Fueling Passion: Strategies for Boosting Nonprofit Employee Engagement

Published by on March 20, 2024

What separates really high performing nonprofits from the ones that struggle to survive?  

Lots of different factors, but from what I’ve seen and experienced, having highly engaged employees and volunteers can’t be overlooked.  In one organization I worked at, my future manager reached out weeks before I physically started and talked through what to expect and answered any questions I had about the next steps and what the first few weeks would actually look like for me.   In another organization, on my first day, the department leaders sent out an email to the entire team with information about me, my role, a picture of me, and some of my hobbies so people could get to know me right away.  In both those teams, I felt valued and excited that people knew who I was and I didn’t feel lost – and I stayed on those teams for many years.

Contrast that to another organization I worked at that didn’t have a formal orientation, nobody on the team knew I was starting, and people seemed visibly annoyed that they had to train me.  Despite my best efforts, I never fully felt comfortable there and struggled to feel like I fit in with the larger group (I want to acknowledge everyone was mostly nice and there were a couple of people that did go out of their way to be friendly and welcoming to me).  But by and large, I always felt like an outsider there and left after 4 months.  

Nonprofit Management Excellence: Elevating Engagement Among Staff and Volunteers

 The hard costs of employee disengagement

And I’m not alone.  Gallup’s State of the Workplace 2023 Report estimates that actively disengaged/not engaged employees are costing the world close to $8.8 Billion in lost productivity. This includes:

  • Decreased productivity
  • A growing “us vs. them” mentality 
  • Increased turnover, apathy, and absences
  • Increased conflict and resistance to change

Low nonprofit employee engagement impacts all areas of the organization.  But, because nonprofits traditionally are already working with limited resources (volunteers don’t even get paid or benefits), it’s easy to feel your hands are tied.  So, let’s first address some myths about fixing engagement prevents organizations from engaging employees:

Myth #1: Money Solves All – Debunking the Nonprofit Compensation Myth

It’s important to acknowledge that in the nonprofit space, salaries and benefits aren’t always comparable to what people can get in the for-profit space.  At the same time, if it was only about pay, why are healthcare nurses (that comparatively get paid much higher to many in the nonprofit sector) currently leaving the profession in large numbers?   It’s not that pay doesn’t matter.  In fact, there’s research that shows a wage increase of $1 increased productivity by more than $1.  The bigger point is that if nothing else about the organization changes, salary won’t matter.

Myth #2: The One-Size-Fits-All Approach in Nonprofit Engagement

The other big myth is a one size fits all approach.  Senior leaders tend to look at all their employees or even groups of their employees as a monolithic “them” and thus, look for easy solutions.  Truth is, every employee has different personal situations, different talents, skills, and goals.  This means you need to find ways to engage every individual employee and volunteer. It’s vital to get all the leadership team and managers and supervisors at all levels skilled up so they know how to engage their employees.  That way you can focus on engaging your managers.

Myth #3: Measuring Engagement Is Impossible – Unraveling Nonprofit Metrics”

This is true only if you do engagement surveys once a year.  Engagement CAN be measured, and it starts with these two gut-check questions.  

  1. What specific behaviors indicate to you an organization that’s highly engaged?
  2. How often will you measure it?  

Start with these and you can get more clarity on measuring engagement and be proactive, and not reactive.  In the rest of this article are actionable strategies that you can start implementing that don’t require much money.  

Engagement strategies to employ before your nonprofit employees/volunteers start

Too often, organizations believe that engagement starts on the first day or during orientation, but there are a lot of opportunities before an employee or volunteer even starts to increase their excitement:

Strategy #1: Connect the opportunity with the impact

People get into nonprofit work because of the mission and the impact – so be explicit about that link.  Connect the dots for them so they’re excited about the big picture.

Strategy #2: Fill the silent period

After someone accepts the offer to work or volunteer for you, there tends to be a silent period until they physically start.  Doubt often starts creeping in about whether it was a good choice for them.  Take advantage of this time by:

  • sending out surveys to learn about their interests, motivations, values, and hobbies.  You can use these to then share with the larger team/organization when they officially start
  • Emails/communicate and outline next steps

Strategies to engage the first few days of nonprofit work

74% of candidates say the first day will affect their decision about whether or not to stay for more than a month.  Many organizations either do too little or too much for initial orientation.  To make it simple, here are the 2 strategies organizations can use with both new employees AND volunteers:

Strategy #1: Set them up for success 

Orientation doesn’t have to be complicated.   The main things new folks need to learn are the four “R’s”:

  • Role – What function(s) do they play in the overall operation of the organization?
  • Requirements – What do they need to know and do in order to succeed in their job and contribute to the organization?
  • Responsibilities – What inputs and outcomes does the organization need from them? What doesn’t happen without their contribution or involvement?
  • Relationships – Who do they serve in the usual operation of the organization? What connections within the organization do they need to foster and maintain long term?

Strategy #2: Get them a first “win”

In addition to learning about how to do their job, employees and volunteers are also hoping to accomplish what they intended to when they came to your organization.  How can you get them a first “win” so they feel a sense of victory and accomplishment?  What task can you give them so they are able to accomplish it and feel like they’re starting off the on the right track?

Strategies for ongoing nonprofit employee engagement

Employee engagement is an ongoing task that can’t be automated.  As referenced above, engagement is won one person at a time.  Some strategies for ongoing engagement:

Strategy #1: Learn what about each person

This is more than just learning about their interests and hobbies (although that’s part of it).  The goal here is to understand their aspirations and find ways to help them reach their goals.  The key is to truly learn deeply about each person:

  • What are their personal aspirations?
  • What motivates them?
  • What are their values, talents, gifts, and skills?
  • For employees: What are their career aspirations, professional needs, and development needs?

From here, you can find ways to nurture their skills and passions.

nonprofit employee engagement - the many different factors that need to be considered to retain an employee.
Visual created by Gratifi (https://www.gratifi.com/blog/introduction-to-our-new-blog-series-types-of-employee-engagement-theories/)

Strategy #2: Find ways to recognize them

People care about the mission, but they also want to be acknowledged for the work they do.  How will you recognize/acknowledge them? This isn’t about pizza parties – what can you do to truly acknowledge the impact of their work publicly and allow them to take pride in their accomplishments? Some concrete ideas:

  • A handwritten note (even better a short video) from the CEO mentioning specific things they did and the impact it had
  • Weekly or monthly public announcements to the entire organization

Last note for nonprofit leadership

Employee engagement is such a hot term and there’s often some debate who holds ultimate responsibility.  Some people believe it’s the responsibility of the employee to be engaged and be motivated.  That’s not the belief of this article.  In our opinion and experience, the leaders need to go first and they set the tone for everyone else.  Because this article focused on low-cost solutions, the barrier is no longer money, it’s whether you are willing to provide the biggest resource – your time. 

Senior and executive level leaders need to be willing to answer these questions:

  • What are you doing to model those behaviors of engagement?
  • How are you engaging middle managers/holding them accountable to engaging employees?
  • What expectations do you need to set, check, and follow up on?

Hopefully, this article provided some strategies and tips that you can implement.  
If you’re struggling and looking for support, visit us at www.myleadershippotential.com/hive and download some resources that can help you plan out your engagement campaign.

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Chris Wong is a certified executive coach, licensed therapist, and seasoned leadership development professional with a proven track record in the nonprofit sector. He specializes in guiding leaders through strategic prioritization, confident navigation of difficult conversations, and fostering high-performing cultures. As a facilitator and public speaker, Chris has trained hundreds of leaders and spearheaded successful organizational projects. His extensive experience spans nonprofit, health insurance, government systems, and encompasses leadership development, strategic planning, change management, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Currently, he partners with human service nonprofit executives to fix dysfunctional cultures and systems to turn their strategic plans into strategic action.

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