Join Leslie Crutchfield for an in-depth discussion in this video Motivating and keeping top talent, part of Nonprofit Management Foundations.
- The business management guru, Frederick Herzberg, asked this question more than a half-century ago. One More Time: What motivates employees? Here's a clue to the answer: It's not money. Really, it's not about the money. Research shows that the strongest motivators for employees, the things that keep people working hard for your organization, are non-material factors. Things like autonomy, the ability to control their work. Achievement, the sense that they are contributing directly to progress.
Recognition, and the possibility for advancement. These are the most powerful motivators. I think this is lucky for non-profits. Because one critical defining characteristic of the non-profit sector is that non-profit jobs pay less. Unfortunately, often far less than corporations and sometimes government. In one study of physicians, for instance, it showed that doctors of equal training and seniority, who are employed by non-profit hospitals, had lower wages than those in private practices or public institutions.
So, while it's important that you pay your staff fairly, relative to the other non-profits in your community, let's take money off the table for a minute. Instead, let's look at these other factors that can help you motivate and retain employees. You can start by just thinking about the legal structure of a non-profit organization. Unlike a for-profit company, a non-profit lacks clear ownership. The owners of a company are usually considered its shareholders and board members, but not typically the employees.
However, in a non-profit, staff and volunteers are a critical stakeholder group. They have a strong and very legitimate claim over the resources of the organization. And since most non-profits are in labor-intensive businesses, teaching, serving, advocating, the human capital that employees offer is critically important. So if you want to treat your employees right, start by approaching them as owners and key stakeholders of the organization, who have as much invested in the outcomes as you do, as a founder or a leader.
You might want to think about them as donors. Many of your staff could be earning higher wages in the private sector. So, they are in effect, donating the value of that time to your cause. Then, think about ways to structure the work so that employees can benefit from the things that are motivating to all employees. These include two factors. First, consider creating management systems around flat hierachries, rather than top-down or command and control systems.
Now a management hierarchy is simply a formalized way to understand who gets to make decisions and how information flows throughout the organization. When an organization has lots of hierarchy, there's less for each leader to control. So, this will be less satisfying to non-profit staff, because they want to feel autonomy. They want to feel that sense of achievement. They don't want to feel like a bureaucrat, taking orders from a never-seen top dog. And they certainly don't want to feel micromanaged by a corporate boss.
A second way to motivate your employees is to create career paths, particularly non-management career paths. Now typically in a for-profit company, if you want to move up and to higher positions of authority, autonomy, and get more pay, you have to become a manager, eventually a director. But, most people who work in the non-profit sector, are trained in a particular profession. Doctors trained in medicine, teachers in education, social workers in therapy and so forth.
People who train for professions like these are good at it, and they want to keep practicing. So, removing them from the front lines and making management roles the only way to "move up," doesn't work for non-profiters all the time. Take for instance, the Heritage Foundation, the first conservative think tank. Early on, this think tank made its mark by employing PhD's in political science and economics, who studied and then advocated for conservative policies.
But as Heritage grew, it now has 200 employees, there are multiple departments, HR, Communications, Fundraising, as well as the policy analysts. Heritage was smart. They made it possible for policy experts to continue to excel in the organization without having to always take on management functions. At the end of the day, people are motivated to work for non-profits, by the ability to do interesting work that makes a difference in the world. They want to work in an environment that gives them career challenges, and if they're successful, increasing responsibility.
Of course, you'll still need to pay them fairly. But, even the top salary and the best benefit packages will not compensate for what people fundamentally want; an answer to their deep-seated desire for growth and achievement.
- Shaping your vision and strategy
- Fundraising via grants, partnerships, and social media
- Hiring staff
- Working with volunteers
- Understanding board governance and nonprofit financial accounting
- Scaling the organization and impact
- Becoming a nonprofit leader