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What are you doing for your employees beyond their paychecks? Make the most of their passion, and keep them close with creative incentives and benefits.

Employer strategies

Five Strategies for Keeping Your Best Nonprofit Employees

  • Amy Chapman
  • Lauren Ballard
  • 9/22/2017

You may have noticed one thing that all nonprofits have in common: people. They may be executives, hourly workers, volunteers, or outsourced contractors, but you will probably agree that people are one of the keys to success in every organization.

Unfortunately, people are also one of the most unpredictable and inconsistent of your organization’s many resources.

Finding and retaining the right people can be a struggle. In fact, the 2016 Nonprofit Employee Practices Survey from Nonprofit HR reports that 84 percent of nonprofits do not have a retention strategy. When you consider that replacing an entry-level employee can cost as much as 50 percent of his or her annual salary, and replacing higher-level employees can cost four times their salaries (ERE Media), it becomes clear that shoring up your employee retention can save money that is better used for programming.

In our engagements with nonprofits, we get to know more about an organization than its financial statements, Form 990, or grant compliance report. We see the full spectrum of people, from executives, CFOs, finance committee members, and managers, to front-line workers who interact directly with volunteers, constituents, and the public. Of course, in dealing with nonprofit financial matters, we also see compensation records and assess the overall financial health of organizations. Based on our deep nonprofit experience, we offer these strategies to help you keep your best people.

Make it personal

This is perhaps the most important piece in the employee retention puzzle. It comes down to, “Why do your people do what they do?” When someone shows real passion and grit for what he or she is doing, that commitment becomes the glue that holds him or her to your organization. When passion drives us to do what we do, it becomes personal, and that can be the difference between staying and moving on. Every nonprofit has a mission. When your people are passionate about that mission, success can happen for the individual and the organization.

Do your people care about each other, about your clients, and the constituents they serve? Do they enjoy coming to work every day? Make sure the goals of the organization align with the goals of its employees. For example, if your mission is to reduce hunger through supplementary nutrition programs, that’s probably what drew your employees to you in the first place — they want to make this happen. Make sure that mission is paramount in all of your activities and decisions so they know they made the right choice.

What about the CFO who knows more about financial management than your mission? Skills and experience are important (especially when it comes to the CFO), and organizational fit is also vital. Seek out men and women who have the skills you need and that connect with your group’s mission and other employees.

Creating an environment where people can be themselves and be authentic also has real value in the workplace (and in life). Hire people with different mindsets, opinions, backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, and skills. A positive, respectful, and impactful culture starts at the top, so it is critical for your leaders to lead by example. And no matter your role, let others know they are valued by saying “thank you” every chance you get.

Hire enough people and give them what they need to succeed

Do your people have what they need to excel? From our experience, one of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits is having enough people and resources. More often than not, we still find one person wearing many hats. This is typically the result of budget limitations that present a choice between staff and services. Too many responsibilities, overtime expectations (sometimes without pay), and little support can lead to frustration, poor service, burn out, and overworked employees heading for the door.

You may be able to find the skills and support you need in your army of volunteers, but you can only count on that as a temporary solution. Outsourcing certain functions may help you manage workloads and improve segregation of duties without the costs of a full-time staff member. This option is especially practical when certain skills are only needed seasonally or for special projects.

Be creative with benefits and incentives

Everyone knows that financial compensation is important, but it’s not everything, especially in the nonprofit world. For some, passion makes up for what is not earned in salary. But passion alone cannot pay the rent. Organizations need to offer a competitive package of benefits and incentives. Health insurance and retirement accounts are the old standbys, but you will need a more creative employee benefit plan to catch and keep the best people: more vacation time, flex schedules, relaxed dress code, better maternity benefits, and concierge-type services.

Do you offer time off for volunteer work and community involvement? Are employees able to work from home? What is the policy for personal emergencies? Can the work week change depending on time of year or variable demands of the job? Can you offer a four-day, 35-hour-a-week schedule if someone requests it?

Offering perks like these is just the start — you also need to encourage your employees to use them. Use annual or semi-annual staff surveys to find out which benefits are most important. Priorities change; your approach to compensation and benefits should change, too.

Be transparent about finances

When employees start to question how funds are being used, you may be looking at underlying mistrust and skepticism. Teaching team members about the budget, cash flow, program goals, fundraising goals, and expenses gives them a greater understanding of the financial health of the organization and their contribution to it. Go over your organization’s Form 990 with every employee. Is it telling the full-story on its own, or can employees add insight and perspective that is being overlooked by the board and/or executive director?

Explain how the numbers you report to the IRS tie to the organization’s finances. Some inefficiencies might be uncovered and resources could be deployed toward more staffing. In the end, if people believe their salary level is not a consequence of mismanagement or unfair practices, they will be more understanding.

Conduct “stay” interviews

A lot of organizations conduct exit interviews to find out why people leave. But at that point, it’s too late to do anything about it. Why not ask employees why they stay? In his book The Stay Interview: A Manager’s Guide to Keeping the Best and Brightest, Dick Finnegan, CEO and founder of C-Suite Analytics, suggests asking employees five questions about job satisfaction and the likelihood of leaving:

  • What do you look forward to each day when you get ready to work?
  • What are you learning here, and what do you want to learn?
  • Why do you stay here?
  • When's the last time you thought about leaving, and what prompted it?
  • What can I do as your manager to make work here better for you?

Employee goals and expectations should be communicated clearly and frequently. Institute an open, two-way feedback loop and conduct regular team-building activities. Input from employees makes them feel more a part of the operation and empowered to do their best.

Get started

If you’ve been experiencing high turnover, it may be time to review and rethink what you’re doing to get your best employees to stick with you. Their love of your mission will only go so far. Create a workplace that rewards them personally and professionally, so they can continue doing the good work of your organization.