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Social Media Ninjitsu | Three Reasons Your Nonprofit Is Losing Top Talent, And How To Stop It
Volunteers, unlike paid staff, are donating 100% (not partially)
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Women playing with a child at a nonprofit charity

Three Reasons Your Nonprofit Is Losing Top Talent, And How To Stop It


That nonprofits almost universally pay much less than the same corporate job with the same title; that alone speaks loudly as to what really motivates this person to do that. Really? Why choose to sacrifice much higher pay to work HERE instead?

Organizational “brain drain”: We’ve probably all experienced it one time or another, working in a company that literally made you want to leave. Perhaps you weren’t the only person who wants out. When a significant number of colleagues also want out, I call this brain-drain in half. They’re in, but they’re not really.

When there’s an exodus from the organization, even a few talented workers, this is when the red flag goes off. This I call brain-drain in full.

This problem warning, by the way, has nothing to do with your paycheck. It’s not the pay scale we’re worried about. It’s the sign of a much, much bigger problem. It’s a management issue, and throwing even more money at it won’t solve this one.

What really motivates employees?

The short answer: it’s not about the money. Psychologists would tend to agree.

Research consistently shows that the strongest motivators are the intangible things that money can’t buy. Things such as:

  • Autonomy – the ability to control their work and make creative decisions of their own.
  • Achievement – the sense that they are contributing directly to progress
  • Recognition for a job well done and the possibility for advancement

Taken together, these are the most powerful motivators and this is especially true for nonprofit staff.

Rethink the Concept of Ownership

In a for-profit company, the owners are usually considered its shareholders and members of the board of directors. In this model typically employees are not thought of as having any sense of ownership. It’s pretty much clear cut and dry here.

However, in a non-profit, there’s no clear ownership structure as there is in the corporate world.  In a non-profit staff and volunteers are and should be considered a critical stakeholder group. They have a strong and very legitimate claim over the resources of the organization since most nonprofits are in labor-intensive businesses teaching, serving, and advocating for the human capital that employees offer is critically important.

If you want to treat your employees right, start by approaching your employees and volunteers as owners and key stakeholders of the organization who are just as much invested in the outcomes as you are as a founder or leader.

I’ve written more about the concept of stakeholders ownership in a separate blog article in more detail.

Build a Working Structure Within the Organization

When an organization has lots of hierarchy there’s less for each leader to control. so this will be less satisfying to non-profit staff because they want to feel they have more control over their work. They want to feel that sense of achievement that you do as the director of that organization. They don’t want to feel like a bureaucrat taking orders from a never seen Top Dog or one who is never present. They certainly don’t want to feel micromanaged by a corporate boss.

I expand more at length on the topic of building a workable and adaptable structure for managing volunteers in a separate article.

Create a Flat Hierarchy.

Remember, this is the public, not the private sector, and so different rules apply. As stated before, rethink the very notion of who the real owners are, and you can do that by seeing your subordinates and co-workers as co-owners and key “shareholders” instead.

Instead of creating an elaborate multi-level food chain, keep the chain of command as flat as possible. Why? It adds a touch of egalitarianism, of the sense that everyone is on an equal level. As long as there is a manager or supervisor who maintains an open line of communication with each team member and encourages the same amongst members of the team, everything will fall into place. This form of hierarchy is also more manageable, less cumbersome for the same reasons.

Offer Non-Management Career Paths

Now a second way to motivate your employees is to create career paths, and by this I mean half that don’t involve moving up to management ladder. Typically in the corporate world, the way to advancement in the company is to move up the management ladder. While the desire to move up the management chain is a widespread one, it doesn’t, and shouldn’t apply to all. Nonprofits need to provide alternative options. A truly talented doctor or grant writer may want to contribute to the role of a grant writer or doctor and not want to take on management responsibilities. Keep those other options open that allows continuing in the present role, while simultaneously offering growth and advancement.

I’ll touch upon the concept of non-management career paths on an upcoming blog post!

Now let me touch upon probably the most important point I have to make here on this topic.

Know The Motivation Killers And Avoid Them

So I’ll say it again: People are not primarily motivated by money.

Yes, you heard that right. Even paid employees must see that somehow there has to be more to them than simply fair pay. This should be an opportunity for nonprofits because volunteers who give their time and labor free of charge are surely motivated by something else than simply an Amazon gift card for their work.

Here are the three main reasons people work where they work and choose to stay.

 

  • Power.  Let’s face it; some people are motivated by power. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. When ambition is directed and focused on a worthy cause it makes a leader. Such people will want to be in charge, be able to act on their own initiative, and build something larger than themselves within that organization. Such enterprising people don’t shirk from greater responsibilities, they thrive on it. It is best to put those people in a leadership role, give them a ball, and let them run with it. That means autonomy, and power to shape and control their own unique contribution. Nothing kills that more than micromanagement.

 

  • Achievement. This is a no-brainer, right? “Who isn’t motivated by achievement?” one would ask. Accomplishing something of value to the team, and recognition for a job well done are definite social needs with any workgroup or team. Seemingly small actions like giving out thank-yous, calling out individuals or specific achievements or contributions in front of the team, these all work to fulfill that need. I might mention that these also cost less than an iTunes gift card and have more impact. By thank you’s I don’t mean sending a text message of thanks (too detached, impersonal). Not a thank you email. I mean a handwritten thank you note on a specially chosen card, whether purchased or handmade. I would add also that this is just one of many ways to creatively do this.

 

  • Affiliation.  People are tribal in nature, we all want to be part of a larger pack.  Smart nonprofits take advantage of this fact. When Habitat for Humanity recruits volunteers to help build houses, is a very involved process that involves (sometimes strenuous) physical work, and construction of houses takes a lot more than just simply showing up. There is sometimes heavy lifting, quite often the hammering of nails, and more often than not involves working within a team structure. The driving force behind many volunteers is that they get to meet new people and possibly expand their circle.

 

If You Had Three Wishes In An Employee, What Would They Be?

If you were to choose between one of the three below, let’s say you are only allowed to choose one. Which would you choose?

  1. Talent
  2. Experience
  3. Motivation

Let me be fair and say first off, that talent DOES matter. It definitely is not irrelevant. Actual teams need real talent, and talent will mean something different with each person. People don’t mind being “used” as long as it is fun AND it is for a good cause.

First and foremost, keep it fun!

Second, they have to get the sense that they are growing, developing, learning something new, something useful. Encouraging willingness to experiment with new ideas, to toy with potential innovation, these are the likely factors that will develop creative ways to collaborate. Creative collaboration is really, in essence, is the stuff of dynamic teams that make things happen. Sure, mistakes will be made, and it’s the job of the leaders to make sure errors don’t happen in real time that might affect operations or anyone’s safety.

There may be times when you might have to discipline or even fire a volunteer or ask to make sacrifices, but for the time being, lay off the power trip and avoid micromanaging. Let it be a learning experience. There are better ways to manage your staff. For volunteers, this is the only card you can really play. If it’s a drag, what’s going to keep them there? Obviously not the money.

The smart supervisor will put the third item (motivation) first above the others. Depriving your people of these vital ingredients will over time erode morale, create apathy, and cause absenteeism, in effect – alienating the worker. In other words, they become unhappy, and unhappy employees are already wishing for if not already looking for an exit strategy (another job).

Unhappy staff = increased turnover.

Increased turnover not only creates more work for everyone, and complicates training issues for new hires, it is also economically costly. In addition, it places greater and sometimes undue demands on existing staff beyond what they are getting paid for. For a nonprofit, that is already burdened financially (and yes, this is common in the nonprofit world), you can barely afford that.

It would be a no-brainer to say that the basis of truly effective skill development, growth, competency, and yes – experience could only flourish if the motivation is there. Then the first two (talent and experience) will take care of themselves. If the motivation, the spark, the inspiration is missing, all the talent and experience will be of little use if at all.

Treat Your People As You Would Treat Valued Donors

Let’s first start with paid employees:

Approach your employees as co-owners and key stakeholders in fact. Do not think of them in the same way you would in a private sector job. In the nonprofit world, employees are more than simply employees. Like the corporate shareholder, they too are invested in the outcome.

The fact that almost universally nonprofits tend to pay much less than the same job in the private sector, and that alone speaks loudly as to what really motivates this person to sacrifice much higher pay to work HERE instead.

How about volunteers?

Yes, how about volunteers? Just imagine how much, much, much more this same principle would apply to volunteers. Volunteers, unlike paid staff, are donating 100% (not partially) of their time and labor. To anyone that asks: How should we treat volunteers? They should ask, “how would you treat a donor to your organization?”

With micromanagement, criticism, and more layers of bureaucracy? Of course not! Treat them as a donor, because that is what they are. The same applies to a much greater extent than paid staff who are only partial donors.

Summing It All Up

In the end, the primary motivator behind the devoted employee or volunteer at the nonprofit organization is similar to what drove the founder or social entrepreneur to found it in the first place. Passion, desire to make a difference, a sense of achievement, and a sense of purpose. It’s less about the money and more about the intangibles. The more you focus on the latter, the more the former will take care of itself.

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