Article (March-2019)


Managing HR in NGO sector : Issues and challenges

Dr. Anupriyo Mallick

Designation : -   Faculty and Head-HR and OB

Organization : -  Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management (EIILM), Kolkata


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The importance of Human Resources (HR) in a non-governmental organisation (NGO) as a means of ensuring sustainable growth for an organisation cannot be overemphasized, as it is the fundamental strength upon which people; strategies, processes and operations are based. Effective employee management should be on top of the list of priorities for progressive improvement of an organisation. A NGO must strive to attract, develop and retain qualified and enthusiastic employees as they are the key to the success of one's business. HR in a NGO is no different to HR in any other sector, but the problems that HR professionals face within the NGO sector are quite unique.

There are two main problems concerning HR in the NGO sector today :

The first is the high unemployment rate which causes an exceptionally high number of under qualified job seekers to stream into the NGO environment, the reason for this can also be attributed to an industry that does not have the competitive advantage when it comes to salary benchmarking. This leads to shortages of qualified skilled employees in the industry; and
The second is retaining highly skilled and qualified people and keeping them motivated. Learning and development are central to both the performance and development of employees. It can be beneficial for an organisation to offer employees equal and full access to learning and development opportunities that are aligned to their career development, as well as the skills and competencies required to meet business performance and growth objectives.

The challenges for managing HR in a NGO arena are kind of unique, wherein you struggle to get a job-ready-talent and once someone is ready, the next challenge is to retain that talent. The evolving economic and political scenario also has added to the volatility this sector already had, making it further difficult to attract good talent & keep them committed to the cause as part of the workforce.

It is practically impractical for any humanitarian agency to bring about sustainable change without nurturing competent staff driven by passion as they continually invest on children, families in the communities. While human resource has really shaped up with the changing times in most of the major NGO/INGOs in terms of HR processes and practices, in case of smaller NGOs there's still a distance to cover.

The importance of HR as a means of ensuring sustainable growth for an NGO cannot be overemphasized, as it is the fundamental strength upon which people; processes, strategies, and interventions are established.

Blend Vs Will
Without the skill or the will it is a futile effort, as each developmental activity involves shaping of behavior, hence a perfect blend of Skill & Will is a prerequisite for success. The success rate of sustainable change is largely dependent on the quality of front-line staff to transform the lives of people we serve. It is critical to consider passion that drives individuals to give their best for someone else's good. It is essential to avoid hiring "warm bodies", rather surround yourself with a great team by picking staff who are smart, talented and driven employees who share your vision.

Hiring positive, can-do employees helps create a culture that fosters an enabling environment in which everyone participates. Desperate hiring often leads to difficult situations. At pre-selection stage reliance on scientific recruitment practices like competency-based interviews, psychometric testing, role play, pointers from social media, informal conversations etc. surely helps. In the post-selection scenario adequate capacity building of staff and reigniting the passion that led them to this sector are definitely helpful. Strategic workforce plan helps to plan well so that up-skilling & re-skilling can be done wherever possible.

Compensation Issue
Another common challenge for this sector is the compensation offered. Some brands in this sector are able to attract good candidates, however, do fail to absorb them as they do not have the salary band to afford them. Thus the constant tussle between building talents Vs buying talents continues for effective talent management. NGOs struggle in terms of availability of role-ready talent and in addition to that they struggle with the affordability of such talents.

We need to be dynamic in bringing newness and deliver more on people-friendly policies like flexi-work options, festival bonus, leaves, gender neutrality, recognition drives, professional development focused quarterly conversations, internal growth opportunity etc. to name a few. This also ensures a higher level of satisfaction of staff as their contributions are valued.

Funding Issue
With the economic demographic changing quickly, especially over the last few years, the perception of the world about poverty and wealth in India has impacted funding. While we strive to make India a developed country there are real emotive issues those need to be addressed. With the reduction and shortening of tenure of the funds' flow, projects are getting closed early making it difficult to retain staff. The uncertainty of project extension that is contingent to the availability of funds often propels staff to look out before the actual closure of projects and that affects the projected outcome and impact. The challenge here is how to continue walking the journey together as sustainable development does call for the substantially sustainable workforce.

Another fallout of this problem is complying with the legal provisions. Funds crunch also practically cripples loyalty to a particular organization. Innovative funding is the mantra now wherein we explore newer resource options. Beyond this, there are efforts around being innovative in staffing by bringing in volunteerism, internship and resource sharing with/from other Corporates & NGOs. Transition counseling and outplacement initiatives can quell the insecurity around project closures to a significant extent.

Transactional Role to Strategic Role
It is time to shift gear and move to the strategic aspects of HR, being more scientific, data-driven than following the traditional approach. It is critical for HR practitioners to rise above as business partners to mitigate challenges of skills shortages in a niche area and salary disparities with imminent funding cut and design people friendly policies in spite of constraints and government policies that hinder the success of any social organization. The need of the hour is to have strategic staffing plan in place that includes talent management and succession planning. Use of competency mapping and competency-based interviews as part of recruitment tools can help an organization to proactively position well.

Leaders from the development sector will affirm that the supply of competent people, ready to take a cut in respect of remuneration, for the sake of the cause, has lessened rapidly in last few years. This evolution is well past the revolution was driven by social activists a few decades back. With the changing landscape and ever-changing expectation of the communities, NGOs are now keen to employ highly skilled staff to help the organization function at its best. And once we are past that stage, comparison walks in as a thief of joy.

The challenge here is how passion feeds satisfaction as we invest, develop and retain competent staff, how often and how we do development, enrichment focused quarterly conversations as against annual performance process and how creative we are in making our policies people friendly. However, all said and done we need to accept the fact that engagement cannot be bought and thus let's keep churning our thoughts.

The personnel function in the NGO industry has evolved to the HR business partnering concept and is well embraced by many NGOs in recent years. Any NGO using the business partnering model with strategic intent in aligning people to business is bound to achieve organisational success. The NGO world is continuously evolving and is becoming an industry to be recognised as the change frontier in economic and social development in the country and with the right people it's bound to achieve success.