Strict Job Descriptions or Fluid Roles? Nonprofits Experiment with Job Evolution

By Kamran Khavarani (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

December 6, 2017; 97.9 FM–WXEF (Effingham, IL)

A simple announcement of two role changes at the Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation reveals an important trend in human resources: as long as staff is fully engaged in the whole of the general mission work of an organization, roles can change fluidly alongside the organization’s evolution. This practice has always existed in small, young nonprofits, but it also works for larger organizations, and the research indicates that it aids in making good outcomes for both organizations and employees.

Joedy Hightower, the president/CEO of the Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation, which placed an announcement in the local paper declaring two roles had been altered inside of the foundation, says the broadening of two staff members’ roles simply reflects how the nonprofit sector works, but there is more to it than that. Recent research connects flexible labor practices that encourage staff to develop not only mastery in their own realms but also an understanding of how the parts and the whole work integrate and strategically align, with higher productivity and innovation. Flexible work roles also allow organizations more adaptive room without necessarily adding to payroll.

Additionally, in terms of leadership depth, the use of more fluid role descriptions allows workers to expand and share jobs, which creates the redundancy that reduces an organization’s risk of losing a core function. It also allows employees to co-create new ways of doing things because they understand the relationships of how they work together toward the organization’s end goals.

Interestingly, many organizations create flexible labor pools externally, as they work with contracts that meet the exact needs of the organization at any particular time, but many feel less inclined to do so internally. But while external labor flexibility has been found to have negative or mixed consequences for organizational and employee outcomes, internal flexibility practices tend to have more positive outcomes.—Ruth McCambridge