Are South African NGOs Employers of Choice or Necessity?

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Wednesday, 11 January, 2012 - 12:29

In this article the author argues that CSOs, just like the private sector, should reflect on their people management practices, offer competitive salaries, hire and retain talent from other sectors, and also become ‘employers of choice’

As a Human Resources professional working in the development sector, I always keep an eagle eye on trends and practices in private sector organisations who have the resources and capacity to invest in their people management practices. Having worked in the private sector for most of my career, I recently transitioned to civil society organisations and recognised a need for these organisations to reflect on their people management practices and develop strategies for attracting, retaining and developing their employees.

With the onslaught of ‘Eurogeddon’ coupled with the United States economic slowdown, the donor environment has become increasingly competitive and donor requirements increasingly stringent. Donors want to see more bang for their buck and are channelling funds to organisations with consistent track records of delivery. Typically, these are organisations who have low levels of underspending and overspending, efficient internal controls, relevant monitoring and evaluation indicators with evidence of impact and competent, motivated staff who are able to deliver on their commitments.

In October 2011, Deloitte published their list of Best Companies to Work for in South Africa. This is a highly sought after accolade and many private sector organisations compete for the top spot. The survey measures a range of people management dimensions and solicits feedback from all levels in the organisation. For some organisations the element of staff participation is common practice. What was missing on the Deloitte list is civil society organisations. McDonalds, Old Mutual and even small companies like Strate were ‘top of the pops’ but it really got me thinking about whether the people management strategies in civil society organisations are comparable to these corporate entities.  How are civil society organisations attracting and retaining good people?

Working in civil society organisations is viewed as conscientised work and is based on the premise that those involved in civil society professions are motivated by more than just a salary, performance bonus and cellphone allowance.  For many people working in the development sector the opportunity to contribute to social change is far more rewarding than being able to buy the latest Audi Q1, but are our NGOs willing and able to reflect on their people management practices to ensure that they are able to hire and retain the talent both from the corporate and development sectors?

I bumped into an ex-colleague recently, an experienced Chartered Accountant who had worked in private sector but decided to take a leap of faith and find work in the development sector. She struggled to find an organisation willing to employ her and she was willing to take a substantial cut in salary to make the move. After months of not hearing back from agencies and sending out her CV with no response, she was snapped up by a local brewery. It was a moment of truth and I think reflects that there are a growing number of professionals willing to make the move into more conscionable employment. Isn’t it time that our civil society organisations saddle up and mobilise their employer value propositions and strive towards becoming employers of choice?

A visit to any campus during their graduate placement weeks reveals a noticeable absence of civil society organisations. All the top private sector organisations are there; cheek by jowl competing for all the fresh young graduate talent. But who is there from civil society to recruit the graduates who want to contribute to social change?

Why shouldn’t development sector organisations hire more marketers and chartered accountants who want to sign up for conscientised work?  Why shouldn’t our NGOs pay competitive salaries and invest in the development of people who work for them. Paying competitive salaries doesn’t mean competing with corporate profit-driven salaries, but assessing salaries in the development sector and offering a fair ‘market-related’ salary. The ‘save and score’ mentality of hiring for less or skimping on working conditions just because people want to work to make a difference is archaic and perhaps more relevant in organisations operating in the 80s. It’s time for NGOs to formalise, develop their employer value proposition and go to market. Hit the campuses, recruit our fresh young graduates and start competing with the private sector organisations. NGOs have something that no private sector organisation can offer; the opportunity to contribute to social change. They have niche which they need to exploit and become employers of choice in their own right. At the end of the day, it’s less about becoming the Best Company to Work for in South Africa and more about taking stock and reflecting on people management practices.

- Simone Brandi is a freelance Human Resources Consultant working with non-profit organisations in Cape Town.

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