10 Ways to Improve Morale at Nonprofit Organizations

March 4, 2019 Katherine Wertheim

How’s the morale in your office? Are your staff members excited to work together? Or are you plagued with high turnover? How your staff feel about their work affects your bottom line, as donors and volunteers are turned off by a revolving door of staff members.

As a fundraising consultant, I see a lot of nonprofits, and I notice immediately whether staff morale is good or troubled. If I notice, your donors and volunteers notice, too. Here are ten quick tips to improve your nonprofit’s culture:

  1. Give all staff off every federal holiday. It creates bitterness and resentment when people have to work President’s Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day. Chances are your board isn’t paying attention to these minor holidays, and your employees appreciate it when they get a three-day weekend. My rule is “If the post office is closed, so are we.”
  2. Titles are free. Give people a nice title that they can use proudly. I’m surprised when I find that someone is the sole fundraiser on staff, and has been for years, and yet their title is Development Coordinator or Development Manager. It doesn’t hurt you to give people a nice title.
  3. Set people up for success in their roles. When I see a title that contains two things, like Director of Communications and Development, I think that’s a red flag. It means the person was hired because of a background in one thing, like communications, but they’re really expected to perform a completely different task, like development. They can do an outstanding job at the thing they’re good at and still be fired for not performing in the other task.
  4. For heaven’s sake, have a training budget! Every staff member should have a budget to go to a conference or a training lunch and get updated in their skills. They shouldn’t have to justify every training and professional membership. This is a lot cheaper than having to hire a new person every 16 months (according to Penelope Burk of Cygnus Applied Research, fundraisers under 30 stay an average of 16 months at their first three jobs). As a subset of this, give people the time and budget to go to conferences. Conferences are not a party, they’re a valuable opportunity to learn new things and bring them back to work.
  5. Be honest with people when you’re looking to employ them. If the board thinks that they’ll hire a fundraiser, for example, and that person will raise all the funds, tell them that. Don’t say “You’ll manage the board members meeting with donors” if none of the board members are willing to do that. Honestly up front prevents a lot of turnover down the road.
  6. Deal with the problems you have, don’t expect a new hire to solve them. I know an executive director who faced a drunk employee her first day on the job. She called the woman in and said “This will be your brightest job or your briefest. Come in drunk again and you’re fired.” The woman came in drunk again and was fired. The new executive director told the board “By not handling this in advance, you made me look bad to the other employees, that I had to fire someone my first week.” (Later that woman thanked her, she needed the wake-up call of being fired to deal with her drinking.) If you have a problem, don’t expect someone to solve it, and don’t just let it carry on for months or years, deal with it.
  7. Consider having one week a year where you close your office. Everyone can count on it for a vacation or stay-cation, as they won’t be getting emails from colleagues. It’s a chance where you can have vendors update your website, or get building maintenance done, or just get the offices painted. People really appreciate having the time off. I had one nonprofit client that closed the office the last week of August every year and people loved it.
  8. Consider expanding your paid vacation. According to the Associated Press, about half of employees will pay a week’s salary for an extra week’s vacation when offered the opportunity. Comparatively, the European Union mandates four weeks’ vacation a year to start! When employees look to work at other places, they’ll think “I don’t really want to go back to two weeks’ off a year” so it helps with turnover.
  9. Have one time a week that management sits down casually with any staff who wants to come and talk. I worked at one nonprofit where we had drinks at 5:00 on Friday, whether you were still working or not. We had a bottle in the office, and plenty of sodas and non-alcoholic beverages as well. It was a nice opportunity for the younger staff to chat with long-time employees.
  10. Food helps people be happy. My sister’s office had a birthday cake and paid lunch brought in every month and they celebrated whomever had a birthday that month, and it was great for morale. My father’s office had free food in the fridge and people would eat and talk over breakfast or lunch, and it was a good way to network and get things accomplished, and people didn’t go out to lunch and overstay their lunch break.

For nonprofit organizations that are concerned about budgets and salaries, these are all ways to help keep your employees and improve morale, with little impact on your bottom line. For their sake, I hope you’ll consider implementing them.

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