Five Cost Effective Tactics for Driving Engagement in the Nonprofit Sector


Nicolas Makharashvili

Otar Makharashvili

Otar Makharashvili

Employee engagement is used to describe employees’ attitudes and dispositions towards the employer, mission statement and their job responsibilities. Leadership’s ability to inspire, engage and motivate staff is fundamental to the continued success of any nonprofit organization.

Current engagement studies suggest that an engaged workforce could make a difference between organizational failure and success and can influence outcomes as important as productivity, efficiency, creative problem solving, staff satisfaction, low employee stress levels and most importantly, organization’s social impact. Some of the problems associated with lack of engagement are far too familiar to those who work or have worked in the nonprofit sector. Based on research and experiences, some tactical, cost-effective and scalable actions that nonprofits can take to drive employee engagement are outlined below:

        I.            Mission Driven Engagement

The most important quality of an impactful nonprofit organization is clarity around its mission. A recent research report from Opportunity Knocks confirmed that organization’s mission was one of the most important factors in employees choosing their jobs with 87% ranking mission from important to very important. The analysis also showed that employees most attached to the mission of the organization were more engaged than those who weren’t. These findings demonstrate clear evidence of the importance of properly articulated mission statement that is reinforced on a daily basis and woven into internal communication strategies.

Additionally, nonprofit leaders should practice hiring more mission-driven candidates and strike a perfect balance between screening candidates based on transferable functional skills and their enthusiasm for organization’s mission. From an accounting assistant to the COO, nonprofit leaders must stay focused on recruiting candidates committed to the mission and social impact of the organization.

     II.            Employee Development Driven Engagement

Making investment in career and leadership development for employees is a key driver of engagement, satisfaction and sense of efficacy. However, due to budget constraints, nonprofit organizations often struggle with providing enough opportunities for career advancement, discovery and learning for their employee base. There are few cost effective approaches that leaders can consider to drive staff development:

  • On the Job Learning Opportunities such as job rotations, cross functional team experiences and special projects,
  • Lunch & Learn programs;
  • Individual Coaching & Mentoring;
  • Time donation for employees to pursue development opportunities at their own expense.

Additionally, communicating organization’s financial standing and being transparent as to what is possible in terms of staff development will instill trust, sense of loyalty and understanding. Employees aren’t enemies and they’re as interested in meeting financial goals as the leadership.

   III.            Shared Decision Control Driven Engagement

There are several crucial benefits of involving employees in the decision making process and this is especially true for nonprofit organizations. The very structure, organizational tree, and project priorities are constantly changing to respond to sector and funder demands. Additionally, nonprofit organizations are constantly looking for ways to scale the scope of their programs and impact. They do this through coming up with new models for social innovation, building project around it and fundraising from various sources. This means big changes! Key findings from multiple employee satisfaction surveys speak for four important benefits of involving employees in the decision-making and project building process:

  • Employees feel valued when they get a chance to contribute
  • Better sense of overall direction of the organization and hence more informed day-to-day project decisions;
  • A strong sense of responsibility as their decisions have consequences and thus are committed to making ‘best’ decisions;
  • Employees won’t blame their managers and superiors when and if things go wrong.

   IV.            Work-Life Balance Driven Engagement

Majority of nonprofit employees care about issues they’re trying to tackle! And sometimes they care too much! So much that they’ve lost a sense of difference between their personal and work lives and somehow the two have become one. Innovations in technology have contributed to increased staff burnout. It is increasingly easy to be available 24/7 via e-mail to respond to issues right away.

Additionally, it’s not a secret that majority of nonprofit organizations are cash strapped and or too small where most of the funding is project specific and leaves very small to no room for flexibility. Hence the sector has some major issues with stress and staff burnout. Some nonprofit organizations, mostly large, have embraced work-life balance as central and critical part of operations, realizing that stressed out employees are not productive. But much like staff development, establishing a work life balance doesn’t have to cost a fortune. There are simple steps that each nonprofit can take to minimize staff burnout and increase engagement as a result:

  • Encourage time off when possible. Working long hours and inefficiencies that come with it have become the norm in the nonprofit sector where it’s normal for employees to be judged for leaving on time and taking vacation. This tendency is an added stressor that sucks the productivity out of nonprofit workforce and discourages engagement;
  • Implement the system of prioritization. Not everything needs to be treated with the same level of urgency. Proofreading a proposal for typos and errors? – Perhaps that’s something an intern should tackle;
  • Utilizing Volunteers. Nonprofit organizations have one of the biggest and most cost effect benefit as compared to their for profit counterparts: volunteers that are committed to the mission and will go out of their ways to make a difference. Investing time and effort in recruiting mission driven pro bono talent (volunteers, interns) can help alleviate some workflow, leaving room for staff to focus on personal lives and work tasks that really matter.
  • Talk to your Biggest Donors. They are committed to your organization’s continued success and will step in should that be in jeopardy due to staff burnout. If not your own donors, there are many foundations that realize the problem of job burnout and may be willing to offer funding for employee wellness programs.

     V.            Reward and Recognition Driven Engagement

Nonprofit employees go out of their ways to save the world. And part of effective staff engagement effort is to recognize and reward performance and it doesn’t always have to be monetary. Nothing is more empowering that a simple ‘thank you’ from your employer but in order to drive even higher engagement through recognition and reward nonprofit leaders should:

  • Make recognition tangible and directly related to staff position;
  • Go beyond a simple thank you and recognize why performance made a difference;
  • Recognize multiple staff members and make it consistent;
  • Recognize publicly during staff, board meetings and via internal communication (newsletters, boards, etc.);
  • And encourage staff to recognize their coworkers.

The five tactics outlined above are cost effective ways to inspire and motivate employees and drive high engagement without compromising the budget.

Nicolas Makharashvili is program manager at Bolder Giving.

Tagged in: Employee engagement talent management

Comments (2)

Michael McGail

This is a good conversation starter. There have been countless studies done on employee engagement focused on Fortune 500 companies but almost none on nonprofits. And frankly, I'm not convinced that talking to your biggest funders about investing in work life balance programs is a viable idea. There are certain stereotypes that exist when it comes to what it means to work for a nonprofit (flexible, slow, lots of time off) which make it that much difficult to convince funders otherwise. But I do agree with the idea of shared decision control - it's hard to forget sometimes though. Overall great piece! Got me thinking about a lot.

Richard Dooley

Nice post! Definitely an overlooked issue in the nonprofit sector. I just wonder how open donors are to funding work life balance programs?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *