August 25, 2023

Building a people-centric organisation

Steps your nonprofit can follow today.

6 min read

Attracting and retaining team members is central to talent management in any organisation. People centricity, which refers to thinking about what inspires and motivates team members to put their best foot forward, is one of the ways organisations can retain talent. A people-centric organisation is one where employees’ opinions are factored into the decision-making process.

People centricity is relevant for social purpose organisations (SPOs), but how it manifests depends on the unique ecosystem in which an SPO operates, and the structures and challenges it works with. For example:

  • U&I is a Bangalore-based nonprofit that provides non-formal education to underprivileged children in 25 cities across India. For U&I, which largely works with volunteers, people centricity implies making the journey and the work rewarding and engaging.
  • Community Development Centre (CDC) is a community-based organisation in Madhya Pradesh that works with people from the Baiga tribe of Central India. For CDC, people centricity means prioritising local youth for jobs as they possess an understanding of the tribal language, community dynamics, and context; don’t require any training in the local context; and tend to stay with the organisation longer. By leveraging local expertise, they are also able to carry out their work effectively and in a resource-efficient manner. Retrofitting existing people frameworks may not work for CDC or its mission.

Although recent, a myriad of global research has been done to understand people centricity more thoroughly. A paper on developing a people-centric strategy in organisations suggests that there are various indications of deeper interest in this area—consultancies are publishing emerging insights on people centricity, terms such as ‘people management’ are gaining currency, and organisations have started adopting practices such as capturing employee experience.

However, there still isn’t enough research available on people centricity from the nonprofit lens. To take a step in this direction, Indian School of Development Management (ISDM) and Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) at Ashoka University conducted a study on talent management practices as well as compensation and benefits in SPOs. The study employed a mixed methods approach and drew upon primary data collected through surveys, focus group discussions, and in-depth interviews with nonprofit professionals. Some of its key findings are:

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  • There are disparities in compensation within the social sector as well as between the social sector and general industry.
  • While compensation isn’t the predominant motivator for individuals working in the Indian social sector, resource constraints do act as a significant obstacle in attracting and retaining talent.
  • Organisational culture is a prominent factor influencing talent motivation.

The study also yielded a people-centric talent management framework that enables SPOs to attract and retain talent, and develop teams that are committed to achieving the mission and vision of the organisation and self. The people-centric talent management framework recognises that employees are an organisation’s asset and that their skills, abilities, motivation, and well-being are critical to achieving organisational goals. The three components of this framework are:

  • Talent development, growth, and leadership styles
  • Meaningful performance recognition
  • Talent well-being and workplace environment
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People centricity as part of the organisational fabric is imperative. | Picture courtesy: Pxfuel

This article draws from our framework and lists people-centric practices that can be adopted by nonprofit leadership relatively easily.

1. Focusing on talent development and growth

Talent development and growth is all about providing opportunities to employees so that they can learn new skills and competencies. For 86 percent of those who responded to our survey, learning and personal growth emerged as a crucial element influencing job choices in Indian SPOs. Furthermore, 71 percent said that the availability of learning opportunities impacts their continued commitment to the organisation. Additionally, for 66 percent of the respondents, possibilities for advancement and skill development motivated them to stay committed to the Indian social sector. People’s tenure also depends on the learning and growth opportunities that they have—it is an ongoing expectation.

Here are some interesting strategies that SPOs are using to enable development and growth while keeping in mind the unique needs of the sector.

  • Designing career mapping exercises for employees: This involves a one-on-one conversation between the organisation and a team member, where the team member talks about the kind of skills they want to develop and their career goals. Since this activity is resource-efficient (human and monetary), it is feasible for small and big SPOs.

    Career mapping can enable organisations to set up roles and responsibilities and project timelines and create learning and development (L&D) programmes that cater to the needs of the organisation and the team members—a win-win situation for both parties. SPOs that have implemented career mapping are a testament to the success of this strategy as it fosters commitment and motivation among talent.
  • Providing job enrichment opportunities: To grow in an organisation is an innate need of any team member. Spending a long time doing the same work without growth or change in sight can be discouraging. It is not unusual for people working with nonprofits to take on a variety of roles—61 percent of the participants said that their jobs allow them to perform different kinds of activities and use a variety of talents and abilities.

    SPOs are mostly lean in terms of vertical structures, which limits the chances for growth in the conventional sense of designation upgrade or remuneration. To counter this, team members can be offered horizontal growth opportunities in the form of job enrichment. This means giving team members the opportunity and in-job training required to handle bigger responsibilities such as working in or leading multiple projects.

    Job enrichment has two main goals: diversifying employees’ skill sets and efficient succession planning. As a result of their understanding of numerous organisational roles and duties, employees who have worked in a variety of divisions within the company become prospective candidates for leadership positions. This also saves monetary assets (required for recruiting and training new talent), which can be reallocated towards more pressing requirements.
  • Introducing job rotation: While job enrichment allows people to work across a diverse range of projects within the same team, job rotation enables them to work across different departments, generally in the areas of their interest. For example, someone in programmes can work in people management or resource mobilisation for a while. As a strategy tried by SPOs, job rotation breaks monotony, builds new skills, makes teams stronger, and enables succession planning while being easy on the need for resources.

    However, job rotation should be implemented carefully. Open communication with team members is essential, as is ensuring that the employees are open to job rotation, otherwise it can lead to counterproductive outcomes. For instance, someone who may not be comfortable with job rotation can end up becoming demotivated or uninterested in their core job as well. Moreover, job rotation may have restricted applicability especially in cases where employees offer a very specific technical skill set. A way to mitigate this challenge would be to align job rotation with career mapping wherein employees are allocated new roles based on the outcomes of the career-mapping exercise.

2. Adopting a positive leadership style

When it comes to managing people, a positive leadership style in an SPO becomes essential to onboard the best talent and retain them. In application, a positive leadership style is:

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  • Participative: Listening to people and teams, allowing disagreement, and taking collective decisions
  • Trusting: Believing in the capability of talent
  • Accessible: Being available for mentorship and resolution of conflicts and to answer queries
  • Appreciative: Acknowledging of efforts
  • Supportive: Allowing employees to take initiative

In our study, 24 percent of SPO employees reported that leadership methods influence their continuous engagement and retention. SPOs are privy to this requirement and share a few ways to inculcate a participative and trusting leadership style.

  • Demonstrating trust through delegation: SPOs practising delegation liberally facilitate talent to take decisions by providing adequate autonomy and support. As a result, the talent feels trusted and more driven to deliver higher impact. Delegation also offers opportunities for team members to learn and grow on the go and is a practical manifestation of mutual respect and trust. Additionally, it contributes towards reducing micromanagement—when leaders trust their talent, the need to minutely oversee their work diminishes.
  • Being empathetic: Nonprofit employees work on pressing social issues and humanitarian crises, which makes them vulnerable to various issues such as burnout and mental exhaustion. To empower their teams, the leadership must be empathetic and supportive. Encouraging feedback, being open to discussions at all levels, and taking decisions collaboratively goes a long way in making team members feel supported and a part of the decision-making process—this creates a workplace they would like to stay in.

    However, an offset could be excessive time and energy spent on reaching a decision, so this approach needs to be executed carefully. Training in active listening and other essential skills is a great way to facilitate positive leadership while ensuring that the risks associated with it are duly combated.

Inculcating a culture where team members feel valued, seen, and essential to the organisation can fast-track the SPO’s vision and mission. Hence, people centricity as part of the organisational fabric is imperative. These strategies do not demonstrate a one-size-fits-all approach, but should be implemented or considered as per the needs and context of the organisation.

Know more

  • Read ISDM’s ‘Talent Management in the Social Sector’ report here.
  • Learn how organisational culture affects talent retention.

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Satender Rana

Satender Rana joined the Knowledge and Research Centre at ISDM after completing an MSc in Development Management (Applied Development Economics) from London School of Economics. Satender has worked with the World Bank, UNDP, International Rice Research Institute, Ministry of Rural Development, National Thermal Power Corporation, and Sparsh. He founded Devnomica, a development research and consultancy company, to enable companies, governments, and SPOs in making evidence-informed policy decisions to create positive social impact.

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Lopamudra Sanyal

Lopamudra Sanyal is an associate director at Indian School of Development Management (ISDM). She has more than 16 years of experience in communications, dissemination, and engagement across diverse domains. Lopamudra has worked previously in public health, child rights, and environment.

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Manu Bhatia

Manu Bhatia is a qualitative researcher and documentation specialist. In the last decade, she has worked with several organisations in the development sector, including Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), PATH, The World Bank, and ActionAid. Manu has lived in several places across India, and is currently based in Chabua, Assam.