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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Employee engagement: Keeping the right people

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing series, we invite a nonprofit scholar, student, or professional to highlight current research reports or studies and discuss how they can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.

A few months ago, I was embroiled in a weeks-long interaction with one of the largest government agencies. As I sought to work out the kinks of my issue, my calls were shuttled from office to office and officer to officer. It seemed that my issue might linger indefinitely with this shall-go-unnamed agency, until one day, when a customer service representative took me off hold and turned out to be an especially attentive, thorough, and service-minded individual. She gathered my information, gauged where I was in the process, and assisted me through the close of the issue. At the end, I thanked her profusely for her assistance, and hung up mulling over the question of engagement. Why is it that some employees DO feel this commitment to their work, and others suffer from a sense of disengagement that cripples their effectiveness as employees?

Last year, Opportunity Knocks commissioned a report1 to evaluate this question of engagement across the nonprofit workforce. They sought to understand individual commitment to mission, management, and emotion in the workplace.

What they found was optimistic: nonprofit employees care. Their findings substantiate the belief that nonprofit employees believe in the organization’s mission and want to contribute to the advancement of that mission. 86% do extra work that isn’t expected of them, and 89% feel their work contributes to carrying out the mission of the organization. 84% of employees surveyed enjoy working for their organization because they believe in its mission and values.

Professional development, compensation, benefits, and workplace dynamics all factor into employee engagement. From an employer’s standpoint, this points to a plethora of opportunities for management to create a culture of engagement despite potentially “limited” resources.

For leaders like myself, who want to see those opportunities in tangible, take-it-to-work Monday applications, Opportunity Knocks and their survey team offer the following recommendations for nonprofits looking to further employee engagement at their own organizations:

  • Be deliberate about engagement
  • Communicate the mission and strategy
  • Hire for your culture
  • Continually discuss and reinforce your mission statement and core values
  • Reward talent
  • Develop employee talent
  • Provide recognition awards
  • Express individual appreciation for efforts made directly to the employee
  • Publicly recognize individual achievements
  • Create specific performance standards for each position
  • Build trust relationships
  • Provide management skills training
  • Encourage input
  • Create a culture of creativity and innovation
  • Strive to be more transparent
  • Seek out and manage efficiencies
  • Recognize signs of disengagement 
  • Acknowledge the skill and difficult in emotion work 

Why does any of this matter? Chiefly because as managers and leaders, our fiduciary duty to the organization must involve the use of engagement tools so as to best manage personnel costs. Mary Hall, in her Research Friday article a few weeks ago, spoke about the high cost of turnover: one-half to five times’ an employee’s salary. This study examined the same principle and provides estimates on the cost of recruiting and hiring replacements, the costs resulting from the vacuum created in productivity while that position remains empty, and of course, the cost of training, orientation, and development of the new employee.

We all want the best employees, the most engaged employees, and the happiest employees. In Good to Great, Jim Collins spends 24 pages dissecting employee selection and management before ultimately concluding that “people are not your most important asset. The right people are.”2 Making the hire of “the right person” is only the first step towards building our nonprofit’s capacity. We also must create an environment where that “right” employee feels useful and rewarded. By infusing these best practices into our workplace, we start down the path of employee engagement with our best foot forward.

As managers and employers, it is only when have we equipped our employees with the tools to become engaged and involved members of our agency that we have done our duty. By engaging those employees, we have the best chance at retaining those “right people”.

Dianna Schwartz is a 2011 graduate of the Public Allies program at the ASU Lodestar Center. She serves as Executive Director of the Military Assistance Project, as Executive Director of Global Youth United (both located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and as Director of Client Service for Franklin Mediation Consultants, LLC.


[1] Engaging the Nonprofit Workforce: Mission, Management, and Emotion, Opportunity Knocks.
[2] Collins, Jim. (2001) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. HarperBusiness.

A copy of the "Engaging the Nonprofit Workforce" technical report, including items used in the survey and additional information on the construction of individual measures, can be obtained by contacting the author, Dr. Jessica Word via email at


ASU Lodestar Center Blog