Besty DeVos’s nomination to the position of secretary of education sparked unprecedented controversy and heated opposition. While supporters of President Trump’s nomination believe she will bring a fresh perspective to the Department of Education and promote needed change, many groups and individuals protested her views on school choice and lack of professional experience in education and policy. Her recent confirmation now leaves many education nonprofits across the country unsure of what lies ahead.
During the confirmation process, DeVos only offered general statements about her goals and plans. Aside from her controversial support of school choice, as evidenced by her advocacy work and donations to groups that promote the issue, we don’t yet have concrete answers about what DeVos aims to accomplish in her newly appointed role or how it will impact the nonprofit sector, but we can make some educated assumptions.
DeVos’s impact on the nonprofit sector: what to expect
Prior to her nomination, DeVos served as chair of American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization that supports publicly funded charter schools and programs that provide families with funds towards private school tuition, including vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs. So it’s no surprise that she has praised Trump’s proposal to spend $20 billion in federal funds to encourage states to increase vouchers. But critics of such voucher programs have raised concerns about accountability, accreditation, discrimination, segregation, and health and safety regulations—issues that intersect with the missions of many education nonprofits. DeVos’s support of school choice was the hot button issue during her nomination and confirmation, and many feel it made her the most controversial secretary of education nominee of all time.
DeVos has been less clear on her views and vision for higher education. She clearly opposes regulation in K-12 education, and the Trump administration’s creation of a task force to review current federal regulations for higher education indicates that deregulation of higher ed will also be a priority. For nonprofits that work with higher education institutions, a move toward deregulation could be a troubling outcome, as it would remove some existing protections and could give priority to for-profit colleges.
In times of uncertainty like these, it’s more crucial than ever for organizations to prioritize talent. No other factor plays a greater role in mission advancement and impact. And to position their teams to succeed, leaders need to establish an even stronger sense of stability and mission focus.
Why prioritizing talent matters in times of uncertainty
Talent is every organization’s most valuable asset. In times of significant change and challenge, nonprofit employees are likely to go in one of two directions: they will either become more convicted in the importance of their work and its contribution to their organization’s mission, or they will become fearful, uncertain and unfocused. Leadership plays a critical role in directing employees down the more productive, positive and proactive of those two paths.
For education nonprofits, the impact of effective change management and talent investment extends far beyond organizations themselves and into the larger education system and our society as a whole. The ultimate goal of most nonprofits in the education space is to ensure that students have access to and receive a high-quality education so they can go on to become future leaders, community builders, change agents and contributors. Nonprofit leaders have a responsibility to put their organizations in a position of strength in times of change in order to see this important purpose through, and they can’t do so without an engaged and empowered workforce.
A deeper focus on talent—through prioritizing fair, market-based compensation practices and the development of teachers and other leaders within the educational system—also has the power to elevate the U.S. from a global perspective, especially in areas like math and science where we have fallen behind.The impact of an individual teacher or school may be limited to a single community, but a strong, well-resourced and innovative education system supported by top performing talent truly impacts all of us on local, state and national levels.
How to lead now
If you’re charged with the important task of leading an education nonprofit through this time of uncertainty, it’s crucial to instill confidence that your organization will come out on the other side stronger than ever. Small yet intentional actions can have an incredible impact during unstable times. Here are several steps you can take now to lead your team through the changes that lie ahead:
Be clear about your organization’s employee value proposition.
Why should someone consider working for your education-related organization during this season of uncertainty? What aspects of your nonprofit serve as compelling reasons for someone to choose your organization above another? Research tells us that the American workforce is currently comprised of more Millennials than ever before with professionals between the ages of 22-36 now making up more than 50% of the workforce. Your ability to continue to attract top talent during this period of change must be both clear and compelling. Don’t ignore the passion factor when selling your organization and its new career opportunities. Speak to prospective job seekers in a way that will resonate with their desire to contribute the the learning of students and to the importance of education in America. Pay attention to the messages being communicated on your website, through social and in other online spaces about your organization and how it contributes to the education of young people (or whoever you might be focused on educating). Don’t be afraid to
Focus on engagement.
The temptation for teachers and other education professionals to consider other options during what might be a difficult time, should be a major consideration of your talent management strategy. What elements of the workplace are negatively impacting teachers’ and other’s abilities to teach effectively? What components of your organization’s culture support effective student learning and professional engagement for teachers? Know what they are. Celebrate those elements of the culture and emphasize the intangible benefits of working with your organization and in the education sector.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
When people are unsure about the future, it creates an environment in which rumors and speculation can run rampant. Honest, open and frequent communication from leadership is crucial. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until you have all the answers to address the impact that changes in education policy could have on your organization. If you haven’t already, hold an organization-wide meeting to address expected changes, establish your organization’s current position and most importantly, reinforce focus on your mission. Then, monitor new policy developments regularly and continue the dialogue through whichever internal communication methods feel most appropriate for your organization as new information becomes available.
Engage people at all levels in coming up with creative solutions to new challenges.
As policy positions begin to emerge in the coming weeks and months, your organization will undoubtedly need to make strategic shifts in the way you deliver services and structure operations. But the decision-making responsibility around these changes shouldn’t lie squarely on the shoulders of your leadership team. Instead, engage talent at all levels in proactive planning and strategy sessions. This is a time to look at changes and challenges as opportunities—and encourage your team to do the same. The more you engage your staff in decision and solution-making now, the better they’ll respond to change in the future.
Utilize your network and build bridges.
It’s natural feel isolated or turn inward when things seem uncertain. But rather than simply putting your head down and ploughing forward, remember that you’re not alone in this time of uncertainty. It’s likely that other nonprofits are facing roadblocks similar to your own. There has never been a better time to reach out and collaborate with organizations that have complementary missions and mindsets to share resources, information and strategies.
Remember that money does matter.
We like to say that money doesn’t matter in the nonprofit sector. That people do the work and connect themselves to organizations that they are passionate about. While true, leaders cannot ignore the compensation factor and the importance of paying fair, competitive wages as a strategy for attracting talent. It is critical to understand the importance of pay and benefits in the mind of the job seeker. Earning livable (and more than livable) wages, having access to employee benefits, and enjoying the work that staff do and who they do it with are all key parts of the hiring decision. Know your organization’s position in the marketplace from a total rewards standpoint. Benchmark your pay and benefits programs and leverage your organization’s total compensation position as part of the recruitment process.
As time goes on, we will all learn more about DeVos’s plans and impact. Some education nonprofits might find a DeVos and Trump administration to be advantageous for their missions, while for others, it will create unprecedented challenges. Even if you organization falls into this second camp, you can’t allow your mission to suffer. Just as you likely have for years, now more than ever, you must find ways to adapt for the sake of the students, communities and causes you serve. Strong leadership and an investment in talent will position your organization to not only survive but thrive during this time of change.