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Marking International Human Resources Day

Here's how to be a successful nonprofit HR leader.

An illustrative image of office workers. Credit: Summit Art Creations/Shutterstock
An illustrative image of office workers. Credit: Summit Art Creations/Shutterstock
Josh Gottesman
Josh Gottesman is the Orthodox Union’s chief human resources officer.

This month marks my one-year anniversary as the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) for the Orthodox Union. As I reflect on my career, I’ve identified key strategies that have helped me succeed as an HR leader. In honor of International Human Resources Day, I’d like to share advice for those working in or aspiring to enter the nonprofit HR space, Jewish or general.

According to SHRM, International Human Resources Day—which was founded in 2019—“honors all the hardworking HR professionals worldwide who make HR a critical function across organizations and industries.” Having a strong HR team is the secret to maintaining a functional organization. This is because HR is the grease in a company’s wheels, with each team member serving multiple official and unofficial roles that keep the company running. When an organization can fully embrace its Human Resources department, the results can be magic.

Find your passion

The nonprofit space is unlike any other. Working at a nonprofit means collaborating with some of the most passionate people you’ll ever meet. Imagine working in an organization where every email you send, every meeting you attend and every program you run can make the world a better place. That’s what working in a nonprofit is like. Even the most menial tasks take on a new significance when you know that they can impact the world around you. When employees care about their company’s mission and goals, they often go above and beyond to accomplish those goals.

Sounds like a dream job, right? But in the HR world, there are certain challenges we face that are specific to nonprofits. Measuring performance isn’t just about revenue and numbers. We need to measure impact and reach. We need to measure engagement and sustainability.

At some companies, it may even be the norm for most employees not to feel strongly about their work, but they can still be considered good or even excellent employees if they’re hitting certain numbers. At a nonprofit, however, the idea of a top employee not liking their job sounds crazy.

In this space, the heart that you pour into your work shines through. You’re not being measured by how much money you bring into the organization, but rather by the value-add to the community that your organization is serving. Do you want to be a successful HR leader in a nonprofit? Then you need to learn how to harness and sustain this passion.

Find your voice

Because nonprofit employees are generally mission-driven, it can be very hard to have a difficult conversation with someone who is not performing up to par. This presents HR professionals with the unique challenge of being able to have these difficult conversations without putting out the employee’s fire. Nonprofit employees are generally choosing to work at their jobs because they love what they do. Keeping that in mind, it can be demoralizing to receive criticism in the wrong way.

One way to keep employees motivated is to remind them of their past successes, even though they may have made a mistake. Since they are inherently eager to succeed in their role, it may also be a good idea to remind them of the company’s end goals and to frame their mistake as part of a bigger picture, highlighting why their work is so important.

As an HR professional, you need to find your voice and not be afraid to have these conversations. Being mission-driven isn’t an excuse for performing poorly.

Keep the flame burning

The talent working at nonprofits often joins with a strong sense of purpose. As an HR leader, one of your primary responsibilities is to keep that fire alive. This can be achieved through creative and inspiring talent development initiatives.

For example, I recently conducted a training session called “How to Build Rapport Without Saying a Thing,” which focused on nonverbal communication skills. Providing opportunities for employees to learn and grow helps prevent burnout and keeps them engaged.

In addition to formal training, consider offering informal opportunities for learning and development. These might include mentoring programs, lunch-and-learn sessions, or team-building retreats. The goal is to create a dynamic and supportive environment where employees feel valued and encouraged to pursue their professional and personal growth.

Recognizing and celebrating achievements, no matter how small, is another effective way to keep the flame burning. Acknowledgment can take many forms, from formal awards and public recognition to simple thank-you notes and personal compliments. Creating a culture of appreciation reinforces the value of each employee’s contributions and fosters a positive and motivating work environment.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been around my organization long enough to see for myself the tremendous boomerang rate of employees leaving and then returning since they couldn’t stay away for long. I’ve also seen many success stories of employees who are not the right fit for one role but flourish after transferring internally to a different department.

I suggest that the reason for both of these trends is the passion that differentiates working at a nonprofit from working at any other job. For a nonprofit HR leader, it comes down to understanding, creating and enhancing your organization’s unique culture.

This International Human Resources Day, take a moment to consider innovative ways to thrive as a nonprofit HR leader and how to create a work environment that makes employees feel continuously inspired. Nonprofit HR work can be more challenging, but it is also infinitely more rewarding. For me and other nonprofit HR professionals, this is our why.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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