Employee satisfaction rises when it’s OK to be your true self at work. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com

Making employees feel welcome and valued can pay off – especially for nonprofits

Before I began to study and teach how to shape workplace relationships, I was a social worker. For about six years, I worked at a variety of nonprofits that served the needs of people with substance use problems, adolescents with mental health challenges and children who had been abused.

At every job, I noticed a pattern. All my colleagues felt unappreciated and wanted to quit.

As a scholar, I’ve learned that this dynamic isn’t unusual. Whether they are hospitals, museums, food pantries, churches or environmental groups, all nonprofits constantly struggle to attract and retain qualified staff. Research I’ve conducted suggests that when employees feel valued and that their colleagues and bosses appreciate them, talented staff members become more likely to stick around.

Feeling appreciated

In a national survey of 420 nonprofit organizations conducted in 2017, 28% of nonprofits said the top challenge they faced was hiring qualified staff, and 81% of nonprofits said they can’t get the staff they do hire to stay.

This same survey indicated that nonprofits may not do enough to address these problems. Two out of three had no systematic way to recruit qualified staff and vet new hires. And four out of five did little to encourage employees to stick around, such as helping them feel valued by expressing appreciation for the unique talents they bring to the workplace, or giving them raises and paying salaries commensurate with their skills and experience.

In addition, the top three reasons employees give for leaving nonprofits, according to the results of a different survey, are dissatisfaction with their career opportunities, compensation and benefits and workplace culture – or what it feels like to work there.

These results suggest that salaries – which can be lower in nonprofits than in comparable private-sector jobs – are not the only factor that makes it hard to keep talented people on board.

Making workplaces inclusive

To get a clearer view of how this works, I recently completed a study regarding how managers at hospitals can improve employee performance through greater inclusivity.

Inclusion, a term that generally refers to making all people feel welcome regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disabilities, is also about helping employees feel appreciated as unique individuals and helping them feel valued as key members of their team.

Characteristics such as your childhood economic status, where you went to school, your current neighborhood or political views may have an effect on how comfortable and accepted you feel on the job.

More than half of all nonprofit jobs are in the health care field. And even though nonprofit hospitals generally pay their workers better than other nonprofits, they also have trouble hiring and retaining qualified staff, according to the 2018 State of the Nonprofit Sector survey.

As I explained in an article published in the Nonprofit Management & Leadership academic journal, when hospital managers and top leaders helped employees feel more included, they became more committed to stay and felt better about their performance.

Adopting best practices

Results from my hospital study and other research suggest that there are several things employers can do to create an inclusive workplace. Not only does this approach make good business sense, it is also the right thing to do by valuing all employees as human beings.

Here are some practices I recommend for employers based on my research.

  • Engage all employees to weigh in on important work-related decision-making.
  • Express appreciation for feedback given from employees of all job positions, not just when suggestions come from managers or leaders.
  • Treat each employee as a unique individual, offering coaching, feedback and opportunities that build on their own talents.
  • Communicate a shared sense of purpose and inspire a collective vision of the future.

And making workplaces more inclusive may be the key to making not just nonprofit jobs more desirable, but any kind of workplace – including those in the private and public sectors.

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