People Blog & Insights

What is Values-based HR and Why Does Your Org Need It?

The pandemic taught us many tough lessons, one being that employees are sick and tired of being sick and tired. The Great Resignation demonstrated that staff want more – from flexible schedules to healthier cultures. And that means that employers must find ways to respond accordingly to attract and retain talent, and achieve their mission.

An HR function plays a critical role in shaping the practices that create the organizational culture everyone swims in. These practices can either help a nonprofit more effectively achieve its mission, or, they can contribute to a crash and burn. Many nonprofit leaders know that traditional HR approaches are no longer working, and while a people-centered ethos is gaining traction, opinions differ on what this looks like in practice. As CEO and Senior Partner of Ascend People – a firm that takes a radically different approach to HR – we’ve put a stake in the ground and believe nonprofits need values-based HR that puts people at the center of the organization.

What do I mean by “values-based HR”? We define it as the management of staff contributions to the organization that ground progressive, shared beliefs and assumptions in leadership, decision making, and practices. It recognizes that nonprofits need their people to achieve their mission and staff need policies, practices, and solutions that are human-centered so they feel valued, heard, and engaged. 

Does my org really need values-based HR?

The nonprofit sector has long operated within a scarcity mindset that emphasizes working hard for little pay, “making do” with underdeveloped internal systems and culture, and working with limited resources – all in the name of doing good work. For many nonprofit teams, this is their daily norm, but these dynamics can create a culture where staff feel used and unfulfilled. As a new generation of workers wakes up to the realization that these assumptions don’t have to be standard operating procedure, and demands healthier cultures, nonprofit leaders will need to shift this mindset. Fortifying (or in many cases completely re-imagining) internal systems to create an environment that centers staff will be critical to nonprofits’ more effectively achieving their mission. 

When we work with a client, one of the first places we often start is with a values alignment exercise that helps leaders see whether or not their internal practices align with their external values and ways of working. This can be a critical first step on the journey to becoming a people-centered organization. For example, if your organization is dedicated to increasing transparency in governments, but your staff has no insight into how promotions are granted, that’s a misalignment of values. And whatever values are driving your internal policies, practices, and approaches, they directly impact your staff. That impact can either keep staff engaged and help move the work forward, or it can lead to a toxic workplace where staff is miserable and the mission suffers.

Nonprofits can reap additional benefits from a values-based HR approach, including stronger trust between staff and management, better collaboration, staff feeling valued, and higher staff productivity and engagement.

Traditional HR isn’t working

While HR began, and has continued to evolve, as a function concerned with worker well-being, larger world contexts in which it operates has shaped the practice. For example, American values of capitalism and productivity above all else have resulted in HR operating as an ancillary risk management function whose main imperative is to avoid lawsuits, minimize risk, and protect the company. In these environments, staff is viewed as an asset to be used to achieve the mission or bottom line, and relations between staff and management are typically fraught with tension, mistrust, and unease. Even progressive, mission-driven organizations whose bread and butter is human-centered, equitable work have been brought to a screeching halt by staff and management turmoil exacerbated by these dynamics. 

In my own professional experience as an HR leader, I’ve seen the harm that traditional approaches can cause. Day-to-day work, the budget, or the mission gets put ahead of people, leaving staff feeling burned out, leveraged, and used. Workplaces can transform into toxic environments with tension and conflict, and a loss of mission-critical knowledge due to damaging staff turnover. In some cases, these issues can lead to funder concern and even limits of future investments. 

For most organizations, the events leading up to these types of outcomes are not maliciously intended. Instead, it’s often a competency challenge – leadership simply doesn’t know how to develop or implement the types of practices that center their staff. Running a nonprofit is no easy task and leaders can lose sight of the value of their team in the face of board management, fundraising, and managing community work. 

What needs to change?

One of the first steps to developing values-based HR practices that create a more human-centered organization is a mindset shift. Nonprofit leadership must flip the hierarchy of needs from the organization first, to people first. It’s important to remember that staff is composed of thinking, life-living adults with varying needs. Traditional HR has adopted a one-size-fits-all approach which helps to reduce risk and ensure compliance. However, this doesn’t work when it comes to staff management and treatment. Everyone needs something just a little bit different. 

We must shift from an equality lens – where everyone gets the same thing – to an equity lens when approaching HR. We have to take into consideration the variety and differences of the people who work in an organization and consider what each of them might need to do their best work. This isn’t to say that HR practices should cater to every single individual all of the time, but the people that are most impacted should be at the forefront of their design. It is possible to walk the tightrope of balancing the needs of the organization with the needs of the people. 

This shift also comes into play when approaching problem-solving, challenges, or decision-making within an organization. Many organizations reactively focus on their HR policies once staff has complained or a challenge has come into view, leading to hastily pulled together solutions. And while these solutions might ease the immediate challenge, they rarely solve the issue in a meaningful or sustainable way. A people-first approach, on the other hand, can help nonprofit leaders proactively design the processes and structures that support staff – before issues arise. And this approach can help nonprofits shift from that scarcity mindset to a better understanding of what is possible, even with limited resources, and how they can bring staff into policy creation and decision making. 

We often ask our clients to consider the following when taking on a values-based HR approach:

  • Are our internal and external values in alignment?
  • What kind of an organization do we want to be?
  • Who is most impacted by HR practices and how can we develop the best solutions? 
  • Is leadership/management bought in to ensure transformational change?
  • How can we balance the realities of operating a nonprofit organization with the change we hope to implement with our staff?

We’re ready for change. Now what?

The shift from traditional HR approaches to a transformational, values-based model that centers staff is not easy, nor does it happen overnight. It’s a journey that requires deep reflection, a willingness to change, intention, and sustained work.

That’s why I created Ascend People, to leverage my expertise and walk this journey with nonprofits that are really ready to center their staff and more effectively achieve their mission. We always tell clients that while we can’t do this work for them, we can support them in the development of strategies and a roadmap to get from point A to point B to reach an ideal future state. Through discussions and deep partnership, we help our clients understand what their organization really stands for, and how they can leverage that to influence decisions and practices that put their people first. And, in doing so, help the organization thrive.

A values-based approach can be infused in all things HR, and we help clients in three main areas: 

  1. HR Effectiveness. Developing and strengthening functions, practices, and processes to meet the needs and expectations of both your staff and the organization.

  2. Compensation. Analyzing and designing compensation programs and practices that help you equitably reward your people.

  3. Outsourced Recruitment. Providing full-cycle recruitment capacity and management to identify, attract, and hire quality diverse talent for your organization.

One of the most important reminders we offer clients is that this work is never done. Yes, you’ll meet objectives and “get there,” but those are temporary and ever-changing goalposts. A solution that works today may not work tomorrow as your organization evolves and as staff come and go. And that’s a good thing! A dynamic organization reaches a level of comfort in the change and builds it in as part of its strategic plan. Nonprofits are experts at nimbly navigating and adjusting to multiple outside forces. To stay relevant, and to keep doing your important work, you have to change. You can’t achieve your mission without your people. It’s time to put them first.

If you’re ready to learn more about how your organization can better achieve its mission with a values-based HR approach, let’s talk and see how Ascend People can help. 

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