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What does your organizational learning culture look like?

October 2, 2015 | By | No Comments

Originally published on Heather’s LinkedIn Blog

Organizations ask us all the time, how can we better invest in our staff and volunteers?  Well, the first step is to understand staff and volunteers’ perceptions of the organizational learning culture by administering The Organizational Learning Assessment.

We developed the Organizational Learning Assessment, the first piece in the Talent Development Platform, to help organization understand how leadership, staff, and volunteers perceive their need for professional development and whether the organizational culture is conducive to learning.  The Organizational Learning Assessment gives organizations a good idea if they are ready to put their people first and implement an organizational wide professional development strategy. It assesses organizational learning across six domains, which include:

  • Motivation for Change: Do the staff, volunteers, and leadership of the organization want and perceive a need to change?
  • Learning and Development Culture: Does the organization embrace learning and learn from failure?
  • Resources for Learning: Are employees and volunteers provided time and monetary support for professional development?
  • Staff Management and Values: Do staff, volunteers, and leadership value learning and professional growth?
  • Organizational Culture: Are employees safe to fail and are they able to ask for help? Does leadership publically support individuals who have taken risks and failed, and do they actively learn themselves?
  • Staff and Volunteer Satisfaction: Are staff and volunteers satisfied with the organization, and do they intend to stay with the organization?

Results from the assessment are reported anonymously on a scale between one and five.  One means the organization is not ready to implement an organizational wide professional development initiative. Five means the organization is ready to implement professional development.

Figure. 1
Organizational Learning Assessment Implementation Readiness Scoring Ranges

We’ve administered this assessment to hundreds of organizations and found there are often differences between employees and management and their perceptions of the learning culture. Management says, “yes we have a strong learning culture,” whereas staff perceive the opposite.

When scores are three or lower, organizational leaders should spend some time on improving the organizational learning culture in specific domain areas. For example, if scores are lower in the Resources for Learning domain, an organization may already provide money for staff to attend professional development workshops or conferences, but should take further to ensure that staff and volunteers feel they can adequately reflect on their learning experience and implement what was learned in the workshops.  Or, if organizations scored lower in Organizational Culture, leadership can take steps to create a safer environment/culture for staff and volunteers to truly express their learning needs.

Ultimately, organizational leaders will need to decide if they are ready to proceed with the rest of the Talent Development Platform, but the Organizational Learning Assessment is a good first step for them to understand employees and volunteers perceptions of the organizational learning culture and environment.

Creating Job Descriptions that Work for You

August 17, 2015 | By | No Comments

*Originally posted at

A great job description isn’t just a piece of paper a job candidate reads to determine their fit for your open position and organization. A great job description helps you meet your staffing needs. If you take the time now to explore those needs all of your job descriptions will become much more valuable tools for your organization. To help you create these great tools, we have outlined a process for you to build effective job descriptions.

Jobs Resource Article ImageBefore starting in on the steps of creating your own — more effective — job descriptions you should understand the components of a good job description. Each component is vital to an employee’s understanding of their responsibilities and the level at which they should be practicing that activity.

Some of the components, including salary and a breakdown of job activities by social change competency category aren’t traditional job description components. Even though salary is a key aspect in hiring and retention, too many organizations are afraid of including the salary range for fear it may deter good candidates if too low or deter donors if too high. The reality however is different, salary will become a factor in the potential employee’s decision to join your organization, no matter if they know ahead of time or not. Include salary upfront to avoid wasting valuable time interviewing candidates that won’t accept the salary. Instead, spend that time on activities that will benefit your organization positively, like building relationships with the donors that may be worried about your operational costs.

The second inclusion we recommend that is non-traditional, is the mapping of responsibilities to social change competencies. We developed the social change competencies, through extensive research, for the book The Talent Development Platform: Putting people first in social change organizations. These competencies are Advocacy and Public Policy; Communications, Marketing, and Public Relations; Financial Management and Social Entrepreneurship; Fundraising and Resource Development; Grantmaking and Direct Service; Human Resources Management and Volunteerism; Information Management; Leadership and Governance; Legal and Regulatory; and Planning and Evaluation, which are the key competencies every nonprofit manager should possess at some level to be effective in their role. (Get full descriptions for each competency here.) We encourage your organization to also develop your own core competencies based on specific positions, departments if you have them, and the culture and values of your organization. Having these competencies in place, along with their concurrent activities will help you develop learning tools in the future and systematically evaluate your team on their performance.

Now that you are familiar with the basic components of a job description, let’s talk about how to ensure the job description development and revision process is of benefit to your organization. In order to make the process as effective as possible, we recommend taking three steps. These steps can be done at the beginning of the launch of a new program, during strategic planning, or for an individual job as one comes open. If you can, use job description development to your benefit and fit them in to your current planning and staff development work as much as possible.

Step 1: Identify tasks and activities within each job.

The trap of the job description development process is simply using a job description you had from before to hire someone. The problem is that often roles evolve over time and job descriptions can become irrelevant very quickly. To avoid this, we recommend taking a step back to ensure all your job descriptions are current. This step in the work should follow the following outline:

  1. Take a look at your strategic plan and or program activities and list all activities necessary to complete the work. These don’t have to be minute details, but overriding activities.
  2. Sort each of those activities by the social change and organizational specific competencies for which they fall under.
  3. Decide which individuals should take on each activity, aligning those activities with their current work.
  4. Ask each employee to review their current job description; remove what they no longer do; add tasks assigned from the strategic plan and add activities they do regularly not found in their description.

As a leader, you might not be as familiar with individual roles as you think you are. Take this time to allow staff to be involved in the job description development process, reflect on the work they actually do, and determine what competencies should be required of them based on the organization’s goals.

During this step, you can take the opportunity to shuffle people or tasks as necessary. You may find out someone is performing above and beyond their job description so you may give them a promotion, raise, or shift their tasks around. Job movement is part of a larger organizational discussion; however, looking at responsibilities in this way will guide relevant and timely discussions about how each role fits within your organization.

Step 2: Decide on proficiency level.

Once activities are identified, the next step is to ensure you understand the proficiency level needed to complete each activity. The proficiency level is the level at which the individual is expected to perform their work. You want to be sure each individual role has the right expectations for their required level of work.

We use five proficiency levels developed from the National Institutes of Health (NIH): fundamental awareness, novice, intermediate, advanced, expert. Each activity within a role should be assigned to a proficiency level within this scale.

For example, there is a big difference between someone “Observing marketing meetings” which is considered fundamental awareness, and someone “Managing a marketing meeting” which is considered advanced.

Take the time to review the core competencies in every job and decide whether or not the activities within that job should be at an expert level, or fundamentally awareness, or anywhere in between. You can then use this reflection to ensure the job description has terms or action words that reflect the level of expertise needed for that role.

Step 3: Put it all together.

Once you have steps two and three complete, it’s now time to put together the full job description. Part of this work is simply putting the text in the right format, but a bigger part is ensuring that your job descriptions are using the right language to recruit the right candidates and ensure that all your employees understand the full expectations for their work.

Have employees read over their revised job description to ensure expectations are clear. Keeping them involved throughout the revision process will ensure less resistance to the revisions.

Finally, if you are using the job description to recruit new employees, take a moment to ensure your organization’s culture is clearly described throughout the text and that you do not use any language that could exclude a group of potentially amazing candidates. The job recruitment process needs to be an equitable experience and this process begins with inclusive language as to not exclude any potential candidates.

As you read through each of these steps you may get a feeling of being overwhelmed by the time this might take. We want to ensure you though that taking the time to revise your job descriptions on a regular basis will reap many rewards. Employees that understand the expectations for their work perform more effectively and you will hire candidates that are a much better fit for your organization; both factors that reduce employee turnover. As a result you will avoid high turnover rates and get more work done, both of which are well worth the investment in this process!

Heather L. Carpenter, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Nonprofit Management at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Nonprofit Management, Human Resources, Financial Management, Fundraising, Technology, and Volunteerism.
Tera Wozniak Qualls, M.P.A., is founder of Momentum, a nonprofit consulting firm focused on community engagement and talent development for nonprofits. Tera also serves as an adjunct professor of Nonprofit Management at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she teaches Introduction to Nonprofits and Volunteerism and Human Resources.

The Talent Development Platform

June 24, 2015 | By | No Comments

*Originally posted on LinkedIn, written by Dr. Heather Carpenter

When I was working in social change organizations I got tired of many talented staff and volunteers leaving due to low-pay and burnout. I made it my career goal to conduct research and help organizations implement staff and volunteer retention strategies.

My co-author (Tera Qualls) and I wrote the Talent Development Platform, a step-by-step guide for social change organizations to invest in their internal talent, improve morale, and reduce turnover.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing blog posts about each step of the Talent Development Platform.  The Talent Development Platform gives your a plan to find and nurture your internal talent, reduce turnover, and improve organizational efficiency. More specifically the book helps organizations:

  • Develop organizational, department, and position specific competencies.
  • Create and revise job descriptions.
  • Assess staff and volunteer proficiency levels with created competencies.
  • Determine staff and volunteer learning styles.
  • Establish and implement professional development goals and objectives tied to strategic goals.
  • Evaluate employee and volunteer learning progress.

My co-author (Tera Qualls) and I previously worked in social change organizations, so we made our book very practical and straightforward to implement. We included sample job descriptions, worksheets, and turnover savings calculations in the book so you can integrate pieces of the platform into your everyday work. Four real organizations piloted the Talent Development Platform and their stories are chronicled in the book.

Heather is co-author of The Talent Development Platform: Putting People First in Social Change Organizations This book gives readers a plan for finding and nurturing their internal talent to reduce turnover and improve organizational efficiency.


Calculating Return on Investment for your talent: How to save your organization thousands of dollars.

April 13, 2015 | By | No Comments

*Originally at

Special to the Philanthropy Journal – Heather Carpenter and Tera Qualls

Return on Investment is a trending topic right now in the nonprofit sector. Organizations have been using ROI to measure the cost benefit of a purchase, a grant request, or a piece of technology. We started using ROI to measure the cost benefit of nonprofits investing in their talent and have helped organizations to save thousands of dollars.

What does investing in your talent look like? It involves assessing and maintaining your learning culture, developing and maintaining accurate job descriptions, providing living wages, creating professional development opportunities that are tied to strategic goals and the job learning, mentoring and training, and evaluating your talent development efforts. Yes, each of these talent investment activities take a significant investment, but the old adage, you reap what you sow, will come true. You will see many monetary and non-monetary rewards of your talent investment efforts. We’ve worked with organizations that have saved thousands of dollars by investing in their staff and volunteers.

For example, we worked with a small grassroots organization that had a wonderful mission of helping refugees within a specific community. They had five staff members who were extremely busy with their day-to-day responsibilities. Even though employees were deeply committed to the mission, the organization struggled to pay their employees a living wage, and as a result, the organization suffered from high turnover. When the ED took some time to assess the learning culture of her organization, as well as assess the professional development needs of her staff, she saw improved staff morale and reduced employee turnover.

In this article we’ll walk you through how to calculate the Return on Investment for investing in your talent in those ways.

Step 1:

PJ_Article_Pull_Out_Image-03The first step in calculating ROI is determining the benefits of investing in your staff and volunteers. There are two types of benefits: intangible and tangible benefits.Intangible benefits are hard to measure but important to the organization.  Tangible benefits are monetary benefits to your organization. Often organizations focus on the tangible benefits of an item without considering the intangible benefits but intangible benefits make a huge impact on the organizational culture and ultimately lead to tangible benefits for the organization.

Intangible benefits for investing in your talent include: increased staff and volunteer satisfaction, new skills learned on the job, and a stronger learning culture. Staff will be happier, want to do their jobs, and be in a more positive and supportive work environment.

Tangible benefits include reduction in employee turnover, reduction in hiring costs, reduction in consulting costs, increased productivity, and increased programmatic outcomes. When employees and volunteers feel they are supported, they are more likely to stay. They are more productive, they are more likely to produce more units of service for the organization and they are less likely to leave the organization.

In the case of our small grassroots organization, by investing in their talent they reaped intangible benefits of improved staff morale and a more cohesive team. They also determined tangible benefits of reduction in employee turnover (between $9,750 to $19,500), increased volunteer recruitment (six volunteer tutors $27,000 for one year), increased financial acumen and reduced CPA costs $3,000.

Intangible and Tangible Benefits Small Grassroots Organization

  • Turnover Savings $9,750 to $19,500 (for one employee)
  • Reduction in CPA cost $3,000
  • Value of New Volunteers $27,000
  • Total Benefits $39,750 to $49,500

Step 2:

The next step is calculating costs. Even though there are many monetary and non-monetary benefits to consider when calculating ROI for talent investment, there are several different costs to consider when investing in talent. The first cost to consider is the monetary cost of salary increases. You can’t think of your staff salaries as a stand-alone item within your budget, you need to consider the repercussions of low salaries. Although there is an actual monetary cost to increase staff salaries, there is also a monetary benefit that we discuss above – the reduction of employee turnover.

There are also monetary costs of investing in strategic professional development. In our book, The Talent Development Platform we outline how to go through a systematic process of reviewing and revising job descriptions, mapping competencies (knowledge, skills abilities and other characteristics) to those competencies, assessing staff and volunteers professional development needs, and implementing professional development that is tied to the strategic goals of the organizations. As a result, professional development isn’t an additional effort; it is integrated within your daily work. There is a cost associated with planning for the talent development platform and implementing talent development. The planning process includes, staff time to plan and take the talent development assessment, time to review and develop professional development goals and objectives. And, the implementation costs includes the cost of the actual on-the-job learning activities and staff time for the on-the-job experience, mentoring, and training experiences. In order to make these staff time calculations you need to know the hourly rate of each employee and estimate the time they are investing in planning and implementing the professional development.

In our small grassroots nonprofit example, they determined the costs of planning for and implementing the Talent Development Platform. The planning costs included staff time to take the various assessments. Some of the implementation costs were also included. They also determined the costs of increasing staff salaries, so their staff members would have living wages. 

  • Planning Talent Development Platform $2,874
  • Implementing Talent Development Platform $4,414
  • Increase in Staff Salaries $30,560
  • Total Costs $37,848

Step 3:

This is the easiest step, determining your net benefits. Benefits minus costs equals net benefits.

  • Total Benefits $39,750 to $49,500
  • Total Costs $37,848
  • Net Benefits $1,902 to $11,652

As you can see the small grassroots refugee organization saw a net benefit between $1,902 to $11,652.

So, take the time, calculate your ROI for investing in your talent.

You’ll end up saving your organization thousands of dollars.

Heather L. Carpenter, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Nonprofit Management at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Nonprofit Management, Human Resources, Financial Management, Fundraising, Technology, and Volunteerism.
Tera Wozniak Qualls, M.P.A., is founder of Momentum, a nonprofit consulting firm focused on community engagement and talent development for nonprofits. Tera also serves as an adjunct professor of Nonprofit Management at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she teaches Introduction to Nonprofits and Volunteerism and Human Resources.

Put Your People First

March 30, 2015 | By | No Comments

*Originally posted on LinkedIn, written by Dr. Heather Carpenter

What would it look like if your organization put YOU first….before your customers…..before your clients? Would you be more productive? Would you be more satisfied with your job?

Southwest Airlines puts their employees first – even before their customers – and they have seen amazing results. Southwest employees are satisfied in their jobs, they work harder, and are more productive.

But why is it so difficult for mission-driven organizations to put their people first?

I’ve spent the last ten years working in and studying many types of social change organizations. Many of these organizations have one thing in common — an ongoing culture of busyness and scarce resources. This scarcity & busyness culture is detrimental to organizations and leads to staff burnout and turnover.

My colleague and I got tired of seeing organizations loose their good people. So we wrote The Talent Development Platform: Putting People First in Social Change Organizations, a practical guidebook to help organizations overcome barriers and put their people first. The book includes low to no-cost tools to invest in your people, increase productivity, and reduce employee and volunteer turnover.

There is even a chapter devoted to the Return On Investment for Talent, demonstrating that your organization will save $$$ by investing in your staff and volunteers.

As a result of our efforts, we’ve seen social change organizations STOP the culture of busyness and scarce resources, put their people first, reduce turnover, and increase organizational performance!