The Dumping Ground: How We Are Perpetuating Our Own Skills Shortage Within the Nonprofit Sector

ngos service delivery skills shortage nonprofits human resources
Wednesday, 23 March, 2011 - 11:28

This article focuses on the skills shortage in the South African nonprofit sector and how the sector contributes to this problem. Failure to attract people with the required skills and experience and to pay what the positions are really worth, adds to the problem

Very few social development practitioners would argue that one of the main obstacles to quality service delivery is the lack of staff skills and capacity within organisations. The reality we face is that there are currently not enough individuals with key knowledge, skills and competencies to staff all of South Africa’s nonprofit organisations, which means that many organisations are staffed by individuals who are not sufficiently qualified to perform their jobs effectively. This of course has a major impact on the quality of services offered to disadvantaged communities, and millions of rands of donor funds are used inefficiently in the process.

The sector is very aware of this skills deficit, and most organisations would desperately love to employ more qualified staff if they were able to. But instead of working towards solving this problem, many nonprofit organisations (and donors) seem to actually be making the situation worse. There are certainly many organisations that are doing amazing work and are staffed by highly skilled and competent people, and they are beacons of hope for the sector and should be emulated as much as possible.

But there is a worrying tendency for the nonprofit sector to become a dumping ground for the employment of people with minimal skills and education who will settle for shockingly low levels of pay. These individuals cannot realistically be expected to perform their duties to the degree that their positions require them to.

The first mistake that nonprofit organisations make in perpetuating this trend is by undervaluing the skills that are required for certain positions. Can caring for children within a residential care facility, for example, be performed adequately by someone with a matric pass and no further studies in the field of caring for children at risk? It would appear that in many cases this would be considered to be acceptable, but a realistic examination of the competencies required for such a post would put a big question mark against this practice.

Organisations that undervalue their skill requirements automatically lower their service delivery standards, and, very importantly, salary levels are lowered to match the skill levels that are attributed to positions. The problem with this is that with South Africa’s unemployment rate being so high, and with so many of these unemployed individuals having low education levels, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to settle for very low salaries.

And this leads organisations to their second mistake, which is accepting the low salary levels that are prescribed by donors for many positions that should actually be far better paid. This generally happens because organisations are scared that if they do not accept these levels they will lose their funding and that their programmes will collapse.

Which comes first – the prescribed low salary levels by donors or the self-devalued salary levels by nonprofit organisation – is debatable, but the end result is the same.

The third mistake that nonprofit organisations make is failing to differentiate clearly between their staff and their beneficiaries. As one of the principle actors in the upliftment of individuals and communities, the nonprofit sector plays a major part in the economic development of communities by providing individuals with employment. This is a positive and direct impact of organisations within communities, but this impact should always remain a welcome by-product of organisations’ involvement in communities rather than being a main objective. Far too often organisations confuse staff development with beneficiary development.

Human resources development and continued staff learning are vital for improved service delivery and motivation. But it is unrealistic for organisations to expect that they can place people in jobs for which they are not sufficiently qualified, and that everyone will be able to reach the required levels of competency within a short period of time, if at all.

The nonprofit sector also frequently makes the mistake of believing that people’s desires to work for the good of others negates the need to pay them salaries that are commiserate with their skills. While this is true to an extent (as a general rule people who deliberately enter the nonprofit sector do not do so because they want to make large sums of money), there still needs to be a financial incentive that attracts people to the nonprofit sector. Organisations would then not have to rely so heavily on employing individuals who have spouses who are the main breadwinners of the family. Very importantly, many employees of nonprofit organisations will settle for any job in any sector that will pay them a salary, and are not necessarily drawn to the nonprofit sector for non-financial reasons.

This trend is equally prevalent within the higher tiers of nonprofit organisations as it is in the lower and middle tiers, and is arguably more serious when it happens within managerial and directorial levels. There are a growing number of professionals who are passionate about social service delivery and have developed specialised skills in various fields of nonprofit management and development. But nonprofit organisations can often crowd out these individuals by employing lesser-skilled individuals who will settle for lower salaries. The superficial result of this trend would be that organisations would be improving their efficiency through spending less on staffing, but in reality the drop in service quality and quantity more than negates this form of cost-cutting.

As a result of the lowered levels of skill requirements and remuneration the sector permanently loses skills. Has anyone noticed just how many highly-qualified individuals with skills are working within the ‘support’ end of the nonprofit sector in a for-profit capacity – consultants, corporate social investment (CSI) practitioners, monitoring and evaluation specialists for donor bodies, academics – where the pay is better? While these positions can rightly be argued to benefit the nonprofit sector through their support functions, would these skills and expertise not be infinitely more effective if they were being put directly into the organisations delivering services?

The net result is that the nonprofit sector as a whole seems to have become a dumping ground for individuals who lack the required competencies, rather than being a progressive, dynamic and highly-skilled sector that inspires others to develop the skills necessary to make further positive contributions. The sector as a whole is guilty of perpetuating its skills shortage as a result of accepting lower standards of service delivery than would be sanctioned by the for-profit sector. Yes, the nonprofit sector is a different animal to the commercial sector, but that does not mean that standards and norms should be lower.

So what can be done to reverse the seemingly worsening trend of diminishing skills and competencies within the nonprofit sector in the face of increasing need for the sector’s services?

It is obviously not possible, nor desirable, to replace all existing incompetent staff with skilled personnel all at once. Instead, organisations should adopt deliberate and well-considered human resource and funding development strategies, and should ensure that these strategies are carried out according to comprehensive and measurable plans. Managers and directors need to come to grips with the fundamental question that will affect how this issue is tackled: What skills are really required for each of my organisation’s positions, and how much are these skills worth?

Once these questions have been answered it is vital that organisations only employ new staff who are sufficiently qualified, and that they pay what the positions are really worth. A successful funding plan will ensure that sufficient funds are found to guarantee their sustainable employment. If these steps are taken then organisations will ensure that they attract the quality staff that they need, which will dramatically improve their service delivery and documented impacts – which then attracts more funding.

We need to stop accepting second best. We need to learn from organisations that are doing things right, and we need to realise that one of the common features of these organisations is that they are staffed by individuals who know what they are doing. It’s such a simple concept, but also perhaps the most difficult challenge that the nonprofit sector faces at this time.

- Brian Kilbey is funding manager at Hermanus Rainbow Trust. He writes in his personal capacity (Mobile: 072 254 1888, E-mail: brian@mani.co.za).

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