Global HR

How Throwing Out the HR Rule Book Helps This Nonprofit Achieve the Impossible

June 21, 2023
November 7, 2023
Amanda Jackson
Lattice Team

The past three years have left people teams oscillating on a pendulum between company-centric and people-centric values. From the profit-driven priorities of COVID to the retention-focused response to the Great Resignation, HR organisations are suffering from extreme whiplash.

But rather than continuing in this either-or mentality, organisations need to embrace a new way forward: company-people alignment. Businesses don’t have to choose just profit or just people — they can choose both, focusing on impact and the individuals who make it all happen.

Tony Blair Institute (TBI), a nonprofit consulting agency supporting governments around the world, strives for this balance, according to Director of People Operations Iain Morrison. The purpose-driven organisation has grown rapidly in recent years — along the way, it’s managed to deliver on its mission while also bringing forth strategic people programs.

Staying Rooted Through Rapid Nonprofit Growth

Since 2019, the headcount at TBI grew from 200 people to a whopping 750. Morrison is the first to say that keeping people programs stable through that complexity hasn’t been easy. 

As a mission-driven nonprofit, one of the reasons for TBI’s successful growth has been its core organisational values. The values serve as accountability, ensuring everything TBI does ties back to those beliefs.

Senior leadership buy-in has also helped the people team navigate HR challenges. As people leaders know well, the team was seen as transactional, Morrison said, but they proved their worth when others in the organisation were uncertain.

“When we built that trust [with leadership], they listened to us and helped us, worked with us to shape the ambitions and the vision of the organisation,” Morrison said.

The key to balancing growth with bringing people along on the journey was being pragmatic and collaborative, along with staying focused on a clear vision and core beliefs.

Balancing Productivity and People Programs Effectively

In times of uncertainty, many organisations focus on delivery at all costs — often at the expense of people strategy. In Morrison’s experience, where many HR leaders stumble is in trying to gain buy-in based on industry “best practices.” 

People leaders may advise based on what others are doing, apply those universal principles to whatever organisation they’re working in, and assert, ‘This is how it must be done.’ “That isn’t always the best way to win hearts and minds and to get the buy-in of your leaders,” Morrison said. 

When balancing people and productivity, he advised seeking out the “best fit” for the organisation rather than applying an industry standard. Instead of formulating a strategy in a silo and assuming people will hop on board, “you need to bring people along for the journey,” said Morrison.

For nonprofits and for-profit organisations alike, balancing people and profits (or impact) comes down to your organisation’s values. TBI has “North Star” goals, but these broad company-level objectives aren’t just for leaders. “The most junior person in the organisation should have objectives that fit into that chain all the way to the top,” Morrison explained.

When people have meaning in their work and are part of a company-wide purpose, they know they’re delivering value — which ties delivery and a people-centric approach together.

3 HR Strategies that Drive Success for TBI

Morrison relies on three key strategies to drive success for TBI’s people team. 

1. Build the right team first.

Before TBI could achieve the steep headcount growth it’s seen in recent years, the organisation needed to build the right recruitment team first. 

Internally, TBI placed a focus on breaking down barriers between support teams like HR, finance, legal, or IT. Instead, they refer to themselves collectively as “internal operations” and focus on collaboration to avoid the competitive blame game that sometimes occurs when these teams are separate. 

2. Source the right tools.

Recruiting for TBI is no easy task. The people team sources specialists with specific government and NGO experience and tech expertise, and are typically from the country whose government they’ll support. Posting a job ad and hoping for the best rarely cuts it.

Morrison’s team searches proactively, using tech tools that not only help them find candidates and build networks, but tap into the unique culture where they’re recruiting. For example, this could be a WhatsApp group that allows non-natives to better understand local microcultures.

TBI also uses agencies or specialist recruitment tools when needed — particularly in times of high demand and quick turnaround.

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3. Throw out the rule book.

As the organisation’s reputation has snowballed, oftentimes a TBI executive meets with the leader of a country who responds positively and wants to hire TBI right away. 

This places great demand on recruitment to turn around a team for a project within the next month — calling for utmost agility from Morrison and his team. They’re often tasked with finding a solution where one doesn’t seem to exist.

Morrison said his team has two options: They can approach the problem with a rigid, old-school perspective, or they can think outside the box to achieve the impossible. Of course, they choose the latter.

“You have to be very creative and very proactive and really, really work with the organisation to make it a reality,” he said.


This article features ideas from “Balancing Delivery at All Costs with Quality HR Work,” the sixth instalment of our webinar series, For the Love of People. Visit our library of on-demand webinars for more.