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Spotlight on Humanitarian Work Psychology: Introducing I-O to Nonprofits

Morrie Mullins, Xavier University, and Shujaat Ahmed, Illinois Institute of Technology

One of our favorite sessions from the 2017 SIOP conference was a panel discussion about prosocial I-O.  Despite being toward the end of the program, the session was well-attended, and the audience members were very engaged as the panelists discussed the work they’d done with various organizations.  However, there are very few sessions that get scheduled in a room big enough to hold all of SIOP’s members, and the experiences the panelists described in working with nonprofits were interesting enough that we wanted to build on their discussion in this issue’s TIP offering.

As such, we’re pleased to introduce Holly Payne (Gartner), Don Scott (Development Dimensions International/DDI), and Doug Wolf (Select International).  They bring a wealth of experience in terms of volunteering with nonprofits and using I-O in prosocial endeavors, and we thought you would find both their experience and their thoughts about prosocial I-O, and how to communicate what I-O is to organizations you may end up volunteering with, useful.  We certainly did!

Thank you all for agreeing to do this!  To start things off, how did you get involved with nonprofit work?

Holly:  I’ve always enjoyed volunteering.  Throughout my life I have volunteered with community, civic, and religious organizations.  For example, during the 2010 recession, I was invited to provide behavioral interview coaching to job seekers within Atlanta.  It was a very natural way to leverage my skills, and it provided tremendous benefit to my local community.  While we may be rather immersed in topics such as behavioral interviewing, we might forget that many people have had little exposure to it, and the opportunity to learn and practice interviewing skills can have a huge impact on an individual’s ability to secure employment.  Seeing that in action changed the way I think about I-O at work and beyond.


That experience along with several other very rewarding undertakings propelled me to submit a session to the 2017 SIOP conference on the topic of using I-O skills to help nonprofit organizations and the individuals they serve.  I fervently believe that we each can make a positive contribution in this way, and it was exciting to see the very good works of the panelists and the interest of the audience.  Many people want to get involved but just don't yet know how.  Recently, I found an opportunity with VPA (Volunteer Program Assessment).  Through the program, I've met a number of wonderful people and had the opportunity to provide pro bono consulting for animal shelters.  For instance, in my work with the Humane Society, a survey was launched to gather input from their volunteer workforce, arguably the lifeblood of this nonprofit.  Based on the data, I identified the organization’s particular areas of strength and areas for improvement within the context of a large set of benchmarking data provided by the VPA survey.  My discussion with the Humane Society leadership team focused on how to leverage the survey results to create initiatives that drive volunteer engagement and commitment and align with their overall organizational strategy.


Don:  My involvement has been through two organizations that to which I have long been associated.  The first is Ingomar United Methodist Church, where my wife and I have been members for over 15 years and my children are active members as well.  The second is Pittsburgh YMCA Deer Valley Family Camp, where I have camped nearly my entire life with my extended family and was a staff member while an undergraduate.  In both cases, familiarity with the organizations leadership and abundance of opportunities to improve the organizations through talent management lead to me being invited to help. DDI’s capabilities across the I-O spectrum and strong support for volunteerism greatly enable and aid my volunteer efforts.


Doug:  Select International’s foray into the type of nonprofit work that utilizes our I-O knowledge came through an employee. An acquaintance of the employee taught at high school attended by at-risk students. This was the place where public schools sent (i.e., separated) the disruptive students. Frustrated by the students’ lack of employment prospects upon graduation, Select’s employee examined if there was anything Select could do. We offered our expertise in employee selection to coach the students how to prepare for job interviews.


This was an interesting departure for Select International. We worked on the employer side, helping companies discern which candidates to screen in and screen out. Working with this high school, we were flipping that model. It took a little effort, but we developed a model that worked.


We went into the classroom and taught the students how to prepare for a corporate interview. We coached them what to say and what not to say. Without delving into any judgments about socioeconomic challenges and the like, we found the students’ perceptions on such basic things as arriving on time and not eating or drinking during the interview to be as shocking as it was amusing. In addition to interview preparation, we covered resumé-writing skills, how to dress, and so on. Then, over the course of a few weeks, we’d conduct mock interviews. The students were interviewed by Select International consultants. In addition to the valuable practice it provided, the students were given feedback on their performance and tips to improve.


We’ve since applied this same model to other organizations beyond this initial high school that also cater to disadvantaged youth and to schools serving students with disabilities.


Most uniquely, we recently used our test development expertise to partner with a nonprofit benefiting children on the autism spectrum. We created game-like assessments to reveal autistic children’s potential. The assessment games are designed to measure Gardner’s different type of intelligences. Using information from O*NET, the results are mapped to potential career choices for which the child may be suited.


All in all, it’s been a rewarding experience for the receivers as well as the givers.

Given that you’ve all come at this kind of work from unique perspectives, how would you recommend approaching nonprofits about partnering?  

Don:  First off, I recommend getting involved in organizations that matter to you and have a mission statement that you passionately believe in.  Many organizations are not likely posting “I-O Help Wanted” signs, but they are typically looking for all kinds of volunteers.  Some of those volunteer positions might be related to I-O, but I believe that volunteering in any capacity is a great way to start.  Such “non-I-O” volunteering gives you the opportunity to better understand the inner workings of the organization, connect with the organization’s leadership, and identify where it might benefit from I-O consulting and services.  It has been my experience that prosocial organizations are rife with opportunities for improved talent management practices.  As those I-O related opportunities come into focus, make a pitch to provide services and explain the improved outcomes that will result.  Don’t be surprised that you will likely have to put significant effort into selling your services (e.g., PowerPoint presentation).  Once you have provided such a service, and created positive outcomes, chances are very high you will be asked to do more and might someday find that you are in greater demand than you ever expected.  This is one of the reasons I strongly recommend that you are highly motivated by and strongly aligned with the organization’s mission.

Doug:  When you hear a need, there are two very important things to keep in mind and make clear. First, explore the need and propose how you might be able to help. Second, explain the limits of what you can offer or achieve.


Nonprofits are underfunded and understaffed and typically eager to receive help. They are eager for you to solve a problem they may have. Understandably, there is a temptation to think that you will solve the entire problem when we really you are only able to solve just a piece of it. Therefore, expectation-setting is critical to a successful relationship.


As an example, in the case of coaching students to interview better, we were clear that we were only helping the students prepare for a job interview. We were not helping them find a job.

Holly:  In my experience, a partnership works best when there is a specific organizational challenge that we, as I-Os, can help address.  Opportunities are everywhere.  Often people in your network, personal or professional, will be aware of nonprofits that have needs.  Consider starting a conversation with a contact at a nonprofit by simply trying to get to know the organization.  Especially in nonprofit organizations, it seems people are likely to mention some pain points.  If one of these is something I-O can help with, there is an opening to mention an approach or a process that you are knowledgeable of.  It is helpful to be able to say you've previously implemented a similar solution or otherwise build credibility, just as you would with your paying clients.  Sometimes this is a natural place to mention your background in I-O.  Other times it might be best to keep the focus on explaining the benefits the nonprofit could expect when implementing the proposed solution.  Think about different areas of I-O work (e.g., workforce surveys, selection, development).  These areas are all at play in nonprofits and each is a place where I-Os can potentially lend their experience to help.

When it comes to I-O in particular, how do you explain who and what we are, and communicate our value added? 

Don:  For my recommended approach above, it is less about selling what I-O is but selling the organization on a specific positive outcome (or solving a specific talent management issue).  Part of that sales job is bringing the organization to understand what benefits to expect and the evidence you have that the approach you want to take will lead to those outcomes.  After citing such evidence might be an ideal time to explain evidence-based talent management practices and the field of industrial-organizational psychology.

Holly:  I usually mention the value of a specific solution and reference previous work I've done where a similar solution was effective.  When it comes to talking about I-O, again, I usually discuss it in terms of the solution I've suggested.  For instance, if I’ve suggested an employee survey, I might say that in I-O we frequently survey employees at all levels to understand their jobs or how they work with each other.  I might explain that I-O is the application of psychology to workplace issues, so we are well positioned to conduct surveys that help leaders understand their employees’ attitudes and motivations.  I don’t use I-O to persuade a nonprofit but rather mention it near the end of the conversation as a final point of building credibility and confidence in the proposed work.

Doug:  Interesting question. We don’t find that we must explain the additional value we provide. For what we are doing, the value our expertise provides is clear. Perhaps for others doing other types of I-O consultative work, the situation is different.

Thank you for that, I’m sure our readers will find those ideas very helpful.  Changing gears a little, what do you see as the major benefits that come from working with nonprofits?

Doug:  The obvious and accurate reply is that we make a small, positive impact on someone’s life who needs it. At the initial intervention, you get the immediate smiles and see the appreciation when someone learns something they didn’t know that will benefit them later. Occasionally, you hear from someone that what you shared helped them land a job they interviewed for. When that happens, it’s truly special. It’s like someone touched your heart with a magic wand.


The other benefit Select International derives from our work with nonprofits is employee satisfaction and engagement. At Select, we have a committee called Select Cares. Giving back is woven into the fabric of our company culture. The team of employees comprising the Select Cares committee direct all our pro-bono and charitable work. The company apportions them a budget. Whether it be on purchasing school supplies or matching funds donated on a charity walk/run, this team decides how we spend it. They also coordinate our consulting efforts, for delivering the work we do with nonprofits. The Select Cares committee is one of the most popular committees at Select International.

Holly:  It can be very satisfying to know you are helping an important cause.  Typically nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers to help them reach their mission.  Therefore, they tend to appreciate the time and effort given in a way that might be different from our I-O clients.  There can also be opportunities to try things you would not attempt with paying clients.  This can provide the opportunity to round out skill sets or reveal interests you did not know you had.

Don:  For me, there are two.  Primarily, I receive great satisfaction from helping the organizations I work achieve their missions, which results in improved lives for both my local community and for underprivileged people throughout the world.  Secondly, I have been able to “practice” in several areas of I-O psychology, such as organizational development, leadership training, and performance management, that I otherwise would not have had the opportunity in my daytime job that focuses on assessment and selection.

What have you found to be some of the key challenges related to working with nonprofits?

Holly:  One of the primary differences is often timing.  There may not be the same urgency to complete projects.  Additionally, depending on the type of work you’re doing, you may find that you’re completing more aspects of the project than you might typically.  For instance, if you work as part of a team in your I-O job, when volunteering at a nonprofit, you may complete some of the work that your team members typically would.  Such a situation calls for flexibility and learning agility.

Don:  As previously mentioned, selling is one hurdle.  After getting established, the amount of talent management issues and opportunities can be plentiful, perhaps overwhelming, and providing solutions that have a lasting impact can be very time consuming and require ongoing support.  When working with other volunteers, some will miss deadlines; provide a positive role model and meet the commitments you make.  If you want to have an impact, be prepared to put a lot into it.  

Doug:  I mentioned expectation-setting previously. I will mention it again. The experience is much more rewarding and successful if both parties understand what your efforts will achieve and the limits to what you will not achieve or are simply not able to do.


You must be prepared to deal with the nonprofits’ disorganization and seeming lack of involvement. This goes hand-in-hand with expectation setting. You need to acknowledge and accept that nonprofits are not run like typical businesses. Sticking to timelines and schedules and being responsive may be important to you, because that’s what your corporate clients may expect; but don’t expect it to have the same importance for nonprofits. You may, rightly, wonder how the organization gets anything done; but bite your tongue, holster your constructive criticism, and roll with whatever comes your way. In sum, be prepared to be adaptable and be prepared to maybe do more than what you were expecting.


Some other challenges we faced are some of the recipients (i.e., students) aren’t interested in receiving what you are giving. We cannot change that in the short time we are interacting with them, so our advice is to concentrate on the ones who are interested in benefiting. Also, when providing consultation to students with disabilities, be aware that privacy rules prevent the organization from revealing what the students’ disabilities are. Again, you need to be prepared to be adaptable and do the best you can.


In conclusion, then…


In talking with three panelists experienced in prosocial work, we have learned a number of things. The opportunities for nonprofit work are endless, and you can utilize your I-O knowledge to make a difference in your local communities, whether it is improving an organization’s talent management practices, developing game-based assessments, providing interview coaching, or something else entirely! The key thing to remember is that when you approach nonprofits about partnering, get involved with events, programs, or organizations that you are passionate about, and take some time to propose how exactly you could help them. Assisting nonprofits can have a positive influence on everyone involved: It can make them appreciative of our efforts, and it can most likely bring more business opportunities our way. There are also key challenges when working with nonprofits. Timing can be an issue in completing projects; selling your services can be a hurdle in and of itself. It is important to set expectations and indicate what you can do and what you can’t do.


We would like to thank our panelists for sharing their wisdom and experiences in this important I-O domain. We hope readers find inspiration from this column, and are moved to working with non-profits. Please contact us if you have any questions or comments regarding this column or HWP, we’d love to hear from you!  Feel free to reach out to us directly (sahmed22@iit.edu or mullins@xavier.edu) or through the GOHWP web page.


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