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September 19, 2020
Strategies for Keeping Your Best Nonprofit Employees
By Amy Chapman and Lauren Ballard

Of all the actions nonprofits can take to ensure their continued well-being, one of the most effective is to retain their best employees, which reduces costly turnover and helps ensure organizational success.

According to the 2016 Nonprofit Employee Practices Survey from Nonprofit HR, 84% of nonprofits do not have a retention strategy. Considering that replacing an entry-level employee can cost as much as 50% of his or her annual salary, and replacing higher-level employees can cost four times their salaries, it's clear that improving employee retention saves money that can be used for programming.

The following five strategies will help you keep your best people.

1) Make It Personal
When someone shows real passion and grit for what he or she is doing, that commitment becomes the glue holding him or her to your organization. When passion drives us to do what we do, it becomes personal, and that can be the difference between staying and moving on.

Do your people care about each other, about your clients, and the constituents they serve? Do they enjoy coming to work every day? Make sure that mission is paramount in all of your activities and decisions so they know they made the right choice #147; and seek out men and women who have the skills you need and who connect with your group’s mission.

A positive, respectful, and impactful culture starts at the top, so it is critical for your leaders to lead by example. And no matter your role, let others know they are valued by saying “thank you” every chance you get.

2) Hire Enough People and Give Them What They Need to Succeed
One of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits is having enough people and resources. More often than not, at nonprofits people wear many hats. Too many responsibilities, overtime expectations (sometimes without pay), and little support can lead to frustration, poor service, burn out, and overworked employees heading for the door.

You may be able to find the skills and support you need in your army of volunteers, but you can only count on that as a temporary solution. Outsourcing certain functions may help you manage workloads and improve segregation of duties without the costs of a full-time staff member. This option is especially practical when certain skills are only needed seasonally or for special projects.

3) Be Creative with Benefits and Incentives
Everyone knows that financial compensation is important, but it’s not everything. For some, passion makes up for what is not earned in salary, but passion alone doesn't pay the rent. Organizations need to offer a competitive package of benefits and incentives. Health insurance and retirement accounts are the old standbys, but you also will need to offer creative employee benefits to attract and keep the best people.

Consider offering more vacation time, flex schedules, relaxed dress code, better maternity benefits, concierge-type services, time off for volunteer work and community involvement, and working from home. Perks like these are just the start; you also need to encourage your employees to use them and then learn which benefits are most valued and adjust accordingly.

4) Be Transparent about Finances
When employees start to question how funds are being used, you may be looking at underlying mistrust and skepticism. Teaching team members about the budget, cash flow, program goals, fundraising goals, and expenses gives them a greater understanding of the financial health of the organization and their contribution to it. Go over your organization’s Form 990 with every employee. Does it tell the full-story on its own, or can employees add insight and perspective that is being overlooked by the board and/or executive director?

Explain how the numbers you report to the IRS tie to the organization’s finances. Some inefficiencies might be uncovered, enabling you to deploy resources toward more staffing. In the end, if people believe their salary level is not a consequence of mismanagement or unfair practices, they will be more understanding.

5) Conduct “Stay” Interviews
A lot of organizations conduct exit interviews to find out why people leave. But at that point, it’s too late to do anything about it. Why not ask employees why they stay and what would keep them on board?

In his book The Stay Interview: A Manager’s Guide to Keeping the Best and Brightest, Dick Finnegan suggests asking employees five questions about job satisfaction and the likelihood of leaving:
  • What do you look forward to each day when you get ready to work?
  • What are you learning here, and what do you want to learn?
  • Why do you stay here?
  • When's the last time you thought about leaving, and what prompted it?
  • What can I do as your manager to make work here better for you?
Get Started
If you’ve been experiencing high turnover, it may be time to review and rethink what you’re doing to get your best employees to stick with you. Their love of your mission will only go so far. Create a workplace that rewards them personally and professionally, so they continue doing the good work of your organization.

Amy Chapman and Lauren Ballard, principal and engagement director, respectively, at CliftonLarsonAllen LLP provide tax compliance and consulting services for nonprofit organizations. Email them at and An earlier version of this article appeared in Nonprofit Perspectives.
December 2017
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