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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can nonprofits improve staff well-being to achieve desired results?

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There is no doubt that nonprofits are driven by core values, mission and social goals. With a focus on critical issues across a diverse sector, nonprofit employees often find themselves so focused on others, that their own mental health and well-being are often forgotten.

With nearly 11 million employees working in the nonprofit sector, staff well-being is a critical concern to organizations. Employees sacrificing their health is not uncommon in the nonprofit sector, and when combined with long hours and low pay, it can lead to stress, burnout and turnover. This can be devastating to nonprofits and ultimately affect the ability to achieve impact.

Many forces have exacerbated the need for nonprofits to shift their focus to employee well-being, including the global pandemic, economic uncertainty, the wealth gap and racial injustice. These forces are creating significant challenges for nonprofit organizations. Leadership must recognize this impact on their staff and adapt to strengthen and build a more resilient workplace to achieve sustainability. Employee well-being is much more than including a wellness program into a professional's agenda. These six recommendations that nonprofit leaders can enact today will help improve staff well-being while achieving results.

  1. Adjust your leadership style. Leaders need to evaluate their leadership approach to ensure the style employed is designed to positively influence and empower their staff, promote success, and build collaboration. Leadership approaches such as Servant, Transformational or Team-based have been proven successful. According to Sarros, Cooper and Santaro, encouraging leadership in others promotes staff well-being and leads to increased productivity.
  2. Create a culture dedicated to employee well-being. The key to creating a culture dedicated to well-being is mutual respect. Kanter & Sherman remind us that respect, kindness and compassion must be modeled from the top-down in order to become an organizational norm. Human resource practices play a vital role in making employees feel valuable. Nonprofits need to invest in practices that enhance and develop skills, create career paths and take work-life balance into consideration. John Hester offers solutions to keeping employees happy, including focusing on renewal and balance while exploring ideas such as working from home or on-site childcare.
  3. Develop a strategic incentive structure. Offer positive incentives that motivate, recognize and reward accomplishments. Nonprofits do not need to worry about breaking the bank either. According to Ridder, Piening & Baluch, nonmonetary incentives are the most motivating for staff. Paid time off, benefit packages and training opportunities are positively linked to achieving results. Fun incentives increase well-being and build comradery and can include holiday and birthday celebrations, retreats, potluck lunches, trivia, or even small prizes like gift cards for coffee.
  4. Allow employees to work autonomously. A powerful tool to keep employees interested and engaged is by simply giving them the ability to carry out their job in their own way. Having control of scheduling their time, establishing and following procedures and completing tasks give employees an increased sense of control and can counter the effects of job-related stress while promoting responsibility and independence.
  5. Create a feedback culture. The benefits of meaningful, continuous and regular two-way communication are plentiful. Feedback helps to build trust, create a sense of belonging, increase the ability to cope in stressful situations and lower overall anxiety in the workplace. Oliver shares several recommendations to improve feedback, including having regular in-person meetings with staff and creating a committee to elicit open communication.
  6. Build relationships. Ultimately, in order to increase staff well-being, organizations must prioritize building relationships with their employees. Nonprofits are charged with achieving goals with limited funding and therefore must work towards strengthening connections, promoting teamwork and building collaborations. Providing a supportive and caring environment requires no money and can be applied on a daily basis. When an employee feels supported, stress levels decrease while satisfaction increases, and overall well-being is greatly improved. Simple hand written letters delivered through snail mail is a simple yet effective way to let an employee know they are valued. Building relationships is a crucial motivator to both increasing well-being and achieving desired results.

Highlighting the importance of well-being in an organization leads to greater satisfaction, motivation and impact. Unmonitored, evidence has found instances of increased burnout, high turnover and decreased employee motivation. To increase well-being, nonprofits must build a strategic culture and consider both organizational and individual factors. Well-being requires organizations to commit to organizational change, which increases impact while building positivity. It is much more than sporadic wellness activities, and to be effective, it requires strong relationships by staff who feel valued.

Kelly Hart is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She was recently inducted into Nu Lambda Mu, the International Honor Society for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Social Entrepreneurship & Enterprise. She studied at Emerson College and received her bachelor’s degree in media production with minors in history and psychology. She has worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly 13 years with a focus on children and families and is currently the Highlands Family Success Center Program Director for Center for Family Resources. She lives, works and volunteers in the community of West Milford, New Jersey, with her husband and two daughters.

Learn more by enrolling in the Optimizing Human Resource Strategies in Nonprofits Certificate from the ASU Lodestar Center's Nonprofit Management Institute. This four-course program can be completed in less than three months.

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ASU Lodestar Center Blog