Employee Engagement at Your Nonprofit: Are Your People Leaving?

You spend time and money hiring enthusiastic, talented employees at your nonprofit… only to see them leave for more lucrative work. In 2018, employee turnover at nonprofit workplaces averaged 12%. With a strong economy providing more job options in other industries, how can nonprofits like yours find quality people and keep them from moving on? The key is employee engagement.

But what exactly does this term mean? An engaged employee is one who is emotionally and intellectually committed to your organization; they feel a profound connection to their company. The more connected they are, the more productive and effective they will be in their work.

So how do you increase employee engagement? It starts with getting the right people.


In an industry of limited budgets, it’s easy to see the role that money and opportunity play in filling your job openings. Only 15% of nonprofit organizations have a recruitment budget, making it difficult for them to find qualified candidates. There’s a tight labor market with fewer people actively looking for work. So it’s time to step up your recruiting game. Gone are the days of posting a job opening and seeing the applications roll in.

The good news: Despite what you might think, you don’t need a big recruitment budget to find qualified people. In fact, you probably have at least a few options that are absolutely free! (PS – You can learn more about today’s recruiting methods in our post about recruitment marketing.)

Your Social Media – It doesn’t cost a thing to have accounts on Facebook and LinkedIn. And considering that nearly half of candidates used social media when searching for their most recent jobs, it’s a golden opportunity to reach people looking for work.

While there are other channels in this realm (such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and more), Facebook and LinkedIn are the most popular. Make sure your pages have information about your nonprofit, and build your employer brand by sharing job postings, relevant news, and photos of the work you do and fundraising events. (See our article about building your employer brand for more information about this process.)

Your Website – While your site itself is likely not free, it usually doesn’t cost anything to add a page focused on careers. Have it as a separate menu item clearly displayed so people can find it easily (or even better, make it obvious enough to jump out at them).

In addition to job postings, include a brief description of your company’s culture and photos of your staff interacting and working toward your mission. Showcasing the employee engagement you already have is a strong draw for candidates looking for a positive place to work.

Your Interview Process – Use questions that help you see whether the candidate fits within your culture and mission. People who are emotionally invested in what you do—and in the nonprofit industry in general—are more likely to stay for the long term (more on that later). So this quality is just as important as the skill set brought to the table.

In addition to asking about their interest in your organization, focus on previous work and volunteer efforts with other nonprofits (whether or not you see it on the resume). For example, ask why they did the work and what about the organization appealed to them, and have them describe any particularly rewarding moments. The answers can give you a good indication of their passion for the work.

So, you’ve hired people who are a good fit. How do you keep them?


A limited budget can take its toll on your ability to keep talented staff members from leaving for better salaries and benefits. Studies show that 32% of people who leave nonprofit jobs do so because they aren’t paid enough. Others quit due to lack of upward mobility (19%) and excessive workload (16%)—byproducts of limited staffing due to low budgets. So what you can’t swing financially, you must make up for in employee engagement.

Because a nonprofit exists for a specific cause or purpose, you have a built-in advantage here; chances are someone who applies for a job in your organization already believes in what you’re doing. But just because your mission is altruistic, it doesn’t mean that everyone who works for you is automatically happy to be there.

To increase employee engagement at your nonprofit, focus on the non-financial aspects you can control.

Start on their first day. A new employee’s start at a new job (generally called employee onboarding) is more than forms and a checklist; it’s a deeper introduction to your organization. Make sure you address more than policies and procedures, and do it with enthusiasm instead of a “let’s get it over with” mentality. Some areas to include in your onboarding curriculum:

  • Technical skills – the basics they need to succeed in their jobs
  • Cultural assimilation – formal instruction on your nonprofit’s core values and social norms
  • Social integration – events to help for colleagues get to know each other (for example, a welcome lunch or off-site happy hour)

Have well-defined responsibilities and efficient processes. Confusion in the workplace is a prime source of employee stress. Most workplaces have occasional chaos, but your staff shouldn’t have to wonder what might go wrong each day.

Focus on “firsts.” Do you acknowledge the first time someone helps win a big grant? If a new employee makes a mistake, do you chastise him? If she attends an outside event, do you invite her to sit at your table? While hand-holding isn’t necessary, be mindful of how you and other supervisors respond to these events. Employees who are encouraged and made to feel part of the group are more likely to want to stick around.

Nurture good managers. Several studies have found that the number one reason an employee stays or leaves is the manager or supervisor. Support, develop and promote managers who encourage others, communicate well, stay organized and otherwise increase engagement.

Grant autonomy. Nobody likes to be micromanaged. Employee engagement increases when your staff members have control over their work and are empowered to make increasingly important decisions.

Communicate clearly and consistently. Make it frequent and honest, not just lip service. Be as transparent as you can be regarding performance, changes, upcoming events… pretty much everything that affects them.

Provide flexibility options. Telecommuting is more than just a techie trend; it’s a popular benefit that helps employees eliminate wasted commute time and achieve work-life balance. According to a Census study in 2010, nearly 10% of all U.S. employees work from home at least one day per week. What’s more, 75% of millennials (who now make up the majority of the workforce) want a flexible work environment.

Multiple studies have shown that remote workers actually have higher productivity rates than their in-office counterparts, so consider establishing and promoting a telecommuting policy. If such an arrangement isn’t possible (for example, healthcare workers at a community care center), consider other options like adjustable working hours and comprehensive paid time off policies.

Conduct “stay interviews.” Why wait to ask key questions until someone is giving an exit interview before heading out the door? Stay interviews are one-on-one meetings between leaders and current employees designed to improve engagement and retention. Ask questions about what they like or don’t like about working there, how they learn best, how they see their career future here, why they have stayed, and what you can do to make their experience at work better.

What do all of these efforts have in common? They cost little or nothing to do! It’s not always easy, since they take some thought and effort to carry out. But help is available via your nonprofit CPAs, as well as your HR consultants. And considering how expensive it is to lose quality employees, the payoff of high employee engagement is well worth it.

All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a James Moore professional. James Moore will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.