Jennifer Loftus

Working With a Nonprofit Human Resources Consultant: A Guide

Every nonprofit, from large, enterprise-level organizations to small organizations, is powered by an internal team. And to effectively recruit, hire, train, and manage the people who make up that team, you need strong human resources policies and strategies in place.

And on top of providing a great employment experience for your team, a strong nonprofit human resources strategy can also have a ripple effect on your mission and the community you serve. This is because when your organization’s internal team can work together effectively, you’ll be better able to achieve long-term, sustainable success as you fundraise, connect with donors, manage your programming, and more.

However, having an optimized human resources approach is often easier said than done. Nonprofits simply have more unique needs than for-profit organizations when it comes to HR strategy and management. This means that HR professionals at nonprofits must adhere to and balance a number of different factors to make the best decisions for their organizations, such as:

  • State and federal employment laws (no, nonprofits aren’t exempt!)
  • Nonprofit-specific tax, accounting, executive compensation, and employee classification regulations
  • Tight or unpredictable budgets
  • Heavily mission-driven goals

Many organizations look to the guidance of an outside expert when it’s time to build out or refresh their approach to human resources. Even for larger, more established organizations, an outside perspective is almost always the best choice. Hiring and working with a nonprofit human resources consultant, though, can be tricky—especially if you’ve never done it before! In this guide, we’ll walk through all the essentials you’ll need to know to get an effective start:

Are you ready to strengthen your nonprofit from the inside out? Working with a nonprofit HR consultant is a step in the right direction, and with our help, you’ll find the perfect partner in no time at all! Let’s dive right in.

Click through to learn more about Astron Solutions' nonprofit human resources consultants!

Who We Are: Astron Solutions’ Nonprofit HR Consultants

At Astron Solutions, we’ve been providing HR consulting services and talent management software to small and mid-sized organizations since 1999. We understand nonprofits and their needs, and we’re committed to helping you engage and retain your employees while also keeping your bottom line in mind.

Astron Solutions' nonprofit human resources consultants can help your organization streamline its HR strategy!

We provide a variety of services, from total rewards compensation consulting to customized survey creation to help you better understand your employees’ needs. Our team can help you solve even the trickiest of nonprofit HR problems!

Learn more about Astron Solutions’ services and solutions!

Nonprofit Human Resources Consulting: Understanding the Basics

There are plenty of reasons why a nonprofit organization might decide that it’s time to seek outside human resources guidance. Some of the most common reasons include the following:

  • The organization is going through a transitional period. Times of quick growth or leadership changes are typical examples. These periods are great opportunities for organizations to make any important changes or updates to their human resources structures that they might have been putting off.
  • The nonprofit is experiencing retention or recruitment issues. Nonprofits experience these issues like any other type of organization, and HR often represents the first line of defense for combatting turnover and developing stronger, more holistic compensation strategies.
  • The organization simply needs to build out its first set of human resources processes. As mission-driven organizations with fairly tight budgets, growing nonprofits often postpone developing concrete human resources policies, processes, and departments until they’ve been up and running for a while.
  • Outside forces (like a global pandemic or mass social movements) begin to affect the nonprofit’s internal operations and leave them unsure of the next steps. There will always be situations and events that arise which are outside of an organization’s control. Revisiting and improving their current HR strategy is a great way to keep employees engaged and motivated during times of instability.

Of course, the exact reason an organization decides to hire a nonprofit human resources consultant will vary. However, all of the situations listed above have one thing in common: the organizations want or need more stable foundations on which to grow.

Well-developed and properly-scaled human resources programs will strengthen your organization’s ability to grow sustainably. An outside expert is in a great position to help determine which strategies will be most effective in the long run.

This photo shows a nonprofit human resources consultant working with a client to improve their HR strategy.

Nonprofit Human Resources Consultant Services

If you’ve never worked with a consultant before or if you’re trying to build out your organization’s first HR policies, it can be tricky to know what to look for without understanding the field more generally. For some additional context, let’s cover the types of services that nonprofit human resources consultants typically provide.

So, what does an HR consultant do? Their services span a fairly broad range, including the following:

  • Evaluating or auditing your existing human resources structures and policies
  • Retention-focused strategy development to help you retain more of your top talent
  • General compensation consulting and role-specific strategy development
  • Helping nonprofits design incentive and recognition programs to encourage project-specific and long-term employee engagement
  • Employee communication support, including survey design and administration
  • Performance management guidance or training, or management software support
  • Work-from-home program guidelines and support
  • HR support during economic and social challenges

Your organization will likely have one or two specific goals in mind when searching for a human resources consultant. Candidates with general experience in HR consulting might do the trick for more standard projects, but always make sure to ask about their experience as it relates to your particular needs and the current social climate, too.

Remember, a human resources consultant is not an appropriate replacement or filler for a dedicated, in-house HR team. Many consultants don’t offer the types of services that these teams would perform, like payroll administration. However, consultants are strong partners for helping you to develop and train a well-equipped HR team. As you begin to explore potential firms to work with, note each firm’s specializations and how they might help your growing nonprofit.

Check out Astron Solutions’ list of recommended HR consulting firms!

How to Effectively Hire and Work With a Nonprofit Human Resources Consultant

Now that you know what a nonprofit human resources consultant does, you’re likely eager to kickstart the process of partnering with your own consultant. We’ll help you prepare to hire the best possible consultant by walking through the basic hiring steps you’ll need to follow.

These are the basic steps of hiring a nonprofit HR consultant.

1. Examine your goals and needs.

Think about why you need a human resources consultant and what you need or want to accomplish by working with one. Chances are your reasons will fit into one of the general situations listed above, but your exact goals will probably be a bit more varied.

Clearly defining your goals and needs (or at least having a clear sense of what you need to accomplish) will go a long way to both help you find the perfect partner and streamline their job later on.

2. Meet with your nonprofit’s board and outline guidelines.

In order to get started hiring an HR consultant, you need to ensure your leadership is on the same page as the rest of your team. Make sure you discuss the plan with all board members to ensure everyone aligns on the need to hire a consultant and your goals for working with one. This way, there’s no confusion, time wasted, or future pushback. 

When you meet with your board members, this is also a good time to outline some key guidelines to follow in your search for an HR consultant. This should include a general budget or maximum cost you will pay, a target start date for services, and a general timeframe for the entire engagement. With these guidelines laid out, you can approach your initial candidate research more intentionally.

3. Build a hiring team.

Getting multiple perspectives on potential HR consultants will help you find the best fit. Many organizations create hiring teams or committees to focus more directly on this effort. Hiring teams are also useful for delegating tasks, like who should research candidates and who should review proposals.

Your team should consist of leaders in your organization plus any staff members that will be working directly with the consultant, like existing HR staff. If your consultant is helping you build your organization’s first human resources department, the staff member who will lead future HR tasks should be included.

4. Conduct research.

Start searching online for top nonprofit consultants. There are plenty of useful resources out there that explain top consultants and their specialties (like our guide to compensation consultants). Most human resources consultants don’t necessarily specialize in working with nonprofits, so determine in advance if you want a partner with experience primarily in the nonprofit sector.

Don’t forget to reach out to your colleagues and contacts in other organizations, too. If you know another organization that has worked with a nonprofit human resources consultant, ask them about their experience. They’ll most likely have recommendations and insights to share.

5. Draft an RFP.

With your hiring team, work on drafting a request for proposal (RFP) for a human resources consultant. An RFP effectively communicates your organization’s exact HR needs and goals. This way, you can ask each HR consultant candidate for their proposal in an easy-to-digest and fully-standardized format. 

Your RFP will depend on your organization’s unique situation, but there are a few common points that are crucial to include. In order to yield the best results, consider the following elements:

Refer to this RFP template when requesting proposals from nonprofit HR consultants.

RFP Template for Hiring a Nonprofit Consultant

  • Nonprofit Overview: A description of your organization, including your history, mission, and audience
  • Scope of Services: A description of your HR needs, including the specific services you’re looking for and any additional context for your needs
  • Guidelines: The guidelines that you and your nonprofit board laid out earlier in the process, including budget and timeline
  • Expected Outcomes: This should include your general goals and a list of concrete deliverables
  • Additional Questions and Requests: Any other information you’d like to get from the consultant to help you decide if they’re the right fit for your organization

Basically, your RFP is a concise representation of your entire HR needs for all of your consultant candidates. The more focused and direct your RFP is, the better and more useful your proposals will be.

6. Reach out to your top candidates.

Once you and your team have narrowed down a shortlist of candidates, reach out to the top two or three. Start by introducing your organization, requesting more information on their services, and asking for references. If you want a proposal, send out the RFP that you’ve already written. Once the consultants complete and present their proposals, you can begin narrowing down your choices even further. Don’t be afraid to examine consultants’ proposals with a critical eye and ask them to adjust their proposals to better meet your needs.

So, what should you be watching for in these final stages of the hiring process? There are a few key characteristics to look for in any potential nonprofit human resources consultant for your organization. These might be fairly self-evident, but it’s still important that your team is aware of them. A strong proposal from a candidate is great, but unless you can see your team successfully working with them, that partnership might not be the best choice. 

Here are some top characteristics to look for in a potential HR consultant:

  • Experience working on projects similar to your own, and with nonprofits similar to your own, ideally in terms of both mission and size. This helps ensure that the consultant fully understands your particular circumstance and unique pressures.
  • How they describe their methods or general approach when you reach out to discuss their services and your project. As with practically any important project or initiative, a flexible and individualized approach is always more effective than a one-size-fits-all solution.
  • Strong communication efforts. This includes quick responses to your questions and thorough explanations of key concepts. 
  • Respect for your organization’s work and vision. The right consultant will be willing to workshop the ideas they bring to the table so that they align with your specific needs, goals, and vision. You don’t want a “my way or the highway” consultant as a partner!

After screening for these key characteristics, look for positive reviews online, or, better yet, reach out directly to their past clients for references. This is a great way to get a sense of how the consultant works in action. Make sure that the consultant’s work had a lasting impact on the performance of their previous clients’ human resources programs, not just a one-time band-aid-type fix that shortly wore off.

7. Make your pick.

Once you’ve reviewed the proposals that your organization received from candidates and considered each one’s professional characteristics, it’s time to make your pick. Work with your team to settle on your favorite candidate, then notify them of your decision. You’ll most likely then need to finalize their proposed plan, agree on some logistics like pay and the length of the engagement, and sign a contract.

Remember, any consultant should serve as a partner for your organization, not simply an outside expert who’ll come in, fix your problems, and leave. In order to make the most of your engagement, your organization should be prepared with questions and issues to work through, which can help you learn from your consultant’s insights.

Working with a Nonprofit Human Resources Consultant

After you’ve picked your nonprofit HR consultant, it’s time to start working together. However, to go forward, it’s important to first ensure you have a firm understanding of what strong nonprofit HR looks like. This is especially crucial if you’re a smaller organization without a current human resources department or well-defined policies.

Once you have a foundation of what strong nonprofit HR looks like, you can then determine how to best work with your nonprofit HR consultant. To understand both of these processes, begin by reviewing the following HR tips:

  • Take a mission-driven, project-oriented approach. A nonprofit’s priorities are shaped by its overarching mission, but its strategies will vary greatly from one campaign to the next. Nonprofit HR should be guided by the core mission but be able to adapt to changing projects.
  • Make communication a top priority. Clear communication is key for nonprofits. The unique pressures of the nonprofit sector and the campaign-by-campaign approach to fundraising means everyone will perform better when they’re on the same page.
  • Develop strategies for managing unpaid staff. Nonprofits rely on dedicated volunteers for all kinds of essential tasks, and they require clear management in order to effectively support your goals, just like paid staff members do. A well-organized volunteer program will include human resources elements.
  • Take an assertive approach to recruitment. Recruiting top talent is hard work, especially for positions in nonprofit organizations. Don’t be afraid to take a strategic and assertive approach to recruiting new staff members.
  • Try to anticipate changes and hardships. Tight budgets, leadership changes, and shifts in funding sources can all throw a wrench into your organization’s strategies. Human resources should plan ahead by developing executive succession and emergency fundraising plans, for instance.
This image shows a nonprofit human resources consultant leading a meeting with an organization's staff members.

As you examine your own HR goals and needs and prepare to hire a nonprofit human resources consultant, keep these best practices in mind. You and your consultant should be on the same page about how to best prioritize and approach nonprofit human resources tasks and responsibilities.

Now that you have a general feel for what effective HR should look like at your nonprofit, let’s examine how you can get the most value out of working with a nonprofit human resources consultant. Here are some best practices to apply:

These are the best practices you should follow when first working with a nonprofit HR consultant.
  • Take a partnership approach. Make sure your consultants take the time to get to know your organization and genuinely understand your mission and audience. This way, they have all the context they need to finalize their HR strategy recommendations. 
  • Understand all changes. Members of your staff might not be familiar with the full scope of nonprofit HR and its responsibilities, so clearly communicate new developments across your organization.
  • Ask for documentation. When you partner with an HR consultant, you’re working to improve your HR strategy for the present and as your organization grows. Make sure you have everything you need to ensure long-term success before your engagement with the consultant officially ends. Having documentation and training materials from the HR consultant can help you better communicate new processes with the rest of your organization and act as resources if you encounter any new issues.

Partnering with a nonprofit human resources consultant can do great things for your organization, but make sure that your nonprofit is ready to make the most of the engagement. This way, you avoid any confusion or wasted time. Following the best practices above can help keep you on the right track and ensure success for your nonprofit HR strategies.

Working With Astron Solutions

Is your nonprofit looking for a true partner that can assist in fine-tuning its human resources strategy? Astron Solutions is a full-service HR consulting firm that believes in working closely with your organization to create the best plan of action that keeps your team strong and able to move your mission forward.

We offer the following services to our nonprofit clients:

  • General HR consulting for overall strategy and policy development and implementation
  • Total rewards compensation consulting
  • Custom compensation and general HR survey development, administration, and analysis
  • Talent management software

When you work with Astron Solutions, you can rest assured knowing that your HR strategy will be tailor-made just for your nonprofit team.

Get in touch with Astron Solutions today!

Wrapping Up

Strong strategy and management of human resources underpin all successful organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit. With the unique pressures of the nonprofit sector, though, it’s crucially important that these organizations get it right. An expert guide is often the best bet for building out or correcting strong HR policies and structures that will support sustainable growth.

Hiring a nonprofit human resources consultant can be a game changer for the organizations that are ready for their services. Take your time conducting your research, and you’ll be sure to find the perfect partner.

Want to keep exploring the world of HR? Check out these additional resources:

Click through to contact Astron Solutions and begin working with a nonprofit HR consultant!

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