3 Fundamentals in Keeping Your Nonprofit Employees Engaged

By Jackie Lee

As the leader of a nonprofit, you’re pulled in a lot of directions. You’re overly familiar with following up with donors, preparing for your next board meeting, complying with government regulations, and of course serving who you have set out to help. Running a nonprofit organization is no simple task!

While you compete for funding and funnel as much of every dollar into your beneficiaries as you can, it’s crucial not to overlook the foundation of your organization. Each of your team members fuels, strengthens, and extends your mission. And it’s as important to keep your employees happy as much as you do for your donors and board.

Ask yourself: “Are my employees engaged with their work? Do they proactively contribute to the many responsibilities of our organization? Is each person satisfied in their role?”

Here are three essential mindsets nonprofit organization leaders must maintain in order to keep your workers happy and engaged.

1. Constantly Recognize Your Team

Do you reach out to your most supportive donors and volunteers with a thank you note, phone call, or lunch meeting? Following up on on the achievements of your employees deserves nothing less.

Consistently recognizing your employees creates a positive working environment. In addition, 68% of HR professionals agree that employee recognition has a positive effect on retention.¹ While generous bonuses and raises may be difficult to produce on a tight and constantly shifting nonprofit budget, it’s not only monetary rewards that can keep your organization’s employees feeling fulfilled. In fact, studies show that recognition can be a greater employee motivator than compensation and benefits.²

Take a look at your organization. Is praise given in person or online when projects are finished early or done well? Do leaders acknowledge team members who meet or exceed their expectations? What happens when a finished project produces positive outcomes down the road? It’s important for employees to feel satisfied and significant in their day-to-day responsibilities at the office.

Recognition can be as simple as a written note, an email, a quick conversation, or a shoutout at a team meeting. You can even create a physical or digital location where hardworking employees are recognized regularly. Employees may also be recognized as a whole through employee appreciation days, work anniversary observances, and celebrations after successful events.

Establishing an overall tone of appreciation at the workplace can go a long away. At nonprofit organizations especially, employees often need to work overtime for events or lead volunteers over the weekend. Make it a priority to sincerely thank and share appreciation of each of your employees regularly, and it will likely benefit your organization as a whole.

2. Work Adaptively and Welcome Change

A vast majority of nonprofits work in a cyclic environment; think about your annual fundraisers, seasonal giving, and quarterly board meetings. Your operations are likely complete with processes that repeat from season to season, year to year. You have systems and best practices in place, because they’ve worked before, and they will work again. But, have you recently asked yourself “Can our nonprofit workplace be optimized at all?”

While the tasks needed for this project are clear, and the scheduled meetings for that month are set, are you willing to approach an upcoming activity differently than you have before? It’s critical to assess the priorities at hand and be willing to tackle them in what may be the best way today- not yesterday, or last month, or the year before, even if it may take extra time in the short term. 

Willingness to change in the workplace can boost employee morale and performance, operational efficiency, and even growth.³ As a leader in the nonprofit sector, it’s important to encourage, request, and highlight feedback and new ideas on current practices. Offer weekly check-ins with employees that go beyond typical project completion lists, establishing an accessible and comfortable environment to share and act on potential improvements to how jobs are done. 

On top of check-ins, focus on maintaining a transparent atmosphere with open lines of communication and a realistic open door policy. Don’t forget to practice what you preach- demonstrate your openness to change by setting an example as leadership. Are you setting aside time for evaluating and adjusting your strategies? Is it time to give someone more responsibilities, kill a project, or outsource what matters little to your mission? Be sure to stay on top of industry and company leadership trends. In the same vein, allocate part of your budget so employees can empower themselves through training and educational opportunities, which can ultimately reduce employee turnover.⁴ 

Inviting and invoking change in your nonprofit organization starts with you. While it may be difficult to process and execute on suggestions at first, building an open, communicative, and adaptive workplace is vital to employee engagement, and can have immense positive impact on employee productivity, company culture, hiring, and your nonprofit’s entire ecosystem.

3. Align and Connect Your Workers with Your Mission

At the heart of your nonprofit organization (and what should be at the heart of every business) is your mission. It defines your purpose, speaks to who you serve, explains your values, and emphasizes the methods in how you mean to accomplish your vision- what/how the world is when you achieve ideal success. There’s no question that your mission is important in how your organization functions- but does it resonate with and engage each of your employees?

When instituted appropriately, a nonprofit’s mission should feed into and sustain all strategies, organizational decisions, and projects. It should guide leaders and other employees in how they interact with each other, and inspire goals throughout the year. It also affects hiring. In fact, 87% of the nonprofit workforce believes that the ability to serve the mission of their organization is important.⁵ 

Regarding your nonprofit community, your mission is what separates you from other organizations. When nonprofit employee salaries and benefits vary indistinctly (and on government budgets, they usually do), your mission matters in how you effectively recruit, hire, onboard, and retain internal staff like interns and employees. It’s what attracts board members, volunteers, sponsors, and donors. It even matters to the individuals you aim to serve, which is why it remains integral that your mission is rooted in every one of your employees.

At the end of every day, does your team feel fulfilled? Do your employees feel that they create value and impact when it comes to your mission? It may be time to realign your workers with your mission and make sure every person feels connected to your cause. This starts with education. Your office should display and provide access to key aspects of your mission for all team members to see. Your organization’s history, mission, and values should be clearly expressed when a new employee is onboarded, and connections with those elements should be emphasized and used in hiring decisions. At the very least, these items should be listed on your website for internal and external stakeholders to quickly and easily identify.

You know your organization makes a difference. So what should you do when you learn that your employees don’t? If possible, give them first-hand experience. Have them meet directly with your beneficiaries to understand who they help. Set up time between them and your benefactors for another perspective on why their work matters. Create activities for your employees to collaborate with passionate volunteers. Host events for your team to share success stories and metrics about real impact on real people. Then, make sure to routinely check up on and have discussions with your team, as nonprofit missions are not immune to evolution. When your team is aligned and feels connected to your purpose, ambition and drive will follow.

When It Clicks

At nonprofit organizations, offering benefits, steady work-life balance, and popular perks can be tough. With unemployment at a low of 3.7% and the charitable workforce growing every year, sourcing and retaining hardworking employees can be difficult, but is more important now than it has ever been. The talent pool is shrinking, and it’s necessary to keep your employees engaged so that your organization can run effectively and do so with a driving cause.

Don’t forget the fundamentals of leading your nonprofit with a culture that respects, dignifies, and empowers your employees. When you constantly recognize and acknowledge your team members for their achievements, you establish mutual gratification and appreciation. When you actively seek improvement and are able and willing to adapt, your employees feel heard, increasing their loyalty and productivity, and ultimately stay engaged. When it is positively reinforced that your employees’ work matters and that they make a surmountable difference, your organization as a whole benefits from fulfilled workers.

And when all three of these fundamentals are ingrained at the core of your culture, originating from your nonprofit organization’s mission and cause, that’s when your workers become happy and engaged, and that’s when it clicks.

¹ https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/Documents/SHRM-GloboforceEmployeeRecognition%202018.pdf
² https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-the-manager/201306/new-employee-study-shows-recognition-matters-more-money
³ http://expedite-consulting.com/powerful-benefits-of-change-for-individuals-teams-organisations/
https://npengage.com/nonprofit-management/10-ways-to-improve-morale-at-nonprofit-organizations/
https://www.gcn.org/sites/default/files/ctools/OK_Engaging_the_Nonprofit_Workforce_Report.pdf


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