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Think about a social issue or cause that matters to you. Now, think about what organizations address that very issue or provide services for those impacted by your concerns. Is it your local church, a no-kill animal shelter, an agency that supports the homeless, an organization fighting cancer or AIDS, or maybe just the professional or trade association that supports your own industry?

Imagine if you were the Executive Director or other senior executive of this wonderful Mission-driven organization. Chances are you’d be challenged with the concept of “who” is best to hire to help you fulfill this mission? What would you do to recruit top talent to join your organization? How would you keep them engaged and committed to your work when they do? Leaders in the not-for-profit arena often struggle with talent management and employee engagement due to the financial constraints they are under, relative to their for-profit peers. If we don’t help these leaders recruit and retain their Superstars though, then how are we going to address those critical issues that matter most to us?

In today’s ongoing war for talent, these 5 proven practices should be deployed in order to recruit, manage, inspire, and retain talent that are needed to achieve your Mission:

  1. Make Your Mission Matter – Start with defining your core Values and make sure they permeate the organization in everything you do. Many employees choose to work for not-for-profit organizations because of the intrinsic value they get from their work having purpose and meaning in their lives, so it’s essential to find ways to keep that top of mind. In addition, you can use your Mission and core Values for being decisive and laser-focused on only prioritizing projects that are aligned with your primary work while dismissing others that are not. Since you probably operate fairly lean as it is, this will help your best staff from being overloaded with unnecessary work.
  2. Promote Career Development & Growth – It’s quite common for strong team members to leave a not-for-profit when they feel they have limited opportunities for growth. This is especially true for Millennials, so make sure you give your Superstars plenty of feedback to further their careers and regularly ask them about their longer-term wants and needs. If you understand their individual aspirations, you may be able to task them with strategic projects that excite them or provide other developmental opportunities aligned with their “career ladders” to keep them engaged even if you can’t offer promotions or significant raises right away.
  3. Provide Recognition & Rewards – It always surprises me how little it takes to make employees  happy and keep them engaged. Sometimes, it’s a $10 Starbucks gift card for the individual who goes above and beyond to connect with a Board member or one of your clients. Sometimes, it’s a pizza party for the whole department that develops a new and innovative program or service. And sometimes, it’s an extra PTO day – or ½-day Friday – for the entire staff after you get through your busy season or one of those “heavy lifting” annual events. Whatever the reason, people appreciate being recognized for their dedication and hard work. Maybe more importantly, that positive reinforcement goes a long way to inspire others in your organization to do the same. Not-for-profit organizations may not be able to offer their employees top pay, but recognition and rewards like this won’t break the bank or your bottom-line!
  4. Establish Refer-a-Friend Incentives – One of the many challenges within the nonprofit arena is recruiting Superstars to join your organization. Your compensation packages may not compete with for-profit corporations, so your best recruiting tool may be your existing staff. The good ones are already passionate about what you do and committed to your success, so establish a Refer-a-Friend program and give them an extra incentive to source your next Superstars. You’d be amazed at how many friends, family, and professional colleagues they’ll present for consideration. Just be sure you don’t give incentives simply for submitting names. Make your employees earn it by really supporting that candidate’s selection and on-boarding process and helping integrate him or her into your organization and culture once hired. 
  5. Identify Your Successors – Many of the CEO/Executive Directors and other senior executives running today’s not-for-profits are Baby Boomers nearing their retirement. Succession planning can be a very personal and emotional journey, but not-for-profit organizations in particular have a unique opportunity to support not only their tenured executives but also their NextGen successors through the process because they are so Mission-driven. Be proactive and identify exactly who you want to succeed your more seasoned leaders. Once you determine the “who”, begin talking with them about their future plans and provide the training and support they need to be promotion-ready when those leaders do move on. If you don’t act on this now, those NextGen successors may leave your organization for other opportunities – hence, #2 above!

Need some help recruiting and retaining your top talent? Want to learn more about these proven practices for engaging and inspiring your staff? Give us a call or email us if we can help you attract your next generation of Superstar employees and keep them engaged in your Mission-driven work.

Dr. Jeremy Lurey

Dr. Jeremy Lurey leads SingerLewak’s People & Change Management Practice. He has been providing direct coaching and advisory support to senior executives of not-for-profit and for-profit organizations for over 20 years. You can reach Dr. Lurey at 310.589.4612 or via email at