ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Friday, October 26, 2012 - 11:45am
posted by
Dianna Schwartz
Public Allies Arizona Alumna
Executive Director
Military Assistance Project

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


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Click here to read "Research Friday: Making Workplace Culture an Asset in your Nonprofit" by Mary Hall.


I thought this blog was great! I totally believe that building a founding for a great and successful company with great and hardworking employees starts right at the beginning in the hiring processes. I also really enjoy your recommendations for nonprofit work places because it’s important to continue to remind the employees why they are there and they were hired but rewarding them with good deeds. Great job on your blog, I really enjoyed it.

The success of a company or organization or any sort of group trying to move an idea is in it's people. And well said by adding that they must be "the right people". I think it's important to hear this perspective from the "people" point of view because as someone preparing to go into the work force, I personally want to be the kind of employee who feels passionately about the mission in which I am going to work for, be engaged in that cause, and go above and beyond the average. To work for a company that recognizes and rewards those attributes would be an even greater bonus. Both employer and employee can cause a constant motion of success and achievement by encouraging each other, working together, and striving for better and better. I feel this way in my current job (that has nothing to do with my major) and while some people show their commitment to customer service by working hard, there are those who merely come to collect a pay check and don't take the extra time or effort to connect with our customer, as did the lady on the service call at the start of your blog. It's those people who I appreciate and who I feel valued by, making me want to pay it forward to the next person I am helping. It's a ripple effect, or at least it can be if we are all willing.

Great information about how to retain people in your agency. I agree in how people need to be praised when they are doing great things for other that go above and beyond their duties and its most likely to be done when the person loves what they do and believes in what they are doing. But its mostly encouraged when they see their leaders lead with the same passion so they want to follow as well. Great first step is to separate good people from GREAT people for your agency and that will make it easier to create a better image and have amazing people who love what they do for the agency.

I see your point, it is everywhere that you have the mix of people who really try to do their job in a nice way, but there are people who just do their job in a bad way. I do believe that by employees being rewarded they will all start to work more as they have to. People that are working in a place with a lot of people may feel that they are there working but they don’t count, but if they are recognized with a reward they will see that the people see the hard work they are putting in. This will lead to people working well because they feel like they count and people like getting rewarded so there will be more people willing to work in a happy mood than in an angry mood. I really enjoyed reading your article because for example, in occasions when I have to call to customer service for different things sometimes they are very nice people who want to help you and other you can tell in their voice they are annoyed. I don’t like that because I didn’t do anything to them and they are not doing their job right. Maybe they need those rewards to help and not show anger to the customers that are calling.

I agree with the idea that finding the right people to do the job is important. I have heard a number of business owners talk about their desire to hire for heart and train for skills, as the opposite scenario is one that is generally full of regrets. I am surprised, however that there was no mention of how employees are reviewed or assessed. If there is a focus in the assessment process on the ability to meet the needs of the client, I think that more employees would be interested in actually helping a customer. I used to work in a call center, where our main goals were based on the number of calls taken per hour--not the number of customers helped. This is what can lead to a continuous call transfer experience when the employee doesn't have the information or authority necessary to fulfill the customers' needs.

I really think employers need to pay a lot more attention to what makes their employees tick, professionally. Especially non-profits, where the engagement of the individual makes a great deal of difference to the mission. I thought the guideline of "hire for your culture" was especially great because an inner drive is everything when it comes to truly impactful actions. While I don't think organizations should hire for the culture to the point of having too little diversity, I think it really makes a difference to create a group of people who are all in it for the same types of reasons.

Brittany Benz

I also thought that this article was great and saying that non profit employees care is true. They care so much because it is their passion and they want the organization to succeed. I also loved all the non profit organization recommendations . Also creating a good environment where non profit employees feel useful and wanted is always good because it is non profit work and they need to be recognized. Great job on the blog love it.

I, as well as many other people, have been in the same situation as you. I also believe that a person chooses to work in nonprofits because they have a drive to "change the world." In essence, that person is doing what they love and like you stated, they believe in the organization's mission. A person who enjoys their work will pass that attitude on to customers and even fellow employees. Rewards are important but the most important reward is loving your job. The right employees will give your business a good image. Thanks for posting! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog entry!

I thought this post had many great points about finding and keeping successful employees. I am a true believer in when you enjoy what your doing then you will perform to your best ability. I think its great how she points out that when a company has a successful employee that they should recognize and reward them. In the workplace when someone does their very best and it goes unnoticed it can be off-putting and the employee might gain a negative attitude towards doing well and being unnoticed. I think this blog does a really good job in addressing key points for both the company and its employees, i really enjoyed reading this!!

I really enjoyed this blog! I especially appreciated all of the recommendations for bettering the employees and in the end bettering the nonprofit work place. I agree with you that nonprofit employees do care more than the average. I also agree that the first step to building up your workplace and making it successful is in the hiring process. Essentially employees are what make up a work place and when you hire people who genuinely care about the work they are doing- there is no way you could fail. Great blog!

I think that this blog has a lot of useful information; it is also information I can relate with. Being a non profit major, and having experience working and volunteering for non profits, I can agree that the major difference a non profit employee has from a for profit employee is their passion. Usually a non profit employee will be excited and ready to make change for their cause and that in turn, creates employee engagement.

I think employee engagement and rewarding hard work with recognition, appreciation and in other various ways is key to continuing that employee engagement. Employees want to feel valued and that their hard work does matter, pays off, and is appreciative. So many employers today do not show appreciation to their employees, leaving the employees with a feeling that they are just a number and the only time they matter is when they don't hit their goals, not being recognized for the goals they do reach. Great blog post!

I agree with the article, hard work does pay off and persitence is key. I enjoyed the article because I think it is important that non profit work display the importance of their goals and ways to achieve them.

I enjoyed the article a lot and someone like me who is looking to get into non-profit organization this article helped me see good statistics on different types of employees. I want to operate and manage music festivals one day and am going to need the right type of volunteers and employees that have the same vision and passion as me. It is a hard industry to get started on in my opinion because the hardest part is finding the "RIGHT" employees rather then just any employee. I will take this into account the next time I have an opportunity to interview or higher employees.

I completely agree with this blog, loyal and hard working employees are often working in the nonprofit sector. The process of hiring is where it all starts and I think with thorough interviewing you can find the right person that is a great employee. That might describe why I'm going into the nonprofit skill; because I like to do good at my job and like my job.

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