SHRM Chapter Matches NYC Nonprofits with HR Volunteers

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 19, 2011

By developing a sick-time policy, updating an employee handbook, and creating and implementing an HR department, a New York City Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter is lending a helping hand to nonprofit agencies in the Big Apple.

Through its 2010 Pinnacle Award-winning program, HR-Providing Resources to Organizations (HR-PRO), HR/NY chapter members serve as volunteer consultants to nonprofit agencies hard hit by the recession.

The program gives members who have been laid off during the recession an opportunity to keep their skills sharp while helping out organizations that often lack an HR professional on staff, according to chapter president Jennifer C. Loftus, SPHR-CA, GPHR. She is national director at Astron Solutions in New York City.

The agencies they assist provide community services such as child welfare services, senior care and support for AIDS patients, homeless adults and homeless children.

“For many nonprofits, HR is a luxury or an afterthought, particularly when [agency] funding relies on uncertain grant money,” Loftus pointed out in the chapter’s Pinnacle Award application.

HR/NY was one of nine chapters and two state councils to win the national competition; SHRM announced the winners during its Leadership Conference in November 2010.

“At these organizations, approaches for addressing what HR professionals consider HR issues typically include everyone’s ‘best judgment’ or ‘common sense’ rather than strategic, careful thought,” she noted in the application.

One chapter member worked with the manager of an agency to spearhead the creation and implementation of a professional HR department. The agency employed a number of part-time employees and an HR manager with no professional training. After working with the consultant for 16 months, Loftus said, the HR manager is comfortable working on her own.

Another volunteer worked with an agency that was closing for lack of funding. Although the agency was working with several attorneys, none had informed the agency’s executive director about the federal and state Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, according to Loftus. The HR consultant put the executive director in touch with the U.S. Department of Labor. Working with the federal government, the local agency was able to avoid major penalties, she noted.

Working as HR consultants, volunteers also helped:

  • Develop employee handbooks.
  • Develop a sick-time policy.
  • Design benefits programs.
  • Determine employee status under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • Review performance management processes and forms.
  • Provide training on group management techniques to support teamwork.
  • Assist one agency with its merger with another agency while helping remaining employees deal with the reduction in staff.

Getting Started

The idea originated with chapter board member Barbara Adolf, a business owner who had worked with the Federation Protestant Welfare Agencies(FPWA), an umbrella group of New York City-based social service nonprofits. Through her work she became aware of their struggle with complex HR issues; the economic downturn exacerbated these struggles, according to Loftus.

“Within our chapter we were sensing we needed to do something more, something broader to help not only our members but the greater community,” Loftus said, noting the impact the recession had on many nonprofits.

“When we think about the needs of our local community, we think of some of the more visible things like homelessness, hunger—and HR doesn’t always come to mind,” she added.

“When budgets were cut, what department was cut first? HR, especially in a small organization,” Loftus pointed out. However, “HR impacts everything in the employment relationship, whether management sees the value of that. We didn’t want to see bad things happen,” such as noncompliance with the law or a loss of talent “because these organizations had scaled back on their internal HR.”

With the board’s approval for her idea, Adolf spread the word about the program at the chapter’s various events. Her networking resulted in the creation of a five-member committee, which:

  • Developed a mission statement.
  • Developed a process for working with participating agencies.
  • Developed operating protocols.
  • Developed program materials and plans such as agency and consultant profiles, a work-plan agreement, tracking spreadsheets, and agency and consultant feedback forms.
  • Researched efforts of other SHRM chapters, such as the Human Resources Management Association of Greater New Orleans, to learn about performing volunteer work in the nonprofit community.

Additionally, the chapter’s general counsel developed and reviewed the draft work plan agreement for each client agency to avoid potential liability to the chapter.

The committee then created a program model that consisted of one-on-one consulting assignments based on an agency’s needs and consultants’ experience and interests. The model included performing regular follow-up with the agencies and the consultants, and conducting general workshops touching on issues for all the agencies in the chapter’s program.

Workshop topics were based on issues the consultants observed at the agencies where they volunteered, requests from participating agencies, and suggestions from the head of FPWA. The first workshop, in 2009, was “Downsizing: Human Resources Challenges, Issues and Answers.” Two workshops in 2010 dealt with employee issues such as critical benefits.

Loftus urged other HR chapters considering such a program not to “be afraid at what might seem to be a daunting challenge.”

It took two to three months for the chapter to create the program and about 10 to15 hours per week for the program’s setup. Time commitment for volunteer consultants varied, depending on the client’s need and the consultant’s availability. Initially, most volunteers were members who were out of work. Twenty-five agencies participated the first year; in 2011 there are 34 agencies receiving assistance.

Entering its third year, the program has grown from five to 30 participating chapter members since winning the Pinnacle Award, Loftus said. It has become a marketing tool to attract chapter members.

Additionally, initial participants were able to add experience to their resume and the program helped participants develop an appreciation for HR among participating agencies.

“Their eyes have been opened,” Loftus said, noting survey comments that showed a realization that HR is a strategic component of their operations that needs to be maintained or increased.

“It was a thrilling venture, and we’re glad the program is building even more momentum,” she said. Not only is it a program that helps the individual and the chapter to grow, she said, “but you’re influencing organizations and the lives of those employees that are there. That’s the best part of HR … that we impact so many people every day.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

Related resource:

Successful Practice Showcase Webinar Series, SHRM Volunteer Resources

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