A Guide to Successful Recruitment and Retention

Published November 16th, 2023

We understand that the nonprofit sector is a tough one. Workers often spend years working long hours on the front lines providing relief to people struggling with homelessness, food insecurity, mental health challenges, and much more. Furthermore, the opportunities to earn a strong income are far more limited than in the for-profit sector.

This does not mean, however, that we should throw up our hands and accept a poor work environment. The Gifford Foundation invited Human Resources expert Dr. Tiffanie Dillard to present strategies for how nonprofits can actually leverage the fast-changing work environment to their advantage: by playing to their strengths and learning from the data, there are ways to grow your applicant pool while making life better for the staff you already have.

Dr. Tiffanie Dillard, Avenir Consulting

Step 1: Be patient with yourself

Only about half of organizations have actually attained their hiring goals, according to a hiring insights report by Goodtime. This means that you are hardly alone when it comes to trying to fill that empty position on your team. However, there are important steps you can take to improve your position by attracting better talent and setting yourself up for better outcomes after hiring.

Step 2: Is this an offer anyone would want?

Before you start promoting an opening at your agency, ask yourself why someone would want to take on this role and if so – why they would want to do this job at your organization instead of somewhere else. If you cannot easily answer these questions, don’t even try to fill the role! This is a cue to rethink the structure of the position and what you are asking a potential employee to do. If the job responsibilities are unattractive, or the pay is too low, perhaps there is a way to distribute those tasks across multiple other team members and use the funds set aside for the salary to give them a raise in recognition of this extra work.

Step 3: Don’t “post and pray”

The old way of recruiting often meant hastily writing up a job description, uploading it to a few websites, and then crossing your fingers that the right candidate would find it and come knocking. Given the importance of finding the right person and the high cost of employee turnover, this is not a safe strategy. Instead, think how you can tap into your other resources:

  • Use your employee network: your staff know better than anyone what it actually takes to work at your organization, and more likely than not they might have some great suggestions about who would be a strong candidate for the role. Many people are open to hearing about a new job, even if they aren’t actively searching, so this is a way to reach those candidates as well.
  • Think about your employment brand and get your communications team involved. Remember that marketing is not just about promoting your services to clients, it’s also about carefully constructing your identity across multiple audiences. If you have communications staff, make sure they are working on growing your organization’s reputation as a desirable place to work (and gathering data about why that may not already be the case).
  • Keep reaching out to the candidates you really want: persistence is a great way to show you value someone. Just because someone decided not to accept an offer you made last year does not mean the door is closed. Something in their life may have changed, or perhaps you have made some changes at your agency that would interest them. No matter what, they will appreciate that you reached back out on your own. Eventually, they may say yes.
  • Stay in touch with past employees: did someone leave your team a couple years ago who did fantastic work? Even if their departure was more recent, you may want to reach out and see if they want to come back.

Step 4: Take the onboarding process very seriously

When a candidate you are excited about has finally accepted your offer, it may seem like your work is done. Not so fast. Remember that if this person was actively searching, other recruiters are probably still reaching out to them in this period – maybe even from organizations they were even more excited about. This is why many people may accept a position but not actually show up to start it.

To help with this transition, stay in close touch with the person and really take them by the hand in those first stages of the process. Send them a letter confirming all of your commitments in writing to build confident, then consider sending some branded merchandise as a gift. Check in with them to see what would be important or meaningful for them on their first day or week. Do they want a big welcome or the privacy to get started at their own pace? 

It can be helpful to structure your onboarding process into three stages: Organization, Team, and then Role. The first stage involves introducing the new staff member into the culture, mission, and identity of the organization so they have a strong grounding of the space in which they will be working. The next step focuses on building a strong sense of trust and connection with their team members, so that they have a grasp of who to go to for support and can begin feeling connected to their coworkers. It is only in the final step that the focus is placed on their role and the details of its execution, a process that will be made easier since they are beginning with a stronger knowledge of the agency, support staff, and management. 

Step 1: Ditch the annual review, embrace ongoing dialogue

While there is something to be said for having a planned, recurring space to review performance and discuss career growth, an annual meeting cannot come close to addressing these challenges. Seek to create a culture of open conversation and feedback with your staff that is forward-looking, employee driven, and prioritizes their growth and development.

No matter how strong your office culture is, there will always be employees who decide to leave. Ensure that you have an exit interview process in place that accounts for the difficulty and awkwardness that may be present in these conversations. For example, having the person’s direct supervisor conduct the exit interview is not a productive approach when tensions between those individuals may have been the reason for the departure in the first place. To create a sense of trust and objectivity, consider partnering with another similarly sized organization and taking over one another’s exit interviews. This allows for each agency to receive the benefits of a third party mediator and will likely result in far more accurate and useful reporting. Finally, ensure that there is a process in place to interpret and respond to this data.

Step 2: Recognize and validate your staff’s work and achievements

Frequent recognition matters significantly to staff engagement and morale, so look for opportunities to sincerely and directly tell your team members how important their work is and help them see its impact. This can range from casual verbal compliments a couple times during the week to more significant acts of appreciation at specific times of year or after a major project milestone. A recent Gallup poll showed that employees who only receive recognition a few times per year are five times more likely to be disengaged and 74% more likely to say they don’t plan on being at that role in a year. Material rewards like a gift or a bonus are also essential and should be invested in when possible. However, they should always be accompanied by a personal note. More than likely, it will be your words that they remember several years down the line.

Finally, celebrate your staff’s life events and milestones so your employees know you care about their wellbeing, not just their performance. (Don’t be the boss who only finds out their staff member has a dog four years into the relationship.)

Step 3: Understand the true cost of turnover

Having to replace an employee can be far more expensive than you may realize. Depending on the role in question, the true cost of replacing a staff member can come out to as much as 150% to 200% of their annual salary after factoring in recruitment, training, lost productivity, missed opportunities, and more. This means that if you have five employees making $50k/year, it is sometimes much cheaper to give them all a 20% raise ($60k/year) then to have to rehire even one of those roles over the next year.

Step 4: Get creative with schedules, meetings, and virtual work

There is a strong case to be made that the traditional Monday – Friday 40 hour workweek is coming to an end. Fortunately, this opens the door to new ways you can accommodate your employees and make your organization a more attractive place to work. Many nonprofits worry about not being able to pay their staff as much as they would make in commercial work. Salary will always matter, and organizations should strive to offer the best pay possible. However, there are other strategies you can also use to your advantage: the first part of the 2020s saw many people leaving their jobs to start their own business. Can you offer the flexibility, sense of impact, and better work/life balance to make that seem less necessary? Consider capping weekly work at 30 or 35 hours, adopting a four day work work, limiting meetings to 50 minutes or less, or setting an agency-wide “no meetings” rule for Mondays and Fridays.

Step 5: Embrace hybrid work by setting clear expectations

Even though many organizations still struggle with its implementation, remote work has become an expectation for most employees. One of the best starting points to help address the pain points around remote work is establishing a documented and transparent remote work policy that everyone can refer to and agree on. This can help set clear norms around when staff should plan on coming in to the office and when they should stay home. In general, collaborative projects and client-facing tasks should be done in-person whereas administrative or solo projects may be better suited for remote work.

Finally, it is important to note that being a leader requires different strategies when managing a remote team. One of the most common mistakes is only reaching out to your remote staff when there is a problem. This creates tension by teaching them to associate any contact from you as negative. Seek to develop a culture of regular check-ins and information sharing via email, phone calls, or messaging so that everyone stays on the same page and feels comfortable asking questions and sharing feedback.

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