Trendy and arguably even “shiny object” HR policies in the private sector, especially tech firms, grab a lot of headlines. So, when I read this blog post about how “HR Mavericks” were abolishing HR departments and replacing them with an Employee Experience department, I wanted to know what some of the INGOs’ more innovative HR leaders thought about the concept. Rest assured there is a lot going on to transform HR in our sector, with a focus on making sure that the right people are in place at the right time and aligned with the mission and values to be effective from day one.

But employee experience still starts with the basics

The buzz in the private sector may be all about the death of the traditional HR department. Yet even in our sector, changes are afoot. Nigel Pont, Chief People and Strategy Officer at Mercy Corps is not a lifelong HR veteran. He joins his role after serving in the field as the Regional Director for Mercy Corps’ Middle East program. Roger Craig, Chief Human Resource Officer at The Asia Foundation prefers the term “Talent Management” to “Human Resources”, despite having built a long and successful HR career in both the private and NGO sectors. He acknowledges that HR in our sector struggles with ensuring that we are complying with the increasing requirements from donors and governments, which require a traditional and transactional approach. When in fact, the changes in staffing and program objectives require HR leaders to more focused on  innovation and strategic initiatives.
What everyone still seems to agree on is that you have to get the basics right. “We have to get the bread and butter right—the transactional stuff; if we can’t pull off smooth benefits and payroll, we can’t even begin to focus on the other elements of the employee experience,” says Shari Stier, VP of Human Resources at PACT. For her, the employee experience starts with and is grounded in the basics, no matter how out-of-the-box you want to be with other elements of the experience. Tami Ward-Dahl, VP of Human Resources and Administration at the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation (EGPAF) believes that getting the fundamentals right leads to freeing up more space to contribute in other areas. “You have to do the basics really well so that leaders in the organization are coming to you to help with the other stuff—the strategic business partnering.”

At Mercy Corps, the focus is elevating HR from a more transactional function to being a strategic partner at the heart of the organization. This is clearly evidenced by Nigel Pont and his team’s role in debating new programs and priorities to ensure that the people and talent side of the equation are considered from day one.

Yet, time to execution is driving a major re-think

Donors and community expectations about project timelines keep accelerating; they want immediate results. Across the board, INGOs no longer have the luxury to take a few months to set up a new country program and recruit and orient the team. HR teams have to respond to this change and help their program teams lead and implement faster. “Because donors want us up and running from day one, we need data on what works so we can be more agile in developing more workable solutions for talent,” says Tami Ward-Dahl.

Mercy Corps is looking to re-work their entire onboarding process so that teams can be 25-35% more effective by hitting the ground faster. Nigel Pont mentions a complete re-evaluation is needed to balance both standing teams and available resource pools. In addition, they are looking to build an onboarding package that quickly engages new staff with Mercy Corps’ values and approaches. This is why merging internal communications into the people function at Mercy Corps was seen as critical to the business strategy. When a new project team has up to 40% of new staff on it, every improvement to the talent pipeline and onboarding approach matters.

We need to be more effective, let’s kill the annual performance review

In a sector like ours that is so people focused and with donors raising expectations about program effectiveness, NGOs are re-thinking how to keep the focus on performance at the individual and team level. For many, this means killing the traditional annual performance review. Both PACT and The Asia Foundation have begun implementing a more frequent and iterative performance review system for their US-based staff.

PACT has re-designed their goal-setting system based on the OKR model that has become the norm at many tech firms. Shari Stier worked with the leadership team to create a system of monthly, quarterly and semi-annual performance conversations as well to ensure that staff members, their supervisors, and the organizations are aligned with their goals, performance and development. But she is aware that it will take time for everyone to be comfortable and skilled at the new system. “There are deep brain tracks for everyone that have been in place for a long time.”

At The Asia Foundation, the shift was also driven by changing expectations of staff, especially the millennials. “They are looking for their rate of progression within the agency to be more front-loaded,” says Roger Craig. He worked with The Asia Foundation’s leadership team to overhaul the entire system of performance reviews as well as the system for managing development and succession. In addition to implementing a more frequent and easier system for performance check-ins, he has also put into practice the Step Forward plan for managing development discussions. The plan helps to address the needs of employees who are keen to take on more accountability as well as those who are happy with their role but looking for other outlets to renew their engagement.

Is relying on an employee’s intrinsic passion enough?

We all know that INGOs tend to attract passionate, mission-driven staff who are committed to making a difference in the world. While the HR leaders all acknowledged that INGOs sometimes depend on that engagement to make up for resource constraints in the HR area, they agree that our sector cannot afford to continue this outdated approach. Shari Stier wants PACT to be “an employer of choice” with a line of qualified talent out the door. While Roger Craig is looking at how to continue leveraging on The Asia Foundation’s “employer brand” that is grounded in providing a more individualized  engagement plan to enhance the level of employee commitment.

At Mercy Corps, Nigel Pont says that their hiring rule-of-thumb from the CEO down is closely aligned with, “becoming fanatical about finding the right external talent and managing the internal talent extremely well.” Meanwhile, at EGPAF, Tami Ward-Dahl is hyper-focused on all the intangibles that connect people to the mission of the organization. EGPAF is constantly looking for ways to make a personal, high-touch, low-cost connection with their staff globally that reinforces each individual as a person and not just a resource—including volunteers and other short-term workers.

Some INGOs design some of their core HR benefits and components differently depending on their mission, country context, and role—there is no one size fits all even within the sector. For PACT, this means reviewing each HR policy to ensure that it reflects and aligns with the organization’s value for its program work and the people it serves. “It is innovative to make the transactional stuff work really well and ensure it is aligned with organizational values,” says Shari Stier. Meanwhile, The Asia Foundation is evolving towards a culture that focuses more on values-based decision-making rather than having a rule for every situation.

Localizing the HR transformation

We know that leading and transforming HR at a global INGO is complex and challenging. At the same time, change in HR practice in the United States often moves faster with which either culture or law can keep up in the diverse set of the countries that we work in. Each of the organizations I talked to are investing more into providing more central support for in-country HR teams. “Often, local teams are left to do the best that they can with limited centralized support, so we are looking at how can we resource it better and get local HR leaders a seat at the country-level leadership table,” says Nigel Pont.  While Tami Ward-Dahl and Roger Craig are looking to balance the push of new programming from HQ with the pull from the field for more support and new programs for people.

So, yes, there will always be new “shiny objects” in the field of HR. “It’s really important to keep an eye on the shiny objects because even though we may not be able to afford some of the private sector programs today, the changes will affect us eventually and we have to be ready,” says Shari Stier. At the same time, transforming the HR function at these dynamic INGOs is grounded in the need to meet the evolving expectations of the organization’s strategy and employee demographics. All this while staying true to mission and ensuring that the people who are doing the hardest work in the hardest-to-work places can count on a solid and well-functioning employment experience.

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