Hiring for the long haul at a multi-site organization

Not everyone works well in a decentralized environment—many people need workplace interaction, like that Monday morning water cooler conversation. While this can narrow the window of interested and qualified candidates, the good news is that there are some very specific personality traits that you can look for in potential hires. Even better: select the right candidate, and your retention rates can soar. Mark Singleton, Executive Director of American Whitewater (AW), an organization dedicated to conserving and restoring America's whitewater resources, and enhancing opportunities to enjoy them safely, has experienced first-hand the positive effects of hiring right for a decentralized nonprofit. In fact, many of American Whitewater’s employees, farmed across the country, remain with the organization some ten years after being hired. That’s miles above the sector’s 2016 turnover rate of 19 percent.

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Singleton attributes his hiring success first to selecting, and sometimes recruiting, individuals who sit toward the top of his engagement pyramid—a model with tiers that represent a person's current involvement with the organization.

“At the base of the pyramid are people who generally support American Whitewater, but are largely unaware of what projects are taking place,” said Singleton. “The next tier up includes people who are slightly more engaged, perhaps because they have filed comments or shown public support. Above that are people who support AW through membership or volunteering. The top two tiers consist of major donors and board members.”

The higher a candidate sits on the pyramid, the more knowledgeable and passionate they tend to be about what’s happening at AW, and the more likely they are to succeed in a position with the organization—especially when working remotely.

Equally important is a candidate’s ability to self-motivate and work independently.

“These are people who thrive when given the freedom and flexibility to carry out their own programs,” said Singleton.

Another factor Singleton considers is whether or not candidates are familiar with local policies, players, and other nuances. This colloquial knowledge is necessary to become recognized and sought out as a local expert. Additionally, candidates with established relationships or networks in the region have an advantage when building awareness and support.

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Keeping a hire for the long haul

Not all management styles work well in a decentralized environment. Managing a multi-site, decentralized organization requires a high degree of trust, and confidence that your people will make the right decisions. As Singleton described it, “Sometimes you’ve got to be out of control to be in control.” He deploys a bottom-up management style, where staff are encouraged to come up with the steps needed to reach agreed-upon milestones. This approach can be hard for some managers to get their heads around, but Singleton has found that giving staff autonomy is crucial for improving tenure.   

By providing a space for employees to work autonomously, said Singleton, they are able to build mastery in specific skills. Consider a typical project at AW, advocating for river flows below hydropower units:

“There’s a lot of mastery that comes with explaining why flows in rivers impacted by hydropower operations are important to Congress, especially for fish and kayakers” said Singleton.

That type of specific mastery is usually developed over long periods of time, but once achieved, it provides staff a true measure of fulfillment, boosting employee morale, and resulting in greater retention rates.

Managing this way can also make it easier to avoid tension between national headquarters and local operations. In a Harvard Business Review study, authors Allen Grossman and V. Kasturi Rangan determined that, in a multi-site nonprofit, headquarters should focus on enhancing and sustaining the value of the entire system, while affiliates should work on maximizing their local resources to both enhance their credibility and amplify their voice in the organization.

“The key for management is to develop a governance system that accommodates this tension in a constructive rather than a destructive fashion," said the authors.

Singleton’s approach adheres to this advice, performing all executive functions at their national office in North Carolina, while allowing regional stewardship directors to own their programs and seek support when necessary. This allows each dispersed unit the chance to provide the most value for its specific region.

While there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring and managing decentralized employees, tactics like Singleton’s can help circumvent obstacles in your current process. When getting ready to hire for your multi-site nonprofit, consider assembling your own engagement model, and seek out candidates who are self-motivated, independent workers with local knowledge. Remember to provide them with the space and autonomy necessary to build mastery in specific skillsets, and help subdue tension between sites.

Jenna Ovett is communications coordinator for Work for Good.

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