Nonprofit Staff Retention, Part 2: How to Attract and Keep the Best Employees

nonprofit strategy staff retention tips and resources

In Part 1 of this article, we investigated the question of whether or not higher salaries are the answer to the problem of nonprofit staff turnover. Now let’s look at a strategy you can implement right away to improve staff retention: Give your employees a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their work.

In the for-profit world, experts will tell you never to compete on price. If your customers make their decision to buy from you based on price, you become a commodity that is easily cast aside whenever your competitors run a sale.

Instead you must distinguish yourself in some other way. You must provide an experience that your customers can’t get anywhere else.

In the nonprofit world, we can learn a valuable lesson from this for-profit example to help create a work experience that employees won’t be so quick to give up.

For those nonprofit employees who quit because they feel underpaid, their job has become a commodity. If they can get a better price somewhere else, they will take it. Therefore, to attract and keep talented staff, don’t compete on price. Instead, offer your employees something that many of them will value more — a strong sense of purpose.

Purpose alone won’t prevent employees from leaving. Nonprofits need to provide a living wage. But once employees have met their economic needs, many of the most talented people out there will happily forgo a higher salary for a job that gives them a strong sense of purpose.

Famously, Steve Jobs lured John Sculley to leave his lucrative job at Pepsi and join Apple by telling him, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” This anecdote is supported by data. In a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy survey of 1,035 fundraisers in the United States and Canada, 93% of those surveyed said they couldn’t work for a charity if they didn’t have a strong connection to the cause.

Additionally, purpose-driven employees tend to outperform those driven by money or status. In Imperative’s 2019 Workforce Purpose Index report, they found that employees who had a strong sense of purpose in their jobs (“fulfilled employees” in the language of the report) performed better, stayed in their jobs longer, and became active “brand advocates” for the company they worked for.

You might be thinking, “We offer our employees a strong sense of purpose. Why do we still have staff retention problems?”

It may be that you haven’t reflected that sense of purpose in the way you hire and manage your employees. In other words, you need a clear plan for staff retention.


Plan for Purpose

Despite staff retention being a top priority for nonprofits, 4 out of 5 nonprofit organizations don’t have formal strategies for acquiring and retaining talented staff. Here are the most important factors to consider when creating your plan for staff retention.

1. Mission Integrity

If you don’t have a clear and compelling mission statement, make this your first priority. Your mission statement will act as “true north” to help guide and inspire everyone who works at your nonprofit. But having a mission statement is not enough. You must reflect that mission in the culture of your organization.

For example, if your mission is to teach children meditation in order to promote inner peace around the world, yet your employees feel overworked and unappreciated, that disparity will undermine any sense of purpose they might have. Create a culture within your organization that mirrors your outward mission.

2. Communication

Communicate your mission (and hence, your purpose) clearly to your employees during the hiring and training process. And then communicate clearly and often the vital importance of their work to your mission. It may sound obvious but nonprofits are notoriously bad at this. In the Chronicle of Philanthropy survey, 30% of fundraisers said they are dissatisfied with the level of recognition for their accomplishments. 55% said they “often feel unappreciated” at their job.

Just like you take care to communicate a powerful case for support to your donors, you must do the same for your staff. Draw a clear line between the employee’s contribution and the impact your organization makes. Conduct regular performance reviews to recognize their contributions and present opportunities for them to contribute even more.

3. Screening

Similar to prospecting for donors who are likely to be sympathetic to your cause, you want to screen for employees who are purpose-driven. During the interview process, don’t be afraid to dig deep to reveal exactly what drives a candidate to perform at his or her highest level. In some cases, prospective hires will share this information up front. In other cases, management must cleverly extract these details by probing into previous nonprofit experience and work history. If you will be unable to meet that candidate’s top needs (if they are primarily salary-driven, for example), it’s much better for everyone to find that out before you hire them.

4. Support

The surest thing to kill an employee’s sense of purpose is a lack of support from above. According to Chronicle’s survey, 29% of fundraisers said they are dissatisfied with the support they get from their CEO. Leadership must be an ally to employees. That means having their back and facilitating their impact on your mission. When leadership is perceived as an obstacle, employees get resentful; it’s just a matter of time until they walk out the door.

5. Wellness

Purpose can be a double-edged sword. Nonprofit employees may push themselves to work too hard because they’re purpose-driven. Therefore, you should monitor work hours to watch for employees who are working too many long hour days. Set regular performance reviews that factor employee wellness into goal-setting. Ensure that staff feels comfortable asking for help and communicating challenges with each other and organization leaders. Part of creating a culture that mirrors your outward mission is caring about the wellness of your employees.



With a strong staff retention strategy that emphasizes purpose, your nonprofit can successfully compete for talented employees (and keep them) — even when for-profit companies offer higher salaries. For top performing employees, it’s often the opportunity to express their highest values and make an impact on something they care about that creates ultimate fulfillment at work.


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