Expert Advice for Improving Culture & Morale at Nonprofit Organizations

It’s no secret that people working at social good organizations, and at nonprofits in particular, have the reputation of being “overworked and underpaid.” According to the 2018 Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 86% of respondents said demand for their services was rising and 57% said they didn’t think they could meet it; 59% cited employing enough hands to do all that work as a challenge. While slightly more than half reported increasing staff and compensation, that still leaves a large portion of organizations that didn’t. And for those organizations that did, given the challenges of meeting that increased demand, it’s likely that many employees are still working long hours and for less pay than they could get working in other sectors. In fact, “an inability to hire qualified staff within a limited budget” was the most commonly cited challenge in the 2017 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, which also found that 81% of nonprofits do not have a formal retention policy.

While nonprofit professionals are a dedicated group of individuals passionate about making a difference in the world, it’s understandable that all these pressures lead to the nonprofit sector having the fifth highest turnover rate of any industry. And with private sector companies increasingly realizing the need to incorporate purpose into jobs and technology making it easier for individuals to make a difference on their own, it’s even more critical that nonprofits (and all social good organizations) prioritize improving culture and morale to remain competitive in the employment market.

Budgets are budgets, but there are many free and lost-cost things that organizations can do to make employees feel valued and happy. Read on for great tips from HR experts and nonprofit leaders that can help you improve the culture at your organization:

Jeffrey L. Reynolds, Ph.D, CEAP, SAP, President & Chief Executive Officer, FCA:

“Without the funding to boost salaries and benefits to reflect the great work done by our staff, we’ve worked harder to engage employees around the importance of our mission, added a variety of wellness-focused group activities and secured discounts from local gyms, entertainment venues and retail outlets. We’ve also created more opportunities for staff from across the organization, even if they don’t work together daily, to interact socially via optional evening and weekend activities. It’s also been productive for us to increase our transparency into agency decisions and to give staff an active role in strategic deliberations, program design and policy creation. While those things won’t pay the bills for woefully underpaid social workers, they do enhance satisfaction and probably contribute to employee longevity.”

Janice Holly Booth, MA (Leadership), Founder, The Teambuilding K.I.T.:

“Hands down, communication is one of the most important factors in the health of an organization’s culture, and it’s also one of the thorniest problems. That’s why as a CEO I spent a great deal of time helping teams and staff members understand not only their own personal communication styles, but their colleagues’ styles, and provided training on how to communicate effectively with all of them. This, more than anything — more than raises even — built trust, improved morale, and created teams that focused on the mission instead of petty grievances against each other.”

Eric Mochnacz, Consultant, Red Clover:

“In order to build or maintain morale, employees need to be given devoted check-in times with with their manager and leadership to offer feedback and ideas for the improvement and forward motion of the organization.  Although a manager may not be able to provide financial incentives to retain good employees, if they actively implement suggestions from their team for improvement, employees will have concrete examples of their worth to the organization.  When individuals are aware of their worth, they are able to remain motivated and engaged.”

Jennifer Balink, Executive Director, Kindred Place:

“A healthy culture requires nonprofit leaders to care for, root for and know their team personally. In order to protect our staff from becoming overworked, we absolutely must prioritize their wellbeing, making sure they feel valued, heard and respected. If a nonprofit employee can contribute to the organization’s internal culture with a unique voice, they are likely not spending their energy trying to be seen, heard or appreciated. Instead, their workplace can provide energy and a sense of worth for them. This means we have to invest the time and resources necessary to care for our team as they care for others.”

Maeve O’Byrne, MA, CEC, PCC, Cumhacht Coaching & Consulting and former CEO & President of Nanaimo & District Hospital Foundation:

“Many nonprofits follow business hours/structure without recognizing that NPOs are different. We work outside normal hours, and so allowing employees the flexibility to structure their work day to meet their needs while meeting their goals provides them with some control and balance.”

Amanda Williams, Associate, Operations, Community Health Charities:

“There are three important elements I have used that can improve your organization’s culture. First, listening is key. The only way your culture can thrive is if you know what works best for your team. Consider initiating an employee survey so you can build core values based on what your employees experience or would like to experience, in your current work environment. Second, is to be consistent. You should be reinforcing your values as much as possible. Creating a shared language or best practices will help bring clarity on what your organization stands for. Lastly, make it fun! Organize creative activities or events, for example, our annual workplace giving campaign allows our staff to support the causes they care most about. Consider using gamification to recognize and reward those who demonstrate your organization’s core values. This will motivate your team and boost morale by allowing employees to break away from their daily responsibilities and interact with their coworkers in a more fun and positive way.”

And I’ll add one more based on that last tip – find ways to recognize and promote your employees’ expertise externally. Community Health Charities’ Chief Strategy & Communications Officer, Amanda Ponzar, saw my call for tips and took the opportunity to put forth one of her team members who has been instrumental in building their new culture. I thought that was a wonderful, FREE way for her to publicly recognize and show her appreciation for her staff.

Does your organization have a great culture, or have you recently undergone a culture transformation to improve morale? I’d love to learn your best practices in the comments section below!