Advice for Improving Culture & Morale at Nonprofits | npENGAGE

Expert Advice for Improving Culture & Morale at Nonprofit Organizations

By on Feb 1, 2019


It’s no secret that people working at social good organizations, and at nonprofits in particular, have the reputation of being “overworked and underpaid.” According to the 2018 Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 86% of respondents said demand for their services was rising and 57% said they didn’t think they could meet it; 59% cited employing enough hands to do all that work as a challenge. While slightly more than half reported increasing staff and compensation, that still leaves a large portion of organizations that didn’t. And for those organizations that did, given the challenges of meeting that increased demand, it’s likely that many employees are still working long hours and for less pay than they could get working in other sectors. In fact, “an inability to hire qualified staff within a limited budget” was the most commonly cited challenge in the 2017 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, which also found that 81% of nonprofits do not have a formal retention policy.

While nonprofit professionals are a dedicated group of individuals passionate about making a difference in the world, it’s understandable that all these pressures lead to the nonprofit sector having the fifth highest turnover rate of any industry. And with private sector companies increasingly realizing the need to incorporate purpose into jobs and technology making it easier for individuals to make a difference on their own, it’s even more critical that nonprofits (and all social good organizations) prioritize improving culture and morale to remain competitive in the employment market.

Read more on this topic: Creating the Right Culture at your Nonprofit

Budgets are budgets, but there are many free and lost-cost things that organizations can do to make employees feel valued and happy. Read on for great tips from HR experts and nonprofit leaders that can help you improve the culture at your organization:


Jeffrey L. Reynolds, Ph.D, CEAP, SAP, President & Chief Executive Officer, FCA:

“Without the funding to boost salaries and benefits to reflect the great work done by our staff, we’ve worked harder to engage employees around the importance of our mission, added a variety of wellness-focused group activities and secured discounts from local gyms, entertainment venues and retail outlets. We’ve also created more opportunities for staff from across the organization, even if they don’t work together daily, to interact socially via optional evening and weekend activities. It’s also been productive for us to increase our transparency into agency decisions and to give staff an active role in strategic deliberations, program design and policy creation. While those things won’t pay the bills for woefully underpaid social workers, they do enhance satisfaction and probably contribute to employee longevity.”


Janice Holly Booth, MA (Leadership), Founder, The Teambuilding K.I.T.:

“Hands down, communication is one of the most important factors in the health of an organization’s culture, and it’s also one of the thorniest problems. That’s why as a CEO I spent a great deal of time helping teams and staff members understand not only their own personal communication styles, but their colleagues’ styles, and provided training on how to communicate effectively with all of them. This, more than anything — more than raises even — built trust, improved morale, and created teams that focused on the mission instead of petty grievances against each other.”


Eric Mochnacz, Consultant, Red Clover:

“In order to build or maintain morale, employees need to be given devoted check-in times with with their manager and leadership to offer feedback and ideas for the improvement and forward motion of the organization.  Although a manager may not be able to provide financial incentives to retain good employees, if they actively implement suggestions from their team for improvement, employees will have concrete examples of their worth to the organization.  When individuals are aware of their worth, they are able to remain motivated and engaged.”


Jennifer Balink, Executive Director, Kindred Place:

“A healthy culture requires nonprofit leaders to care for, root for and know their team personally. In order to protect our staff from becoming overworked, we absolutely must prioritize their wellbeing, making sure they feel valued, heard and respected. If a nonprofit employee can contribute to the organization’s internal culture with a unique voice, they are likely not spending their energy trying to be seen, heard or appreciated. Instead, their workplace can provide energy and a sense of worth for them. This means we have to invest the time and resources necessary to care for our team as they care for others.”


Maeve O’Byrne, MA, CEC, PCC, Cumhacht Coaching & Consulting and former CEO & President of Nanaimo & District Hospital Foundation:

“Many nonprofits follow business hours/structure without recognizing that NPOs are different. We work outside normal hours, and so allowing employees the flexibility to structure their work day to meet their needs while meeting their goals provides them with some control and balance.”


Amanda Williams, Associate, Operations, Community Health Charities:

“There are three important elements I have used that can improve your organization’s culture. First, listening is key. The only way your culture can thrive is if you know what works best for your team. Consider initiating an employee survey so you can build core values based on what your employees experience or would like to experience, in your current work environment. Second, is to be consistent. You should be reinforcing your values as much as possible. Creating a shared language or best practices will help bring clarity on what your organization stands for. Lastly, make it fun! Organize creative activities or events, for example, our annual workplace giving campaign allows our staff to support the causes they care most about. Consider using gamification to recognize and reward those who demonstrate your organization’s core values. This will motivate your team and boost morale by allowing employees to break away from their daily responsibilities and interact with their coworkers in a more fun and positive way.”


And I’ll add one more based on that last tip – find ways to recognize and promote your employees’ expertise externally. Community Health Charities’ Chief Strategy & Communications Officer, Amanda Ponzar, saw my call for tips and took the opportunity to put forth one of her team members who has been instrumental in building their new culture. I thought that was a wonderful, FREE way for her to publicly recognize and show her appreciation for her staff.

Does your organization have a great culture, or have you recently undergone a culture transformation to improve morale? I’d love to learn your best practices in the comments section below!


As the principal content strategy manager at Blackbaud, Christine combines her passions for communications and social good, managing sgENGAGE and ensuring that the company is providing content that advances the thinking of the social good community. Christine believes that effective communication is an essential aspect to achieving social impact, whether an organization is a funder, nonprofit or technology company.

Prior to joining Blackbaud, Christine worked for nearly a decade in the corporate philanthropy, where she managed global health grant programs, product donations, disaster response and program communications. She was also a UNA-USA Blogger Fellow to the 2015 Social Good Summit. You can find her on Twitter at @newman_ca.

Comments (29)

  • Alicia Barevich says:

    Make sure every employee is challenged and has room to move up, even within their position. Employees need to know that their piece of the puzzle is important.

    • Christine Newman says:

      That’s a great tip, Alicia! It’s so important for people to feel like they have room to grow and learn new skills, even if it’s within the same role.

  • Heather says:

    I love this article! I wish I could share it with my top level admins.

    • Christine Newman says:

      Thanks Heather! I definitely encourage you to share it with your organization – improving morale should be a priority for everyone!

  • Sage says:

    This is everything: “Find ways to recognize and promote your employees’ expertise externally.”

    It’s honestly the best advice I was given years ago. It’s been the best motivator I’ve ever used.

  • Susan Chomsky says:

    Always looking for more ways to engage our team. TY

  • Shelly Gammieri says:

    Love this! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Jennifer says:

    Timely information as we are working on our strategic plan which includes the culture of our organization. Thank you.

  • Karen says:

    Great advice. I particularly like the communication factor. Communication is key to a healthy workplace and understanding how each prefers communication is best.

    • Christine Newman says:

      I totally agree, Karen! Once you really understand communication styles, it makes working with people so much easier.

  • Lisa says:

    Great article! One-on-one check-ins allowing employees to share their ideas and goals with their Supervisors is critical. I would add skip-level meetings once a quarter.

  • Barb says:

    Good stuff. Now how do we get our bosses to read the article?!

    • Christine Newman says:

      Hi Barb – good leaders should always be open to feedback and suggestions (when phrased appropriately). I’d try sending yours a note saying you enjoyed this article and pull out a point or two that you thought your organization could try to implement!

  • Mary Sommer says:

    The idea of fun activities and local discounts sounds much like membership perks. Advancement within some positions can pose a challenge. I also agree with the base issue of communication.

  • Cammi Derr says:

    It’s important that leadership is available and aware of what’s going on in their department. I am seeing that with over-worked leadership, supervision and oversight is reduced and the workers begin taking advantage by leaving early, not really working as much, etc. Our metrics are really beginning to reflect that in this 2nd half of the fiscal year and it’s really going to begin putting a burden on everyone near the end of the year to play catch up.

  • D Stavalo says:

    I completely agree with the importance of listening and letting the staff be heard. What really caught my eye was to “find ways to recognize and promote your employees’ expertise” not necessarily externally. I feel non-profits miss that opportunity when they are trying to “just get the job done”.

  • Markella B says:

    I am definitely going to share this with everyone in my NPO! I would say this is an under-addressed aspect of the nonprofit world and can relate to so many of the points here. Often because we are outwardly focused on serving others, we don’t pay enough attention to caring for ourselves as a staff (or maybe even feel it would be selfish to do so), not realizing that doing so will help us BETTER serve others!

  • Christine Settles says:

    Great ideas here. For me, flexibility is critical. With a preschooler, you never know when you might be called away from the office & knowing that my Org trusts me to get the work done without policing when it’s done takes a huge weight off my mind!

    • Christine Newman says:

      Agreed, Christine! Trusting staff to get their work done without micromanaging definitely helps with morale and employee satisfaction.

  • S. Watson says:

    Great points! Communication, attention to professional development, work/life balance, and respect are my top motivators.


    Great article. I found it very interesting that nonprofits have a high turnover.

  • Janet says:

    Promoting long term employees due to their loyalty without proper professional development is a recipe for disaster especially in a non profit that is growing too quickly. Many senior managers are less qualified than those that are reporting to them and do not have the interpersonal skills needed and end up micromanaging resulting in high turnover. At the agency I was employed in every department guarded their turf and poor communication and lack of transparency resulted. The culture of secrecy was unbelievalbe. Felt suffocated every day for two years.

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