See Our Stories

Balancing organizational growth with staff capacity: Lessons from a Social Innovator

Posted by Strong Women Strong Girls Jan 1, 2011 ,

This fall, Strong Women, Strong Girls completed a project with Root Cause about our staffing model.  Read on for a few of the lessons the team garnered from the project:

(Reposted from the Root Cause Blog)

It is common for high-performing organizations to experience growing pains. As an organization works to bring its social innovation to new communities, it inevitably faces questions about how to expand operational capacity, define new roles, and determine when to make new hires. All this needs to take place while the organization keeps an eye on longer-term strategy—including continuing to refine its approach to creating social impact and sharing insights and data to help advance its field.

Root Cause recently worked with Strong Women, Strong Girls to match an ambitious growth plan with staff capacity, and the experience provided insights with relevance for many social innovators. Strong Women, Strong Girls, which was selected as a Root Cause Social Innovator in 2007, fosters high aspirations among low income, minority elementary school girls and helps them develop skills for life-long success. College women who are trained and engaged as mentors lead girls in an innovative after school program model. Since founding the organization in 2000, Founder and President Lindsay Hyde has led the organization from a single branch reaching girls in two Boston elementary schools, to a three-branch organization reaching over 1,000 girls annually in Boston, Pittsburgh, and South Florida.

The rapid growth that the organization enjoyed led to challenges with staffing capacity and role definitions that hindered its ability to pursue new opportunities for growth and innovation. In particular, our work with Strong Women, Strong Girls focused on relieving an overtaxed staff, effective recruiting and hiring for both new and existing positions, and achieving greater clarity on roles of national and local staff. The lessons that emerged from this work with Strong Women, Strong Girls provide a number of lessons social innovators who are experiencing growing pains:

  • In speaking with nonprofit leaders that had successfully navigated human resources-related growing pains in the past, we learned that the order and roles of new positions is dependent on the context of the organization. It is important for growing organizations to define the key functions that the organization must carry out and assess existing roles in order to identify gaps.
  • Enlist both staff and board in suggesting improvements and evaluating potential solutions. Their experience with both the daily work and the strategic goals of the organization will be invaluable.
  • Before hiring for new positions to fill gaps, assess existing talent for their interest and ability to take them on. These new positions could be opportunities for professional development and advancement.
  • Define the most critical functions of each role, and hire people who are skilled in those functions. Strong Women, Strong Girls discovered that because they had not had internal clarity on this, they had trouble finding candidates who had all of the skills that they expected.
  • Organizations should carefully consider the tradeoffs of time and money that they are willing to make. Nonprofit leaders are often drawn to hiring staff early in their careers because the salary needed to attract them will be lower. However, the additional time required to train and support less experienced staff, and the high turnover typical of early-career employees, means that the cost of taking this route could ultimately be just as costly.
  • If possible, test changes to roles and staffing structures and evaluate the results. Strong Women, Strong Girls found ways to test their assumptions before making any long term decisions, which will enable them to make course corrections before rolling out a new staffing plan.

Strong Women, Strong Girls now has a plan for its staffing that will prevent staff burnout, enable it to expand its programs at its current branches, and ultimately to add more branches in new cities. Thanks to forethought and planning, the organization will be primed for high performance and expanding social impact.

Allison Mirkin is a Research Associate for Root Cause Consulting.

$30 gives college mentors the tools needed to be role models.