Allison Torres Burtka
Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
It seems as though everyone is hiring these days, and talented professionals have abundant job opportunities. Amid heightened competition for talent, smart associations are adjusting their recruitment strategies, increasing their focus on retaining the staff they have, and looking at new ways to harness an effective team—even if everyone isn’t on the payroll.
The news from the Department of Labor in May that the unemployment rate in the U.S. had dipped to 3.9 percent—the lowest since 2000 and well below the 5 percent that many economists consider full employment—probably came as no surprise to Tracy Hollamon, PRC.
“This is definitely the hardest market I’ve seen in 20 years,” says Hollamon, senior recruitment specialist at the American Society of Anesthesiologists.
ASA is getting plenty of applicants for openings, she says, but often they’re not the right ones for the roles. And when strong candidates do apply, there’s no time to waste. In recruitment kickoff meetings with hiring managers, “I let them know what I’m experiencing with the market, that candidates are moving very quickly through the process, that they’re being considered for multiple opportunities, and that we really need to move swiftly,” she says.
Associations are accustomed to being at a recruitment disadvantage in competing against for-profit employers with bigger salary budgets, a hurdle that may be even harder to clear now. But often, they can draw new talent with appealing benefits, good work-life balance, flexible work options, and mission-driven work.
Before any conversation about salary and perks, though, the recruiting process should include communicating an accurate picture of the association “to give the candidates an idea of what they’re walking into,” advises Jackie Eder-Van Hook, Ph.D., president of Transition Management Consulting, Inc. “The more clarity you can provide to the candidates about the role, responsibilities, authorities, and culture, the more likely they are to be interested in your position.”
It also helps to be crystal clear about your needs and to adopt a more flexible mindset about staffing. This requires “revisiting job descriptions and job models often,” says Aaron Wolowiec, CEO of the consulting firm Event Garde. Many associations develop an organization chart and stick to it, so they lack “flexibility to reconsider and reevaluate and morph to the needs of the organization and the industry. Those days need to be over if we’re going to remain competitive.”
In the current climate, “organizations have to get more innovative, but first they have to have a reputation as a good place to work,” says Barbara Mitchell, a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR. “What are people saying about the organization on Glassdoor?” If it’s not good, you have to clean up your act, she says.
Are your current employees happy? If so, the reasons they’re happy may attract new candidates. “This sounds so simple, but it can be profound: Talk to your current employees about why they stay with you,” Mitchell says. “Most organizations do exit interviews when people leave, but most don’t do ‘stay’ interviews.” If you ask what keeps employees at your association, “sometimes you learn something you can build on.”
Often, this is where mission comes in. People “want to work for an organization that they’re proud of,” Mitchell says. Associations that are service-oriented—in their mission and their own volunteer activities—are poised to offer that. “Belonging to something is more important as the world becomes more disconnected,” she says.
ASA has launched an initiative to build its brand for recruiting purposes, including creating fresh messaging for recruitment brochures and creating new social media accounts geared specifically toward working at ASA—for employees and potential employees. When they post about an employee event, employees share it with family and friends, who then learn a little about the association and its culture.
“As a recruiter, you have to be more of a marketer these days,” Hollamon says.
As a recruiter, you have to be more of a marketer these days.
—Tracy Hollamon, American Society of Anesthesiologists
Rethinking recruitment tactics is only part of the answer, however. As recruitment becomes more difficult, retention becomes more important.
Associations are focusing more on “talent sustainability,” says Patricia Hampton, CSP, vice president and managing partner of Nonprofit HR. “They are looking at developing that professional from day one—and what their career track looks like in the organization.”
She explains, “The organization has to care about the development of an individual in order to keep them engaged. No longer do you just stick to what the job description’s talking about. It goes a little bit deeper than that.”
Eder-Van Hook agrees. “Creating opportunities for people to advance in the organization is probably the number-one way you’re going to get people to stay in an organization,” she says. But if they leave, and you have built a strong culture, “those people will help you find new people to recruit.”
Executive coaching is one facet of professional development, but it’s usually reserved for the senior team. Tiffany Adams, president of T. Adams Consulting, LLC, says she sees benefits in coaching other staff as well: “It helps them get some clarity on their careers and where they can grow and flourish in the organization.” She says she knows of one large trade association that offers this kind of coaching to everyone who reaches a certain level in the association’s staff structure.
“If you strengthen the individual, you strengthen the organization,” Adams says. And if you do help an employee grow, “when they leave for a bigger position at another association, they’ll become an ambassador for you.”
Many associations have been restructuring their work and their teams, either to deal with leaner staff or to improve efficiency—or both.
Some changes involve collaboration among people who normally work separately. “In the for-profit sector, I see a lot more cross-functional teams, and I think nonprofits could probably do more of that,” Mitchell says. Bringing together people from different departments allows them to get to know each other better, generates new ideas, and “can also energize people.”
Some large nonprofits and trade associations are encouraging collaboration by downsizing their space to make it more open, Hampton notes. This way, “you can just pull your chair around and collaborate with a colleague,” she says. “They’re trying to do a better job at shifting the culture internally, especially with all that’s happening around harassment these days.”
Sometimes, not even the CEO or the HR director has an office, she adds. When people need private spaces for conversations or calls, they use conference rooms or tiny phone-booth-type rooms.
Shifting how the work gets done may also involve bringing in nonemployees. The 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report, published by Deloitte, notes that more than 40 percent of workers in the U.S. are employed in “alternative work arrangements,” such as contingent, part-time, and gig work. This type of work has increased by 36 percent in the past five years and is expected to grow further. In fact, ASAE’s wide-ranging environmental-scanning research initiative, ASAE ForesightWorks, identified “New Forms of Work” as a major driver of change affecting associations.
The challenge is that you’re trying to find people who have these complete sets of skills.
—Jeannette Stawski, Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education
The Deloitte report suggests that “the traditional employer-employee relationship is being replaced by the emergence of a diverse workforce ecosystem—a varied portfolio of workers, talent networks, gig workers, and service providers that offers employers flexibility, capabilities, and the potential for exploring different economic models in sourcing talent.”
Associations are using freelancers and consultants in new ways. More often, associations “are looking at comprehensive consulting options that provide a full spectrum of services that they can’t necessarily afford on their own,” Wolowiec says. For example, if the association has $30,000, it’s probably not enough to hire a full-time employee, and securing part-time staff can be difficult. So more associations are relying on consulting firms to provide a variety of services together—not just one project or function, he says.
For Jeannette Stawski, executive director of the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education and its only salaried employee, outsourcing has become an important solution to getting AORE’s work done. In the last several years, she has had different combinations of one or two full-time or part-time staff, along with contract and freelance help.
When hiring in a small association, “the challenge is that you’re trying to find people who have these complete sets of skills,” she says. “For example: ‘Hey, you’re going to be in charge of administrative work and operations work and a database and a website. You need to be a good writer, and it would be great if you could do some public speaking, as well as take out the recycling.’”
The person with that resume is hard to find. So Stawski turned to Wolowiec’s Event Garde to gain access to a range of specialists. The niche expertise is valuable, she says. With event management, for example, the company “is bringing knowledge that is beyond the scope of AORE. So this professional is talking to me about industry trends and what’s coming down the pike and what’s new in risk management for the venue”—information AORE wouldn’t have otherwise.
Adopting new ways of doing business can be scary, but new challenges often call for change. “I’m willing to take the risk because I think the reward is going to help serve the members,” Stawski says. “If you’re trying to maintain the status quo as an association, you’re going to become irrelevant.”