How a Not-For-Profit Competes in the War for Talent

BioTalent Canada, a national, independent, not-for-profit association supporting Canada’s Biotechnology sector, conducts labour market research and uses evidence-based criteria to act on skills deficits within Canada’s Biotechnology community. The not-for-profit offers training programs, HR expertise and services to support small businesses in the biotechnology sector.  With a team of just under 20 employees, BioTalent Canada has doubled in size in the last 18 months, and with recent funding commitments in the 2019 Federal budget to training and skills development, this is an organization poised for significant future growth. So how does the small Canadian not-for-profit prepare for growth?

I recently had the opportunity to support BioTalent Canada to deliver their annual employee engagement survey, and I got to see first-hand some of the really interesting and creative approaches the organization has taken to building a compelling Employee Value Proposition (EVP) to attract and retain great employees.  I sat down with Rob Henderson, CEO of BioTalent Canada, to get his insights into the challenges of attracting and retaining great employees as a Not-for-Profit organization and why it’s so important to their growth.


VW:  BioTalent Canada is a bit of a hidden gem here in Ottawa.  Your organization is taking some really interesting and creative approaches to building effective and meaningful employee programs, and I’d like to talk to you about the work that you and your team have done.  What are some of the realities of being a not-for-profit organization?  What does it mean to you to operate as a not-for-profit in today’s market? 

RH:  We have to be honest about who we are and the fact that even though we have products and services that we sell, we’re not revenue-driven or here to make a profit.  We’re not a charity and we’re not a private sector enterprise.  The organizations we serve are private sector enterprises, and commercialization is their objective.  Our job is to help our clients – that’s our core mission.  That’s important outwardly to the industry to let people know who we are, but internally it’s important because the kind of people we want to attract are people that are motivated by that mission.

A lot of non-profits will say it’s hard to stay competitive, but it’s not if you’re comparing yourself to the right organizations.  We want to preach best practices to the organizations we serve by employing them ourselves.  Team building is at our core, as is professional development, and transparency so that employees know exactly what’s going on and how we’re helping the industry, because that’s what motivates us.  The battleground that we wage the war for talent on isn’t the almighty dollar – it’s our mission and values.


VW:  You’ve grown significantly in the last year and a half.  How have you managed to scale, and what’s been the impact of growth on your employee programs?

RH: It’s a lot easier in a small family to make sure everybody gets fed.  The larger the team, the more diverse the set of needs, and the higher the set of demands – more food is required.  That, and the energy expended to make sure that no one is left behind is much greater.  That’s a constant concern because a chain is only as good as its weakest link – you don’t want someone being the weakest link because you haven’t nurtured them because you were too busy growing.  Developing more managers and more leaders who take their cue from the corporate culture that we’ve built has become increasingly important.  We’ve put a lot of focus on celebrating group wins and giving employees an opportunity to celebrate one another’s accomplishments.  That’s the great thing about growth – you’ve got more radar to tell you when something is going off the rails.  It’s easy when you’re growing quickly to lose sight of the fact that the team is number one.  During fast growth, targets and metrics become more important and often overshadow this, so you constantly need to be reminded of that touchstone that the team is number one.  Otherwise you’ll have lost everything you worked so hard to build.


VW: Who are your key competitors in the war for talent?  What do they offer to attract and retain employees?

RH:  Our primary competitors would be other cause-driven organizations and national not-for-profits, because that’s the pool in which we swim, but largely because of the work that we do (business development and outreach, communications, and project management), we also compete against private sector organizations.

We’re in a town [Ottawa] where the biggest employer is the public sector/government.  If your priority is security, pension, and benefits, that’s where you should be.  The people I want are learners, those that enjoy having fun when they come to work.  I can’t fight the salary, security, or pension and benefits war – I can’t, so I don’t.  Instead, we try to offer creative programs to our employees that appeal to their interests in, for example, professional development or work-life balance to differentiate ourselves.


VW:  What would you say are BioTalent Canada’s biggest HR challenges today?

RH:  Identifying fit is among the biggest challenges.  Fit is the most important thing, and it’s the hardest thing to interview for.  If I want 3 years of social media experience, I can see that on a resume and determine that in an interview in less than 5 minutes.  But fit is harder to identify.  BioTalent Canada is a relationship-driven, transparent, open, credible and enthusiastic organization.  These are all the traits I look for and determine fit.  Because we’re a client-facing service organization, these traits are incredibly important.  If someone is passionless, guarded, unpleasant, or noncommittal I’m usually going to assume that they won’t be a good fit.

Fit doesn’t mean being a cookie-cutter, homogeneous version of what we have, but it’s about complementarity.  How does the person fit within the wider team? What can they bring that fills in gaps and supplements what we already have?  This piece is so important because the team is really at the heart of everything we do.


VW:  What’s the impact of poor fit from your perspective?

RH:  Frustration on everyone’s part.  Frustration in the fact that we got here, and we should have been able to avoid this.  That, and wasting time in terms of someone’s career – I don’t want anyone to feel they’ve wasted time, but rather that their time here has been a worthwhile stop along the way.  I want BioTalent Canada to be a very warm and gratifying trampoline, and when it’s a bad fit, it isn’t.


VW: How has the organization adapted to address the HR challenges you describe?  What programs have you put in place to attract and retain top talent?

RH:  Everyone on my team is a top performer.  They drive themselves far harder than I would ever do.  Knowing we wanted to be a performance-driven organization, we knew we needed to reward performance, so we put in place performance-based incentives for every single employee in the organization. This is really uncommon in the not-for-profit sector but it’s been instrumental in driving a performance-based culture.

Another unique initiative we put in place was our sick leave policy.  I’ve seen in some organizations that high utilization of sick time can be an indicator of low engagement, so we put in place a creative policy whereby, if you don’t max out your sick days, you’re rewarded with additional time off.  In the first year the policy had two fantastic effects – it increased engagement among performers who were already conserving their sick days (because they saw it as an additional benefit they didn’t have access to before), and those who were maxing out their sick days stopped.

This initiative cost us nothing to implement, and it had a high return for employees – they recognize the mental investment we put in to find opportunities to make life better, and that’s appreciated.  When you’re a small to medium-sized organization, some of the best HR solutions are the cheapest.  Everyone thinks you have to put in place high-cost perks to differentiate your organization, but some of the most effective and most impactful are these creative, low-cost solutions.


VW:  How do you assess which areas to direct your attention to?  How do you determine where to direct your investment?

RH:  I look at two things primarily – first, what the team finds engaging (and you have to measure that – you have to ask them, not assume), and second, I look at our organizational objectives and try to find the crossover, and where they can intersect with what employees are telling me.  So, for example, if the team finds the fact that social opportunities are particularly attractive, and if one of your organizational objectives is to retain your client base, then promoting social and networking opportunities for employees works very well. The more social your employees are with all the different personalities in the team, the more they’ll be able to manage client relationships.  These social opportunities also create engagement and team cohesion, which is really your competitive advantage.  BioTalent Canada is a services organization, and consistently when we survey our partners about our services, they tell us the most important aspect for them in what we offer is access to our team, and that’s because our people like working here, and they like each other.


VW:  How do you measure the impact of your employee programs?

 RH:  We follow a simple approach, just like we do with the labour market research we conduct in our work.  You define it, you measure it, you act on it.   So we survey employees regularly, we determine improvements, we make those areas the priority, and direct our investments in those areas.   The hope is that we’ve built a culture where people feel they can be honest with us.  The greatest frustration is losing someone because you didn’t do enough – when either someone didn’t tell me what I could have done to make things better, or I didn’t ask.  It’s a preventable, stupid mistake.  You can only make those mistakes so many times before it can derail your strategy.


VW: What advice would you give to business leaders in the not-for-profit space? What are some best practices or lessons you’ve learned along the way?

RH:  I would say there are three primary pieces of advice I would offer:

    1. Define and understand the culture you have and the culture you want to build;
    2. Institute innovative and unique ways to attract and retain people who will build that culture; and
    3. Don’t deviate from number 1 and number 2, no matter what happens to the business.


BioTalent Canada’s experience illustrates how having a deep understanding of your organization’s culture fuels the design of employee programs that respond to employees’ needs and resonate with organizational objectives.  Gleaning insights through regular employee engagement surveys, as well as feedback shared as part of the recruitment and exit processes, can help your organization to zero in on what your employees truly value.  BioTalent Canada’s commitment to their mission and organizational objectives has helped them to find unique opportunities to attract and retain top talent to support their growth and differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

About the author/interviewer – Vanessa Wylie, Human Resources Consultant

Vanessa Wylie, HR Consultant at Stratford works with organizations to help them solve business problems and foster engaged, creative, and productive teams. She provides guidance and support to leaders and helps them to design effective strategies and implement best practices that are relevant, effective, and meet the needs of their unique workforce, on a project-basis, or as interim or virtual HR support. Connect with Vanessa on LinkedIn.


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