An innovative mindset: If you believe in your employees, set them free

When your small non-profit team is consistently in readjustment mode, how do you keep your employees motivated and inspired to do great work?

In the case of Pillar Nonprofit Network, you give your people opportunities to grow professionally—even if that means they have to take some time away from the organization.

Innovation and flexibility

With only 16 employees, many of them contract- and funding-based, Pillar Nonprofit Network faces constant potential for losing talented staff. Despite this, executive director Michelle Baldwin doesn’t let that get in the way of her employees’ professional development. “When you’re innovative, it makes people’s tolerance for risk and potential failure a little higher,” she explains.

Indeed, being innovative and flexible are integral to Pillar’s organizational culture.

The London-based “Chamber of charities” provides advisory services in innovation, and regularly recognizes excellence in innovation among more than 340 local organizations. It is also headquartered at London’s Innovation Works: a collaborative community of permanent and flexible office spaces for over 130 enterprising non-profits, innovators and social businesses. That mindset spills over into how Pillar treats its own people. For example, Pillar employees work flex hours, allowing them time for family and personal commitments.

An opportunity arises

Pillar also provides a wide range of professional development opportunities for the non-profit sector, its members and staff – including more than 50 workshops and conferences annually.

However, having tailored opportunities that meet the professional growth and leadership potential of each Pillar employee can sometimes require more creativity. For example, last year, Pillar program and event manager Nicole St. John learned of an opportunity with the Urban League of London: a six-month contract as the lead organizer of a major global festival.

“I’d been in the same position at Pillar for eight-and-a-half years, and because of the size of the organization, the opportunity for movement is limited,” Nicole explains. “Michelle knew I needed a shake-up with my role. So I applied for the role and was chosen as the successful candidate. We wrote a letter to Urban League, proposing the idea of a secondment.”

The idea, as well as Nicole’s skill set, was a perfect fit for Urban League. She began her contract in January. Moreover, says Michelle, “Pillar was already a partner on the 100in1Day project and we share co-working space at Innovation Works, so this secondment just takes that relationship and partnership a step further.”

This is the first time Pillar has coordinated a secondment position. Michelle points to secondments being popular in government and business: “They’re great for someone to take on a short-term or long-term project, and then return to their original role with new experience, skills and energy. But it’s not a common thing that’s done in the non-profit sector.

Take a risk, reap the benefits

The 100in1Day festival is an innovative global festival, where participating cities engage in 100 community-based events within one day (June 3). This is the first year London took part.

Nicole’s role is to encourage local businesses, community organizations, non-profits and citizens to hold events celebrating diversity and culture, and that reflect their idea of what a vibrant community means to them.

Nicole says she’s been able to redefine herself in the community, forge new connections, and deepen her skill set.

“Our community is so diverse, and I’m developing relationships with neighbourhoods and groups I’ve never had a chance to meet,” she says. She is also taking her volunteer management skills to a new level. “A volunteer’s investment in whatever campaign you’re running is very different than that of a paid staff member. Through Urban League, I’ve been able to work with many new personalities – it’s been an amazing learning experience for me so far.”

Michelle is equally ecstatic for Nicole, as well as for Pillar and Urban League. “For six months, Urban League got someone with all this amazing experience, but Nicole also has a safety net to come back to. Meanwhile, Pillar doesn’t have to lose a really fantastic staff member—and we get to benefit from all her new skills!”

A whole new appreciation

In July, Nicole returned to Pillar.

“I’m already passionate about what I do at Pillar—but I’m looking forward to being back with a fresh perspective,” she says. “I used to live in Vancouver, and after a while you stop seeing the mountains. You only notice them when people visit and say ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ I’m excited to see the ‘mountains’ again in my job.”

Meanwhile, Michelle is pleased to see how the secondment worked out. “I was never worried about what this would mean for Pillar – that we might lose Nicole,” says Michelle. “By empowering employees like Nicole to take risks, this makes us individually and collectively more successful.”

“Not many people are so lucky to have this kind of support from their organization and executive director—I can’t express how much I appreciate Michelle for recognizing the value in doing this,” adds Nicole. “I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity, and I know it’ll be a win-win all around!”

This nonprofit HR innovation story series is made possible thanks to a partnership between Community Foundations of Canada, HRcouncil.ca and family foundation Ignite NPS. Together we are supporting Canada’s nonprofit sector by highlighting stories of HR innovation and promising practices taking place in community organizations across the country. 

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