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Nonprofit talent acquisition and retention strategies that can stretch training budgets and increase employee engagement.

More than half of 443 nonprofit organizations expected to create new positions in 2016, according to Nonprofit HR’s 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey ( Since 2014, the second biggest challenge for nonprofit employers has been finding qualified staff (the No. 1 staffing challenge is being able to pay a competitive wage).

But many nonprofits do not have a formal recruitment strategy or recruitment budget.

  • Small organizations—those with an annual operating budget under $5 million—are especially lacking in this area. As many as 73 percent of small organizations do not have a formal recruitment strategy, and 91 percent do not have a formal recruitment budget.
  • For medium-sized companies ($5.1 million to 15 million), 49 percent don’t have a formal recruitment strategy, and 64 percent don’t have a formal recruitment budget.
  • The figures are similar for large organizations ($15 million-plus)—41 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

Looking ahead, the majority of respondents (56 percent) said they are not planning on making changes to the way they source for talent.

And while retention/turnover is another top employment challenge, a majority of nonprofits (84 percent) do not have a formal retention strategy, nor are many respondents planning to create one.

So what can nonprofit organizations do to maximize their training budget when it comes to hiring, training, and retaining employees?

Select for Job Fit Based on Role Flexibility

Since hiring is resource intensive, Laurence J. Stybel, Ed.D., CEO and co-founder of Stybel, Peabody & Associates, Inc., explains how to expertly attune job descriptions to a role’s nuances. “The first thing is to look at the job description, and carefully understand the technical requirements and also the psychological requirements of the job,” Stybel says. “One of the things I don’t see nonprofits doing as much as employers should is being clear on how important or unimportant openness to new experiences is.”

Stybel explains that some jobs, such as accounting or janitorial duties, may be a better fit for someone who is less open to new experiences because once the tasks—many of which are routine—are learned, that’s pretty much it. However, for some who are more “open to new experiences,” as he puts it, these jobs may be less ideal because employees quickly can become bored with their role.

Asking candidates how smoothly a change in direction went or about their experience with unlearning something they assimilated over multiple years in their past can be valuable. It can provide insight into their inclinations to being open to new experiences. This determination can be compared against the role’s routine or non-routine tasks for a better fit.

Understanding What Affects Turnover

Phillip B. Wilson, president and general counsel of Labor Relations Institute, explains that while some people’s drive to fulfill an organization’s mission may help them overlook less-than-ideal working conditions, the biggest factor is the relationship workers have with their immediate boss.

“One of the key things we found around approachable leadership is that this approachability behavior is directly correlated with lower turnover. I think that’s a key learning for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations,” he says. “When you quit your job, the vast majority of the time it’s because you just don’t like working for your boss. There are three key components to why. The phrase I use is always ‘unapproachable.’”

The test that determines what level of approachability a boss exhibits requires a three-tier evaluation:

  • The first level is how accessible a boss is to an employee requesting to express a work-related question or concern.
  • The next criterion is how much a boss wants to listen to the employee and genuinely empathize with the employee’s work concerns.
  • The final criterion is how much the employee’s boss follows through on his or her promises and commitments to the employee.

A manager’s effectiveness around these three points will reverberate through the employee’s company-wide view.

“If an employee’s immediate boss is the one member of management the employee sees during the day and sees most often, then that boss for all intensive purposes is the company, in the employee’s view,” Wilson explains. “If that relationship is such that the employee feels unsupported, the employee’s experience of the company is going to be bad.”

Wilson says there are three key areas where that will present itself in a negative way:

  1. The first is employee disengagement with his or her work due to what Wilson calls an “enthusiasm gap.” It can manifest in the form of a poorer job of helping out within the community, for example.

  2. The next is low engagement in what Wilson calls “organization citizenship” where employees don’t act as team players with their co-workers. They are more likely to have counterproductive thoughts instead of being proactive to help the organization’s mission. They don’t look to take on more responsibilities in their role and don’t indicate a willingness to adapt to change.

  3. The third impact is that employees will be actively looking to find employment at another organization. And if a position comes up in their present organization, they won’t be open to sharing details about it if one of their external contacts might be a good fit for the position.

Fostering Communication Through Power Distance

Wilson also explains how the concept of “power distance” affects the relationship between leader and follower. “We have a way of viewing people who are more powerful than us. We have varying levels of what’s called ‘power distance.’ If I have wide power distance, that means I’m deferential to somebody who has power over me,” Wilson says. “If I have low power distance, that means I feel more comfortable and safe being direct with someone, even if they have power over me.”

While the expectation also exists for an employee, Wilson explains that because employees don’t always advertise that they have a wider level of power distance or a greater deference to their boss, he suggests leaders take the first step in closing the power distance gap.

Using an example of a subordinate subconsciously signifying he’s uncomfortable walking into his supervisor’s office, the first step Wilson recommends leaders take is to “name the behavior” since they’re in a common office space. The employee may not even know he’s doing it, but it’s a way to preserve the power distance gap. Identifying and inviting the employee into the leader’s office, Wilson says, reduces the distancing behavior’s effectiveness.

The second step is to empathize with the employee’s behavior by mentioning you’ve done it in the past and have felt the same way when interacting with your own supervisor. The third step is to ask the employee for his own advice. Wilson explains that it’s effective because the brief, and temporary power transfer puts the boss in a low power position, helping to reduce the distance.

When training budgets don’t permit additional financial resources, a little “sweat equity” invested in strong leadership and talent management practices can go a long way to strengthening the employee/employer relationship and lead to an engaged workforce and lower turnover.


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