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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can nonprofits increase employee satisfaction while upholding organizational expectations?

It is no secret that nonprofit organizations often have a hard time retaining employees. The work can be difficult, staff is underpaid, and burnout levels are high. These issues often lead to a decline in employee work performance and may even cause staff to seek additional opportunities for employment. Many valuable resources of the organizations are then spent on recovering from turnover including recruiting, hiring, and training new talent.

It is important for the leadership of nonprofit organizations to invest in programs aimed at improving employee satisfaction. These programs need to be comprehensive and highlight different aspects that typically contribute to employee burnout or dissatisfaction. It is vital to understand what is contributing to employees feeling dissatisfied and aim to amend these issues. Five major considerations that should be included in employee-focused programs are discussed below.

Leadership strategies and changes: It is critical to recognize that changes to basic leadership structures can have a significant impact on employee satisfaction. Organizations should analyze the structural base of the leadership within the organization and identify possible modifications that could allow tasks to be delegated differently. This often allows employees more opportunities for organizational growth. It is beneficial to recognize additional ways for staff to engage in leadership opportunities and showcase their talents.

Employee input: Many employees express frustrations with a lack of a voice within their organization and they don’t feel heard or validated. Leadership should take the time to understand what motivates employees and what changes they would like to see implemented. Utilizing resources like engagement software and employee task forces can allow employees to voice their opinions while making it possible for management to efficiently collect this data. Employee-based councils would allow smaller subsets to represent the whole and could work to organize ideas and potential changes; another great way to give staff a higher level of involvement.

Engagement techniques: Leaders should understand the importance of making employees feel like part of a team, rather than a tool to complete the necessary tasks. Different engagement techniques such as weekly happy hours or luncheons can help create opportunities for bonding between staff members and their employers. Encouraging employees to be involved in different aspects of the organization can increase their loyalty and create a deeper sense of belonging.

Rewards and recognition: Many people choose to seek other opportunities because they feel that the work they are doing is underappreciated. There are many ways for organizations to implement successful reward programs that recognize employees and express gratitude for their work. Monetary rewards are a successful way to boost employee morale and are of great value. However, less structured reward programs can be a great way to show employee appreciation with little to no financial obligations. These programs allow management to express their interest and encourage peers to recognize and support each other.

Burnout reduction/wellness promotion: Unfortunately, high levels of burnout often occur in nonprofit work. Limited resources and personal investment in the work’s mission can lead employees to become physically and emotionally exhausted. The physical and mental implications of burnout can be detrimental for employees and the entire organization. The culture must reflect an overall focus on the well-being of employees. Leadership should promote and model a healthy work-life balance. Steps to address employee burnout should be taken as a preventive measure rather than a reactionary measure after an employee is experiencing it. On-site wellness centers or discounts to local gyms boost physical fitness incentives while employee assistance programs or mental health counseling can help endorse mental wellness.

Promoting an organizational culture that supports staff and encourages both individual growth and well-being can help nonprofits gain the loyalty of their staff and decrease employee turnover. Nonprofit organizations should value this culture and invest time and resources into creating robust programs to promote these values and keep their staff engaged in the work and the organization overall. Many different programs and techniques can be implemented by nonprofit leadership to help increase employee retention and allow organizations to perform quality, mission-driven work.

Kristi Kerner is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She received her undergraduate degree in elementary education from the University of Northern Iowa and has worked as a Child Life Specialist for the past seven years. She currently works at Blank Children’s Hospital, a pediatric care facility focused on providing family-centered care for all. Kerner resides in Windsor Heights, Iowa, with her husband and daughter. She loves to spend time with family, travel and hike.


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