarding a committee of advisors with skills that you could use support with.
At this stage, the organizing group at Secondairy is tackling this work as a side project; no one is getting paid, and no policies currently exist. However, the group has a shared dream of taking their mission international. At this stage, they are prioritizing a clear mission, vision, and values.
Secondairy is a not for profit organization with the goal of offering second chances to support community reintegration through sharing the joy of ice-cream. They are a passionate team spread across North America.
Cone For All: We believe that everyone deserves a second chance and we do that through spreading the joy of ice cream.
Beyond Vanilla: Vanilla is great but we believe in the power of choice, which is why our offerings are not limited to one’s social location or previous experience.
Spreading Sweetness: We believe in creating moments of joy, even during the hardest times. We spread sweetness externally in our work and internally with our team.
For volunteers, they developed a simple but clear process to bring new “scoopers” to their weekend activations within their community. They put in a policy that new members needed to attend one informational session on a weeknight before they can start scooping. To keep track of notes, key contacts, values and other documents, they’ve started a basic Notion with open access for all volunteers.
Stage Two: Project Oriented Grants
At this stage, some grants are coming through, but they’re tied to specific, short-term initiatives. Organizations might also have some limited funding from private donations, activations, and special events. This is when a Board of Directors will be established, and a small base of full time employees and contractors mix with volunteers. Here’s what you’ll need now:
A clear hiring and onboarding process. This means having an equitable and repeatable process for hiring both staff and volunteers, and having a written process that ensures they’re brought up to speed quickly. For tips on setting up new hires for success, check out the Bright + Early Guide to Onboarding.
Basic HR software. Invest in an HR information system (or HRIS) to file contracts, track time off, organize hiring and keep key people information in one place.
Job descriptions. These should be crafted with specific roles and responsibilities, so that your team members know what they’re responsible for (and can be held accountable to it). Check out the Bright + Early Guide to (Better) Job Postings for advice and a starting template.
Benefits and perks. At this stage, benefits don’t have to be robust; an early version could be finding a pooled benefits solution (check your local chamber of commerce or ask your HRIS provider– many provide this as well) and deciding if any special perks work for your team and their values. Low cost examples could be paid days off to volunteer, book clubs, or covering the cost of attending local conferences. Check out the Bright + Early Guide to Building Your Benefits for more tips.
Performance systems. In the early stage, formal performance reviews may not be necessary; just project retrospectives and continuous feedback. That said, everyone should have a manager who holds regular 1:1 meetings with them to check in on goals and how they’re feeling at work.
Team feedback. Launch an annual employee feedback and engagement survey to start tracking team sentiment and identify any gaps in policies or processes that may be slowing things down.
Your first handbook. This will evolve as you grow. In our view, the best handbooks are a guide to doing good work at an organization, in addition to a collection of necessary policies. Start with an inspiring introduction about the mission and why we’re here, describe the values you laid out in stage 1, and link to any working processes you have so far. You can build this out in Notion, a PDF, a google doc, or even a (password protected) website. In addition to your culture documents, you’ll need the following:
- Health and Safety Policy
- Accessibility Policy
- Substances Policy
- Expense Policy
- Remote and Flexible Work Policy
- Equity and Inclusion Policies
- Discrimination & Harassment Policy
- Accommodations Policy
- Time Off Policy (see our guide here) (link)
- Equipment Policy
- Parental Leave Policy (see our guide here) (link)
- Other Leaves, like bereavement or sick leave.
Charity Village has a decent resource with some beginner policy templates, but you’ll want to consult with a lawyer to be sure they’re relevant to you.
Board Support. One thing unique to nonprofits is the importance of the board of directors. At this stage, they should be supported with the following:
- An annual board audit
- A board honorarium system
- Moving to a working board rather than a governance board, which means that board members may have key responsibilities like fundraising or supporting with your HR needs
- A clear understanding of how the board will evaluate leadership and any mentorship opportunities the board can provide to team members
Secondairy is now at a point where they’ve received their first grant from a neighbouring city. They’ve been able to convert a few of their leading volunteers from the original group of non-profit founders to become full time hires, and are launching in a second city! Up until this point, they had been utilizing unpaid advisors, but now have a formalized Board of Directors that are a bit more active in ensuring the grant funds are used accordingly, and helps to keep the team on track.
There is a clear hiring and onboarding process for these newly full-time team members, as well as volunteers in the new location. They’ve used free resources online to write initial policies, and have earmarked a small amount of funding for Humi, their choice of HRIS. Using Humi, they decide to launch an annual employee feedback and engagement survey. The main conclusion was that folks were confused about policies like how much time to take off and whether sick leave would be paid. This led them to prioritize building out a handbook for clarity in understanding Secondairy’s policies and processes.
Stage 3: Stable Multi-Year Funding
At this stage, organizations transition from being primarily project based to having more formalized departments that foster cross-collaboration. It’s important that teams at this phase start to think strategically about their structure. Concerns at this stage include:
Navigating Team Culture Changes: Many organizations find that growth, or taking on large funding, leads to the adoption of a more corporate culture. Depending on your decision making, funding may also be tied to large organizations or projects that not every team member feels aligned with. This can lead to turnover for team members who value the high autonomy of a grassroots organization.
Investing in team support roles. Hiring operations staff, HR, and other “background support” roles might be necessary at this stage.
Exploring unionization. Some organizations in this phase start to explore unionizing, which can be a viable and exciting opportunity for many, but not the best fit for all. Regardless of whether your organization is considering unionizing, it is worth considering the perks, benefits, and experiences that unionization can offer as you continue to invest in the employee experience.
Building long term career plans. Another thing that team members will be looking for at this stage is clear and articulated career levels. At this stage, these can be universal across the team; what’s the difference between a coordinator, manager, and director? You can also invest in management or leadership training (which there are grants for), and building out mentorship opportunities through your board or other external resources.
Having a compensation strategy. If you’ve been googling, trawling non-profit job boards, or asking industry friends to determine what to pay staff, you’re not alone. However, at this stage, you’ll need a solid, defensible compensation philosophy (what do we reward, why, and in what structure?) that will help you create salary bands. Though budgets may still be lower, it’s important to get an early version of this in place. To learn more about creating a solid pay structure, see the Bright + Early Guide to Paying People.
Going deeper into performance management. At this stage, you should be moving out of project-specific feedback and ensuring your team has a mechanism for regular feedback and goal setting. A typical way to organize this is via 360 reviews; having a team member review themselves, other team members, and their manager once or twice a year. Some organizations prefer more of a continuous feedback loop, with regular feedback check ins and career goal-setting sessions. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s happening.
At this stage, Secondairy started leveraging an ongoing HR expert, first through an external partner, and eventually through a full time hire. They crafted career paths for key scooping roles that were true to their values, ensuring that education and background were not barriers to advancing. Because they value creativity and want to reward teamwork they decided to offer a flexible learning and development budget with additional conference travel budget. At this phase in their growth, they are able to pay right at market, within the 50th percentile of the market research for their roles. They review this twice annually, and present any changes in compensation based on market rates or performance at biannual goal setting checkpoints.
Stage 4: Sustainable Diversified Funding Sources
You’ve hit the dream: sustainability! This is the stage where nonprofits often start to take on a more corporate or traditional structure. Beyond grant funding, organizations at this stage may have corporate sponsors, large individual sponsors, or specific multi-year governmental grants federally or provincially. Money is coming in and it’s coming in from many streams.
This also means that the leaders of these organizations will have the opportunity to have higher control over funding sources since they are no longer reliant on a single or few sources. Ideally, this means the organization can pay people better and more competitively and start to build out multi-year strategies for the organization that helps individuals receive other perks and rewards beyond pay, basic benefits, and the usual offerings. Made it this far? Here’s what to focus on next:
Expanding your perks and benefits. With more budget, you can look at options like RRSP matching, expanding time off for parental and care leave top ups, fertility/IVF coverage, or coverage for gender-affirming care.
Update your compensation. If you can afford it (and have been paying undermarket thus far), bring up your salaries (and board honorariums) to be more in line with the market. If not already mandated in your area, consider moving towards pay transparency. If you’re hiring globally, it’s time to think about global pay. Will you offer universal salaries, or localized ranges? How will you deal with benefits? For more on this, see our guides to ethical global compensation and equitable global benefits.
Update career progression and performance. If your career levels have been general so far, update them to be role specific for each department. At this stage, performance reviews should be role and department specific (rather than the same across the organization), and you should be investing in role-specific learning and development plans and budgets.
Succession and retention. Consider a gaps and skills analysis across the organization, and
Identify what training and development would be needed for existing team members to step into senior, strategic roles. You’ll also want to stay on top of retention with methods like stay interviews. Your regular engagement surveys and manager 1:1s are also great sources of information to build retention plans.
Consider open sourcing some of the processes you’re most proud of. Transparency, both internally and externally, can support your work and continue building your brand as a great place to work.
Secondairy is going global! Now that they have expanded to include staff all over the world, they’ve had to expand their total compensation philosophy and scale to consider different countries and markets, eventually landing on a universal approach to salaries, which they then publish openly on their job descriptions. These are checked against market rates twice annually, around when 360 performance reviews (customized for each department) are run. They’ve solidified their training with cultural competency workshops and more technical scooping skills training that is rolled out globally. They are especially proud of their custom training program’s ability to resonate with staff all over the globe, and decide to write a blog about their process of creating it.
Next Steps and Resources
Even at the early stages, building out people processes can be daunting for folks that are committed to a cause but don’t have HR expertise. When you aren’t yet at the size for a full time HR hire, you can DIY with a mix of advising from your board, templates from an employment lawyer, community networks, and free resources.
Here’s a few we recommend:
- Follow along with us via the Bright + Early newsletter! Every other Friday, we send new guides and tips you can use today, all designed for organizations that want to approach work in a modern way.
- Review our collection of existing guides via Early Magazine
- The Ontario Nonprofit Network’s guide to decent work (some parts may be regionally specific)
- Charity Village’s learning centre.
If you’re looking for hands-on help, you can engage with external builders like a fractional hire or firm like Bright + Early, where you get access to a number of modern People experts. When working with an HR firm or contractor, ensure that they have non-profit experience, and that you have a strong values alignment; after all, the strength of your community is dependent on the strength of your culture.
Team Bright + Early