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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Five ways nonprofits can attract and retain talented leaders


Attracting and retaining talented leaders is key to the success of a nonprofit. Without a dedicated workforce, the mission falters and can eventually fail. To prevent this, organizations must evaluate the benefits they offer incoming leaders and the actions they take to maintain a dedicated workforce.

It is important to initially identify what individuals have the power, traits, and characteristics necessary to influence a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. The army identifies leaders as those who demonstrate values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. While leaders are important in any sector, they are critical in providing stability to further a nonprofit’s mission and motivate staff to stay.

Eventually, the pandemic and “Great Resignation” will be a distant memory. While the current labor environment has millions of jobs available, millions of Americans often quit their current positions in search of something more fulfilling. The NonProfit Times, with feedback regarding voluntary turnover in 2021, uncovered six key reasons why nonprofit organizations struggle with staff retention; better opportunities arose, no career growth, dissatisfaction with the organizational culture, poor compensation and benefits, difficult family/personal situations, or a career change is desired.

Much research has been done on what is now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, born between 1981 and 1995. Unlike every other generation before, millennials show no relationship between organizational commitment and workplace culture and do not see their work ethic as defining. Researchers found relatively high scores for belonging were consistent with millennials searching for more positive and collaborative environments.

The Workplace Motivation Inventory

Along with extensive research on what attracts millennials to organizations, data has been concluded on what motivates employees to search for and remain at their current career. Modeled after Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg’s Hygiene-Motivator Model of Satisfaction, the Workplace Motivation Inventory measures five workplace motivational needs considered when selecting a job.

  1. Basic: Pleasant working conditions, increased salary and avoidance of physical strain or discomfort.
  2. Safety: Performance standards, safe working conditions and benefits such as insurance and retirement.
  3. Belonging: Friendly colleagues, opportunities for interaction, and team membership.
  4. Ego-status: Recognition and rewards for performance and opportunities for job advancement.
  5. Actualization: Challenging and meaningful work, creativity, and personal fulfillment.

After attracting millennials and employing workplace motivating factors to promote retention, it is critical that nonprofit leaders and managers support their staff’s emotional wellbeing. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Burnout from work is a special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Burnout can affect both physical and mental health, with a host of symptoms that negatively affect productivity and efficiency. Organizations that focus their effort on controlling burnout create an environment that facilitates a productive workplace.

Developing retention strategies

After interviewing two local nonprofit CEOs that knew the impact of their staff, it was interesting to note that neither could respond on what their staff valued most about employment benefits. One mentioned adding this question to their annual review, but millennials and most leaders prefer frequent two-way communication. It is recommended that leadership listens, observes, and adjusts objectives according to timely and frequent feedback. It may also be helpful to take emotional intelligence assessments to develop better understandings and promote retention.  

The NonProfit Times identified five retention strategies for nonprofits to focus on:

  • Benefits
  • Compensation
  • Learning and professional development
  • Culture
  • Engagement.

Organizations with formal codes of ethics have shown positive outcomes in levels of safety, security, job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Human capital is critical to the service delivery and ultimate success of nonprofits to meet their mission and help improve society. Turnover in nonprofits goes far beyond the time investment, cost to train, employee skills and relationships they make along the way. Effort put into training and cultivating leaders can ensure they proudly take ownership of the nonprofit’s mission, leading to future success.

Gwendolyn McKay is a 2022 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and a member of the Nu Lambda Mu Nonprofit Honor Society. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where she runs her business, With A Y, LLC, specializing in business coaching, nonprofit grant writing and assisting clients with time management concerns. Gwendolyn is an Army veteran, serial entrepreneur, and has led and managed teams in retail, government, higher education and privately owned businesses. She and her 13-year-old son enjoy traveling, foodie adventures and using household supplies to invent unique objects.

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The Optimizing Human Resource Strategies in Nonprofits Certificate from the ASU Lodestar Center's Nonprofit Management Institute offers courses on maximizing human potential, engaging volunteers, communicating with purpose and championing change in your organization. It's available completely online.

Gwendolyn Mckay


ASU Lodestar Center Blog