Research in Action: Uncovering the importance of human capital

Before he became a university professor and author, Dr. Kunle Akingbola had a successful career as a Human Resources (HR) professional. He was the HR manager for the Canadian Red Cross in Toronto while working on the second of his three Master’s degrees. As he grappled with choosing a thesis topic, his research advisor made a suggestion that would change the course of Akingbola’s work and his life.

At the time, the Red Cross had just taken over managing a homeless shelter over the winter for the City of Toronto, which was downsizing services to the non-profit sector. On top of their regular programs, Red Cross employees had to create and staff a completely new program that they would give up in six months time, only to bring back another six months after that.

Akingbola took his advisor’s advice and used the Red Cross case study as the basis for his Master’s thesis on non-profit HR management. That line of study eventually led to his Ph.D. dissertation, which examined the entire strategy of non-profit organizations across Canada and the impact of government funding and the environment.

Akingbola’s growing expertise led to part-time university teaching. He eventually left his HR career to become a full-time professor. Today he is Associate Professor of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behaviour in the Faculty of Business Administration at Lakehead University’s Orillia campus.

With numerous publications including books, chapters in edited books, and articles in leading journals, research continues to be a large part of Akingbola’s work, which looks at ways to optimize the effectiveness of non-profit organizations while increasing employee satisfaction and improving outcomes for the communities they serve. He encourages his students to get research experience by helping him do surveys and data sorting.

“Prior to my study, no one had ever looked at HR management in non-profit organizations, says Akingbola. “There had been research on volunteers, but not employees of non-profit organizations that make up a major part of the Canadian social sector and account for about nine per cent of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

His vast personal experience in HR in non-profit and healthcare sectors combined with his extensive ground-breaking research give Akingbola rare insight and expertise into social purpose enterprises. He understands the fine line organizations are forced to walk to secure the funding that is essential to support their services. It’s especially frustrating in the face of what Akingbola calls “mission drift.”

“How do you manage people who joined your organization because they believe in your mission, but now you have to go in a different direction because that’s where the funding is dictating you go?” says Akingbola.

One thing he is certain of is the importance of the human component in non-profit activities.

“The nature of service is emotional and it is human based,” says Akingbola. “You can install an ATM on Jarvis Street in Toronto that gives out blankets and coffee to the homeless on a cold winter’s night. But it can’t dispense compassion. In that regard you can’t replace human capital.”

Dr. Kunle Akingbola is the lead author of the book "Change Management in Nonprofit Organizations: Theory and Practice" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and the author of "Managing Human Resources for Nonprofits" (Routledge, 2015).