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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can nonprofits effectively recruit and retain high-performing employees?


Rusty Morgen Stahl, in an article examining research on nonprofit hiring strategies, wrote for The Foundation Review, “It is reasonable to ask what has been done to tackle the talent challenge. At the sector level, reports have provided data and recommendations; unfortunately, many of these ideas have not been implemented effectively into the field.”

It is apparent that the nonprofit sector is going through a time of difficulties and change when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees. Nonprofit organizations are often not able to have separate human resources departments due to budgeting and staff restraints. This issue can lead to a lack of recruitment and retention techniques. Employees at nonprofit organizations who are in charge of HR or recruitment must place utmost importance on recruiting and retaining high-performing and high-impact employees in order for their organizations to be successful. 

According to HRZone, a high-performing employee possesses traits such as self-motivation, ability to take ownership, ability to be a team player and adaptability. There are two main areas that nonprofit organizations should be focusing on to improve their HR departments – recruitment and retention.


When recruiting employees, nonprofit organizations must be well versed in the non-monetary and intrinsic rewards of working with their organization. Some examples of non-monetary incentives that are popular in the nonprofit sector are flexible work environments, robust paid time off plans, casual office dress codes, flextime and more. With the shifting mix of workers in the US, the millennial generation is making up more of organizations’ new hires. This group is motivated by different types of incentives. According to recent findings, nonprofit organizations can capitalize on training, building a culture of empowerment and recognition programs in order to provide incentives to employees. These kinds of intrinsic rewards that are related to growth can close a gap that cannot be closed by a bigger pay check. HR professionals in the nonprofit sphere can be open and honest regarding these types of incentives, so as to not hire an employee who will end up being disappointed and look for work elsewhere.

Nonprofit organizations must invest funds into the recruitment of high-level employees, such as CEOs. This often means utilizing an outside executive search firm to recruit, hire and transition the employee to the organization. Executive search firms are costly but can positively impact ROI for the organization if the ideal candidate is recruited and selected for the role. Organizations previously tended to hire executives the same way we hire field staff, which is not effective. In recent years, the support for executive searches and coaching has grown among foundations. Further, if these executives are well selected, they are more likely to stay with the organization for a long period of time, eliminating the need to re-invest in this kind of search in the near future.


Nonprofit organizations must create development programs within the company as a retention technique. Only 27 percent of social sector organizations offer professional development budgets for their employees. Development programs are an incentive that nonprofit organizations can offer employees they are recruiting. There are many benefits to these programs, including the idea that employees who feel their careers are being invested in by their employer are less likely to look for work elsewhere. Research shows that staff development improves employee productivity, employee retention and employee recruitment. Nonprofit organizations that can invest funds into creating development opportunities are likely to save money in the long run when their turnover rate lowers.

Nonprofit organizations must not focus on mission buy-in as a retention technique, but rather pair mission buy-in with a company culture that employees are satisfied with. Mission attachment has been something nonprofit organizations have relied on when it comes to retaining employees. Now, our organizations need to be doing more than that. Nonprofit organizations must invest in employees’ careers in order to keep them committed to the sector. Seok Eun Kim states in a Sage Journal article, “Employees show a positive attitude towards the agency’s mission, but dissatisfaction with working conditions – pay and career advancement – override the role of mission attachment in employee retention.”

Why it matters

Overall, with the increase in hiring that nonprofits are expected to experience over the next decade, it is important that processes for effective recruitment and retention are put into place sooner rather than later. Organizations must start to invest more time and funds into high-quality employees to best serve their mission. The days of nonprofit organizations being places employees go for low pay, no benefits and long hours must be over. To make social change, nonprofit organizations need the best of the best on their side. Further, leadership and management in nonprofit organizations must understand this idea. If the leadership values their employees’ well-being, and effectively puts time and energy into their development, organizations will see lower turnover rates, which in the long run will save the organization a great deal of funds.

Jennifer Brauer is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. After graduating with her bachelor's degree in Public Relations with a Minor in Political Science from Illinois State University in 2016, Brauer gained experience in the nonprofit sector through working for the American Cancer Society in Chicago, IL. Her goal after graduating from the MNLM program is to continue to work towards a leadership role in the nonprofit sector where she can continue to make an impact on lives around her.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog