A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Paying Proper Attention to Your Professional Staff

Professional staff have the undeniable potential to further your philanthropy’s impact. Whether you’re currently staffed, anticipating a new hire, or simply weighing your options, here are tips to help your paid professionals flourish.

Before a hire: Put your affairs—and your mindset—in order

It goes without saying that bring staff on board requires time behind the scenes to iron out job descriptions, compensation and benefits, work space, office equipment, and other needs—and we hear from members just how often they underestimate the time it takes to complete these tasks.

On par with the time you dedicate to these logistics is the time you dedicate to adjusting your mindset about what it means to hire and develop a staff person. Successful employers know their people are critical assets—perhaps the organization’s most critical—and they view the manager’s role as an opportunity to nurture those assets for the good of the organization.

“Leaders are strengthened by those around them,” says Sharmila Rao Thakkar, executive director of The Siragusa Foundation. “The work will always be there, but priority number one for us is developing, guiding, mentoring, building, and lifting up others.”

Successful employers also anticipate—and help others adapt to—the changes that come with hiring new staff. “Moving from a model with the board fully in charge to staff having functional and strategic decision-making power is a big change,” says Program Director Erin Cinelli of the Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation. “We’re in the middle of figuring out what the dynamic is going to look like, and there are bound to be growing pains.”

Get information and expectations out of your head—and onto paper

“When you work by yourself, you don’t realize how much is inside your head,” continues Erin. “Our foundation didn’t have written documentation, aside from grant materials; that’s a task for 2015. When I was sharing information with our new hire, there wasn’t anything I could point her to.” Echoes Jack Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Foundation, “It can be tedious to document procedures the first time around, but these documents are critical to have in place.”

Also key to a staff person’s success are clear and shared expectations around their duties, priorities, and goals, plus frequent communication on these topics. When Sharmila Rao Thakkar assumed her role as foundation executive director this January, it was the first time a non-family member held that position. To succeed, she knew she’d have to make sure everyone was on the same page. She drafted a detailed job description and self-evaluation form, and instituted regular avenues for communication, including bi-monthly conversations with the board chair, monthly email updates to the board and finance committee, and a conversation about performance with the board chair 90 days into her tenure and again before year end.

When hiring a friend or family member, it can be particularly challenging to put formal processes into place. But they are important nevertheless.

Provide the tools and resources to succeed

For Patrick DeMoon, president of the Kara Foundation and former Exponent Philanthropy board member, proper tools and resources are critical to staff development. He recommends connecting staff to trainings and programs soon after they start. Help them plug into a network of like-minded individuals, like Exponent Philanthropy, a regional association, or a funder affinity group. Encourage them to find a mentor in the field, or, if your organization is large enough, internally. And, if incoming and outgoing staff overlap, take full advantage. Few things are more valuable professionally than access to the person who held a position before you.

Nurture the relationship

When Cynthia Drennan stepped in as executive director of the Sisters of St. Joseph Charitable Fund, one charge she embraced was to mentor staff—supporting fellow staff in their professional and personal growth as well as developing a team model of leadership. She makes time to get to know her colleagues as individuals, holds quarterly meetings with each individual (in lieu of an annual review), and encourages open discussion of their strengths, opportunities, accomplishments, and goals for the upcoming quarter.

Cynthia also creates space for learning as a way to build relationships among staff and board—as well as to ensure that staff have the information and inspiration to succeed. Every staff meeting at the Fund begins with shared reflections on recent events, meetings, or pre-readings. Cynthia encourages staff, and the board, to figure out how they might apply their new knowledge within the organization.

For Jack Fitzpatrick, formal performance reviews are one way to nurture your relationships with staff. When Jack joined the foundation, performance reviews were informal conversations. Based on his prior experience and a review of best practices, he developed a more formal process. “Reviews are sometimes viewed as a task to be done for the sake of documentation,” says Jack, “but they are a way to invest in your most valuable assets.”

StephenProgram Manager Stephen Alexander designs sessions for our educational programs and coordinates content production with the goal of delivering the best service possible to the Exponent Philanthropy community. Before coming to Exponent Philanthropy, Stephen worked with Thomson Reuters, Jones Lang LaSalle, and two small nonprofits in Washington, DC. Stephen currently serves on the board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network’s DC chapter. Follow Stephen on Twitter @StephenALXdc.

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