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How Engagement in Nonprofits is Different, Yet Similar

Sybil F. Stershic, President, Quality Service Marketing

When it comes to engagement, most nonprofits have an advantage over for-profits in that they can attract employees and volunteers based on the organization’s mission. When you feel strongly about a mission – whether helping families and communities in need, rescuing animals, providing meals for homebound seniors, or building playgrounds – it’s easier to feel good about your work. This explains why volunteers offer their services for free and nonprofit employees accept compensation that’s typically less than most corporate sector pay scales.

It also explains why people who work in nonprofits are generally more engaged than those employed in for-profits. However, this advantage isn’t assured, as nonprofits aren’t immune to disengagement.

Mission Matters

Mission anchors an organization and provides meaning and purpose to the people who work there. But while an inspiring charter may appeal to talented employees and volunteers, it isn’t enough to keep them engaged. Despite their well-intentioned commitment, employees can become frustrated to the point that passion for the mission and meaningful work are no longer enough to convince them to stay. Even volunteers can get fed-up and burned out.

Just because a nonprofit is committed to a special cause doesn’t ensure it’s a great place to work. A nonprofit colleague described this situation at a former employer: staff members were frequently given conflicting directives and insufficient resources to achieve stringent goals. Managers spent more time on internal politics and favoritism than listening to staff concerns. The resulting low morale and high turnover was explained to the Board as a nonprofit sector norm.

The quality of any workplace depends on the organizational culture and how its people are treated. Employees and volunteers won’t stay with an organization where they aren’t respected and valued. While it may seem easier for volunteers to leave than employees, it doesn’t make their exit any less painful. According to leadership consultant Sally Helgesen, “Volunteers work not for money, but because they want to make a difference … they want to matter. Volunteers can, and will, quit the moment they feel undervalued.” High turnover and disengagement also negatively impact a nonprofit’s brand by making it harder to appeal to prospective volunteers, employees, donors and other community supporters.

How to Engage

A strong sense of connection is critical to engage people in their work, as they want to be part of something special, something bigger than themselves. To engage nonprofit employees and volunteers, managers need to connect them on three fundamental levels:

  • To the overall organization to ensure staff members and volunteers understand the mission and goals, where they fit within the organization, what is expected of them and how best to accomplish their mission-focused goals.
  • To the nonprofit’s consumers and stakeholders (e.g., donors, referral sources, community advocates) so employees and volunteers know who is important to the organization, what is important to them and how best to serve them.
  • To fellow employees and volunteers to ensure they understand their collective impact on the mission and how they can effectively work together.

Some Simple Tools

Here are a few examples of the tools used to connect employees and volunteers to a nonprofit organization, its consumers and stakeholders, and to fellow employees and volunteers:

  • orientation for new staff members and volunteers
  • ongoing communication via face-to-face meetings and internal newsletters to share organizational updates and the rationale behind management directives
  • training on the organization’s programs and services
  • sharing success stories about how the nonprofit has made an impact in the community or changed lives; positive contributions made by employees, volunteers and donors
  • mentoring or “buddy” programs (employee-and-employee, volunteer-and-volunteer, or employee-and-volunteer) to bridge organizational silos

Finally, remember that workplace engagement draws more intention than action. It’s easy to understand this in a nonprofit setting, as managers are challenged to meet growing needs with scarce resources and increased competition for donors and volunteers. These challenges can’t be met without the invaluable support of employees and volunteers – which is why nonprofit managers need to proactively engage the people behind the mission.

Sybil F. Stershic, President of Quality Service Marketing, has extensive experience helping service-based organizations strengthen relationships with employees and customers. She is the author of the award-winning Share of Mind, Share of Heart: Marketing Tools of Engagement for Nonprofits, Taking Care of the People Who Matter Most: A Guide to Employee-Customer Care and the Quality Service Marketing blog. For more information, go to

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