Retaining and Engaging Nonprofit Employees

A study in January 2012 Chronicle of Philanthropy found 82% of nonprofit employees would seek new employment if the economy were better.  Where does dissatisfaction come from, and how can nonprofit leaders and employees improve engagement and retention? 

Pratichi Shah, President and CEO of Flourish Talent Management Solutions, and Michael Watson, Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Diversity for Girl Scouts of the USA, led the Staff Retention and Employee Engagement webinar today for NCRW’s Building the Next Generation of Women Leaders in the Non-Profit Sector Fellowship Program. 
Shah and Watson highlighted the unemployment rate (decreased mobility), inadequate managers, higher workloads, unsatisfactory pay, lack of authority to get work done, and income not keeping up with inflation as some of the primary reasons people choose to leave their current nonprofit position.  The impact is that 45% of nonprofit employees plan to leave their job within the next 24 months and 50% of Top Fund Raisers plan to leave within 12 months. Those employees with the most opportunities, largest networks, and most skills are likely to be the first to leave, unless nonprofit leaders work to engage employees for higher productivity and greater retention.  
Actions Leaders Can Take:
  • Develop Staff: Many inexpensive or cost-free ways exist to provide employees development opportunities: special project assignments, cross-department projects, permission to take risks and try new approaches, filling in for some responsibilities when a colleague is out of office, short-term placement in a position of interest within the organization, or suggestions for volunteer opportunities with a different organization to gain certain experiences. It is important for managers to work with employees to map out career development and adequately equip them for special project assignments. 
  • Provide Flexibility: It is ultimately about a person getting high quality work done, so nonprofit leaders could consider “work shifting” (largely out-of-office work balanced with agreed “office hours”) or other forms of flexibility that fit with the nature of the work and needs of employees. People have a lot of interests and pressures beyond work; this is not just a parent issue. Managers’ looking for ways to create flexibility may be one way to handle budget constraints on salaries and improve retention of quality employees in the nonprofit sector.  
  • High Quality Supervisors: Supervisors are key to employee engagement and development, so careful consideration must be given to putting people in management positions who actually have the ability to lead and invest in those employees they supervise. Managers and supervisors should look for ways to get employee feedback to improve these relationships. 
  • Increase Transparency: Keep employees informed about the organization and stability of their job. There must be a balance and careful attention to sensitive issues, but, overall, employees may feel more certain about their jobs and more invested in the organization if they are kept informed of organizational changes. 

Participants in the webinar contributed a number of suggestions for increasing employee engagement and improving the nonprofit work environment in order to retain employees: 

  • Leaders can divest some responsibilities to give their employees development opportunities.
  • Exit interviews and mid-reports can help supervisors improve their management approach.
  • Make employees feel valued. Tailor acknowledgement of staff- newsletters, hand-written notes, recognition in front of peers, etc. 
  • Physically improve the work environment so people enjoy their work space. 
  • Celebrate small achievements.
  • Spend time connecting with employees so they know they have supervisor support. 
  • Burnout and low compensation are common issues in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit leaders should look for ways to compensate employees and emphasize the work-life balance if they hope to retain top talent and increase productivity.

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