Retaining Nonprofit Staff on a Limited Budget

By Annette Rubin

Annette Rubin
Retaining nonprofit staff can be challenging, especially given relatively low salaries in the sector, but being able to keep staff is critical, as the cost of turnover is expensive and time-consuming.

While salary is of course a significant factor for nonprofit employees, it turns out not to be the most critical issue for retention. This is true as long as salaries are in the ballpark with other similar organizations and are sufficient to make employees feel financially secure.

If it isn’t money, what makes people leave? Here’s what I’ve found:

1. Perceived lack of respect from managers/leadership.

Too often, nonprofit staff doesn’t feel appreciated, respected or heard. For example:
  • “Decisions get made at the top without staff input, even though I have good ideas and their decisions impact my work directly”,
  • “I have too much work and stress but management doesn’t get it, doesn’t care, doesn’t help”
  • “My boss loved my idea for a project, but then she took it over without even giving me any credit. I really wanted to lead, or at least be part of it.”
2. Limited opportunity for professional growth and learning.

Most employees want to develop their skills and move ahead, but training, feedback, and mentoring are lacking:
  • “My role isn’t challenging any more. I know I can do more, but I’m not given the opportunity or training.”
  • “I’ve never been told whether I’m doing a good job. It’s hard to be motivated if I don’t know what they think about my work.”
3. Unsupportive or negative organizational culture.

This translates into lack of team spirit, or engagement in the mission, or there is internal conflict and drama:
  • “This is hard work, and I’m happy to do it, but the lack of support from leadership makes it even harder.”
  • “I came here to make change. I understand that my role is limited, but I wish I could feel part of the bigger picture.”
Retention is a constant process ”“ from the moment employees are hired and throughout their tenure. Here are several strategies to help retain staff without increasing salary.

Ensure Effective Onboarding

Even before the individual arrives, take care of as much paper work as possible and send a welcome note addressing any last minute questions she or he may have. On the first day, introduce the new employee to the team and any other key staff, and give a tour including key information they will need.

In addition to the formal orientation, spend some time during the first week reviewing the organization’s key players, including staff, board, and other stakeholders. If possible, take the new employee out to lunch, perhaps with other key staff as appropriate, to provide an opportunity for informal team building.

Create a Positive Work Environment

Employees who feel supported and engaged are less likely to seek another job. Demonstrate your support by getting to know the staff, understanding their needs and concerns and addressing them quickly.

Many people choose to work in nonprofits because they want a sense of purpose. Encourage engagement by ensuring that all the staff members feel integral to the mission and part of a team that is delivering a vital service to the community. A positive work environment also can mean a comfortable physical space, and a friendly and welcoming atmosphere where staff and leadership are mutually supportive.

Provide Opportunities for Staff to Influence Decision Making

You have an enormous bank of knowledge and creativity among your staff members. Take advantage of their experience and wisdom. Not only will you gain valuable information, but also employees will feel valued and respected. Ask for feedback and input from staff. Encourage new and diverse ideas. Show them that you value creativity and give positive feedback for ideas that are suggested, even if they are not ultimately implemented.

If staff members develop a big idea, publicly thank them and make sure they are included in implementation. Also, it is important to allow room for failure. Let staff know that new methods are not always successful, but are always a learning experience.

Recognize and Value Employees

Say thank you! Tell people how valuable they are for the organization. This can be done individually through supervision, in writing so that there is a record of the recognition, or in public at a staff meeting or special event.

Nonprofit employees are in the sector to do important work, but they still need to hear that they are doing it well and making a difference.

Provide Opportunities for Growth and Professional Development

Ensure that managers offer support, as well as regular feedback, both positive and negative. Managers may need training to help their supervisees succeed, to maximize their talents, and to grow in their job and the organization. Often, individuals are promoted to management roles for doing their job well, but haven’t necessarily learned how to be a good supervisor. Other professional development options include training provided by internal staff, job sharing or project management opportunities and external trainings, seminars, workshops, or conferences.

Make sure employees are given the time and financial support, if possible, to take advantage of these opportunities. Careful targeting of training can lead to promoting from within and employees who see the chance to move up the ladder are more likely to stay.

You won’t be able to retain all staff, but if your organization is an engaging place to work, with motivational and team-oriented leadership that supports and values employees and gives them opportunity to grow, your staff will be more committed and less likely to leave.

Annette Rubin, founder of Coaching to Potential, helps nonprofit professionals strengthen leadership, management, and strategic skills. Email to her at or call 508-561-4855.

February 2016