People Management in The Non-Profit Sector



Non-profit organisations (NPOs) play a very important role in society by building resilience and ensuring that no one is left behind. NPOs also serve as platforms for people to show care and concern, bringing the 3Ps (people, private, public sectors) together, and play an essential role in nation building.

At the centre of all the good work done by NPOs are the people. People in NPOs include (i) the Board (ii) the management team, and (iii) the volunteers. Since people play such an important role in NPOs, how can we nurture them? We can do so by focusing on (i) work, (ii) workforce, and (iii) workplace.

“Work” focuses on the individual – you and me, and in particular, why individuals choose to work in the non-profit sector (Figure 1). “Workforce” focuses on the you and me, as well as the community, making a difference together (Figure 2). “Workplace” is about how NPOs can collaborate and create more value in NPOs’ work (Figure 3). 


“Work” focuses on the individual – you and me, and in particular, why individuals choose to work in the non-profit sector. Different individuals work for different reasons. Therefore, to understand how to manage people, we first need to understand why people are doing what they are doing, and why people want to serve in an NPO. 

Alignment of purpose

Why do people want to join the non-profit sector? Most people choose to serve in NPOs because their inner compass is aligned to the cause of the NPO. For example, youths who are passionate about nature and environmental conservation would like to serve in the Nature Society (Singapore), an NPO dedicated to the appreciation, conservation, study and enjoyment of the natural heritage in Singapore. On the other hand, people who are interested in providing humanitarian aid may like to serve in the Singapore Red Cross.

In managing work for people, we need to ensure that the NPO’s work is aligned to the individual’s purpose. Once this is aligned, one’s passion will continue to burn. On the contrary, if one’s purpose is not aligned to the NPO’s work, passion will diminish and one will no longer feel motivated nor inspired at work. To achieve this alignment, NPOs must ensure that their work remains meaningful and purposeful. Every activity by the NPO must be seen to be supporting the NPO’s mission. NPOs must not lose sight of their mission and what they were set up to do.


No matter why someone decides to work or volunteer in an NPO, the bottom line is, everyone would like to see their work and contribution as being meaningful and impactful. They want to see their efforts and time produce meaningful outcomes. To produce good outcomes, NPOs need to be strategic, and should not run activities in an episodic manner. NPOs need a plan to ensure that their work delivers the greatest impact. For example, besides offering free tuition to children from low-income families, how can we train these children to help others? Besides helping these children with financial issues, how can we also offer opportunities for them to feel valued and dignified? We need to put greater thought into how we design and implement more impactful programmes for our beneficiaries. The biggest impact we are looking to achieve is to preserve the dignity of our beneficiaries. An example of this is found in SPD’s mission statement, which states that SPD does not only help persons with disabilities, it empowers them by “develop(ing) their potential to the fullest so that they can be self-reliant and independent”.

How to do that

How can NPOs organise their work such that it is aligned to their mission and is impactful? NPOs need to train their people, including getting them back to school so as to ensure that they acquire the relevent competencies to shape the NPO. Such skills include system thinking, design thinking and process re-engineering that can help people deeply understand their stakeholders and develop a strong purpose for their work.


“Workforce” focuses on you and me, as well as the community. While work focuses on the needs of the individual contributor, the workforce represents the gathering of like-minded people to form a community that is focused on making a collective difference.

Career pathways

For a workforce to work effectively, we need to create career pathways within the sector so that people and talent can be developed and grown. For example, how can an executive who has worked in a small NPO for a few years move to a larger NPO? – the same goes for a volunteer. Could a dedicated volunteer who provides ad hoc befriending services to the elderly take on a more strategic role as a Board member in the same NPO or other NPOs?

How to do that

It is challenging for one NPO alone to create economies of scale and to implement such a growth structure. We cannot leave it to chance, and we need to synergise and achieve this together as a community of NPOs. We need to implement structures and processes to make it happen. We cannot see each NPO as a separate community or entity. Rather, all NPOs are part of one big family. We need to get a consensus among NPOs in order to move people around and build structures to enable things to move fast for the management and people to visualise retention and growth opportunities.


We often think of the workplace as a physical setting such as an office building. However, we should challenge this thought. The workplace should not be defined by its physical or even digital boundaries. Instead, a workplace should be viewed as the domain where services are provided and impact is delivered. This can be done by working together. To deliver the best service and to make the strongest impact, the workplace should be about managing people to embrace collaborations and innovations.


The workplace of the future must anchor and encourage collaboration and connectivity. We need to create space and opportunities for people (as mentioned in the 3Ps earlier) to come together, such as forming communities of practices and NPO alliances. For example, an elderly senior discharged from hospital requires a group of NPOs working together to provide holistic community care that spans medical escort to rehabilitation, physcial and mental health support. This should be done with a “beneficiary in the centre” mindset.


To achieve this, we need to create collaborative spaces. We need to rethink how our offices could look like; how to bring the volunteers, Board and management team together to build relationships, and share ideas. While Covid-19 has disrupted our lives and how we do things, it also presented us with opportunities to explore new methods of doing things. Covid-19 has shown that we do not need to work in offices; we can still work effectively from home, if we use the right digital tools. We have also moved from physical meeting rooms to online meeting platforms.

While we cannot gather physically in large groups, we should be thankful that technology has allowed us to connect with one another remotely. With the safe-distancing measures in place, NPOs should rethink how they can engage their people. With large physical gatherings disallowed, NPOs should implement new ways for small-group engagements, such as gathering a small group of five volunteers either online or offline to conduct activities for beneficiaries, as opposed to mobilising large groups of volunteers. If small-group programming is implemented strategically, it can be a more effective tool in connecting people. NPOs should continue to adopt digital solutions and online engagement methods to connect people; foster collaborations among people, corporates and community, and co-create more efficient ways of doing things so that we can do more, with lesser time.

How to do that

Collaboration and innovation involve change and organisations should leverage on digitalisation to make this change happen. Change does not happen naturally. On top of having training on design thinking and process re-engingeering, leadership is equally important. We need leaders who dare to change and encourage everyone to innovate and collaborate. This will help foster a deeper sense of “social entrepreneurship” among all staff.


People management in NPOs is about ensuring that the NPO’s work is purposeful and impactful, its workforce has a structure for growth, and its workplace is conducive for collaboration and innovation (Figure 4). Only when we are future ready with these in place will we be able to demand our fair share of talent and continue to retain people in the non-profit sector.

Dr Ang Hak Seng, FCA (Singapore), is Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and Adjunct Professor, Nanyang Technological University.

This article was first published in November 2020 issue of ISCA Journal.