Employee Engagement In Not-For-Profits: Doing It For The Cause


Having recently completed a number of engagement surveys and workshops in North America’s cause-driven non-profit sector (i.e. mostly charitable organizations), I’ve been struck by the enormity of the challenges many of these organizations face. Yet I also continue to be highly impressed by the high-level of resilience of their employees in the face of these daunting challenges.

Let’s get things straight. We’re not talking about bake sales and church basements here. These organizations manage thousands of paid employees, as well as large networks of volunteers. They generate tens (or even hundreds) of millions of dollars to funnel towards their cause (once their expenses are paid). In essence, they face many of the same management and organizational challenges as the for-profit sector. But they’re different. Very different.

Employees in these organizations are motivated very differently than their private sector counterparts. These different motivations mean that what drives employee engagement in charitable non-profits is different, and engagement strategies need to be different as a result.

Connection to the Organization’s Mission and Vision is the single-most important driver of employee engagement. Several major studies[1], as well as TalentMap’s own research, show that employee engagement and attachment to the organization’s mission are directly related. This tends to be intuitive, as we know that most employees tend to be dedicated to the cause that they serve. However, while employees are willing to make substantial trade-offs for the sake of “working for the cause”, it is crucial that they feel they have input into decisions and directions which will affect their own ability to make a contribution to that cause. It is here that we are seeing that our TalentMap non-profit clients are struggling.

As a result of revenue and other pressures which drive top down approaches to change management, increasing numbers of employees are feeling that they are not being included in these decisions. They are therefore disengaging, because they feel they are increasingly distanced from their connection to the vision, and the cause for which they joined in the first place. Despite some valiant efforts in some cases, employee engagement is declining at many of Canada’s major charitable organizations.  The lack of employee engagement is having a detrimental impact on these organizations’ ability to raise revenue and contain administrative costs. Absenteeism and turnover are increasing.

Employee Passion is a Double-Edged Sword. If you know someone who works for a charitable organization, chances are that they are one of the most passionate people about their job that you will ever come across. Research shows that this no coincidence [2]. Non-profits (and charitable organizations in particular) tend to attract individuals who are emotionally invested, not only in the organization’s cause, but to helping and community service in general. Non-profit employees care : about the cause, about their community, and about their employee colleagues. This level of emotional investment, nurtured properly, is the key ingredient in the “secret sauce” of employee engagement.

However, we are witnessing a trend whereby this level of passion and emotional investment is resulting in poor work-life balance, stress, health and wellness issues, and eventually burnout.  All of TalentMap’s major non-profit clients report higher than average levels of stress, lack of control of their workload, and difficulties in achieving work-life balance. These difficulties with work-life balance and stress stem from increased workloads due to structural changes, staff reductions, and lack of investment in tools, materials and resources due to falling revenue, combined with a strong passion to want to succeed for the cause.

This difficulty with stress and work-life balance has little relation to their level of engagement; and because it is not a driver of employee engagement, it risks getting side-lined as an issue. BIG MISTAKE. While attending to stress and work-life balance will not contribute to higher employee engagement, it will create a healthier work environment, and it will also alleviate some of the cause of absenteeism and turnover.

Solutions come in three’s.

The solutions, not surprisingly, stem from the very passion about the cause that make non-profit employees unique. Those organizations (TalentMap clients and others) who report higher levels of employee engagement ensure that employees always understand the importance of their contribution to the cause. This is achieved through (more) participatory management where organizations foster a very consultative culture, and where communications consistently reinforce the importance of every role to achieving results for the cause. Internal communication explaining the strength of those commitments and the organization’s passion for them promotes unity and momentum.

Second, and somewhat related, is recognition. Many employees, in the absence of meaningful recognitions for their achievements, only have pay as a gauge to measure their perceived value tothe organization. By not developing additional recognition channels, employers may actually be intensifying employee dissatisfaction with the lower compensation which tends to be characteristic of these organizations. Low cost recognition programs which link employee effort to the achievement of concrete results for the cause reinforce the individual’s main source of motivation.

Third is flexibility. While non-profits are not in a position to increase head counts to address work-load issues, some stress and work-life balance can be recuperated through much more flexible work policies (hours, telework, time in lieu, etc.). In addition, women make up a larger percentage of many of these organizations, and this tends to benefit women more directly (and is also appreciated accordingly).

Finally, be deliberate about employee engagement. Many non-profits have put this on the back-burner, falsely assuming that passion about the cause would make up for short-comings in compensation, investment, and employee engagement.  This time has passed. Measure employee engagement, and most importantly, ensure that employees drive the action-planning and continuous improvement which follows.

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