8 Ways to Build a Resilient Nonprofit Team and Prevent Employee Churn

6 min
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Rebecca Paredes

Resilience isn’t just for athletes; it’s an essential skill for an agile productive nonprofit team. Long hours and even longer to-do lists can lead to stress, burnout, and ultimately employee churn. This is true for many industries, and it’s particularly true for people who work at nonprofits. When your day job involves facing some of humanity’s biggest struggles, you need to feel empowered to tackle the daily tasks that help you make an impact on your cause. 

Keep your team motivated through resilience. Here’s what you should know about resiliency and nonprofits, along with eight tips to help your team feel strong and supported.

What Is Resiliency?

Resilience is a person’s ability to bounce back from adversity, whether it’s something small (like a missed deadline) or something major (like not hitting a campaign goal). A resilient person takes the blow, figures out what worked and what didn’t, applies that learning, and continues to thrive. 

This skill is tested when times get tough, like planning a stressful event or coordinating a cross-channel marketing campaign. Stress isn’t the only thing that can test a person’s resilience, but it’s a key player because stress in the workplace is exceedingly common and can affect your team in more ways than one. 

Stress at work can lead to physical, mental, and emotional strain. All of that increases the risk of burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion after periods of prolonged stress. Burned-out employees don’t feel or perform their best, and whether you’re feeling the effects of burnout yourself, or you’re a team lead with struggling employees, burnout can affect everyone at an organization. 

Fostering resilience on your team helps keep the lights on, the morale high, and the engine chugging. And in the nonprofit industry, it’s a crucial skill for teams to develop in order to reach their goals. 

How Resiliency Impacts the Nonprofit Industry

Nonprofit teams routinely have to contend with factors that test resilience, like heavy workloads, limited funding, and the necessity to wear many different hats within an organization. Yet, Classy’s report, World-Changing Work: The Modern Nonprofit Professional’s Experience, found that 84% of nonprofit professionals say they are satisfied in their current role. This leads us to believe that despite the stress nonprofit professionals face, the end result makes them feel like the work is worth it.

This is likely because people who work with nonprofits tend to be highly dedicated to their work and their organization’s mission. You have to believe in what you’re doing to get the work done, but if you’re not prioritizing your own physical and mental health along the way, you’re burning the candle at both ends.

For dedicated nonprofit professionals, a greater emphasis on fostering resilience achieves a few big wins. According to a report by the American Heart Association, resilient employees are associated with the following: 

  • Better stress management at work
  • Greater job satisfaction and happiness 
  • Stronger organizational commitment
  • Better relationships between employees
  • Improved self-esteem

Keep reading for targeted tips to help your team feel supported, find balance, and feel stronger than ever.

8 Steps to Inspire and Motivate a Strong Team

1. Reconnect to Your “Why”

Classy’s survey of nonprofit professionals found that satisfaction rates are highest among those who work closely with fundraising, with 92% saying they are satisfied in their current roles. This high level of satisfaction may be because these individuals often see the impact of their work, are constantly reminded of their mission, and receive positive reinforcement by seeing the generosity of donors.

Tap into these elements and remind yourself and members of your team why you got involved in your organization. Volunteer or plan a trip to the field, or take turns meeting with beneficiaries to learn about and share their stories. 

Use these experiences as extra doses of motivation to light a fire under your team, and take steps to showcase the power of the work you’re doing. Prioritize impact reporting and share programmatic updates to show your entire staff that their work touches someone in a big way. That matters. Sometimes, that’s all a person needs to get their second wind and feel reinvigorated.

2. Prioritize Project Management 

Without proper task management, you and your team risk running into decision fatigue. This refers to the idea that every decision you make chips away at your willpower throughout the day, which makes it that much harder to make impactful choices by the day’s end. 

This can also leave some people picking up “management” tasks for others. For example, if you have three people working on program development, but one person is spending half of their day sending email reminders, gathering content, and keeping the team on task, then that’s four hours they aren’t spending on developing your initiatives.

Avoid this by aligning your team on the same goal, agreeing upon roles, assigning deliverables, and setting timelines. Dividing up the work at the start of a project gives your team a clear path forward. It also creates space for people to set boundaries with their time; as you establish your roles, deliverables, and deadlines, check in with people to ask what’s realistic and what can be pushed back. 

Once you have agreed on a plan, set the team up for efficient cross-collaboration with a project management tool. Some tools, like Asana and Monday, make it easy to build out complex projects with multiple steps and stakeholders. You can even upload essential assets (like images and PDFs) in one place, instead of searching for files in your email inbox. Other tools, like Trello and Wrike, function like dynamic to-do lists to track the workflow of multiple projects. 

Many of these tools have free versions, so try a few out to find what works for your team. You may find the free version works based on how many people you have in your organization, or that you need to upgrade based on the complexity of what you need to track.

3. Diversify Your Fundraising Strategy

Unfortunately, many nonprofit struggles begin and end with budget. This is true for overhead costs of retaining employees as much as it is program development. Lower salaries and a lack of benefits are only sustainable for so long, and if you want to keep your most valued employees, you need to find ways to earmark budget for them. 

This is no small feat, but as the number one reason that nonprofit employees quit and the highest priority for increased satisfaction among current nonprofit employees, it would be a miss to not discuss it. 

One way that your team can allocate more budget—that can trickle and impact employee salaries and benefits—is to diversify your fundraising strategy and double down on corporate sponsorship opportunities. 

Luckily for nonprofits, more for-profit businesses are investing in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs because younger generations demand it. 

Millennials’ opinions about business continue to diminish, in part due to views that businesses focus solely on their own agendas rather than considering the consequences for society. Fifty-five percent said business has a positive impact on society, down from 61 percent in 2018. Many say they will not hesitate to lessen or end a consumer relationship when they disagree with a company’s business practices, values or political leanings.

The 2019 Deloitte Millennial Survey

Because of this, more and more corporations are taking philanthropy more seriously, with strategies that span well beyond the traditional CSR program. This is a huge opportunity for nonprofits, as a partnership could mean monetary donations, in-kind donations, or discounted software or tools. All of these can offset other areas of your budget to help improve employee salaries. 

Download: World-Changing Work—The Modern Nonprofit Professional’s Experience

4. Establish Clear Career Paths

Great companies have great people, and the same is true for nonprofits. As a manager, make it your goal to support your team’s professional development. Investing in your staff’s training and learning opportunities is a key way to avoid employee churn because it gives your employees a clear path forward in their careers, whether they’re moving up the professional ladder or learning new skills that open up new opportunities within a role.

When you identify how an employee’s skills and passions align with your nonprofit’s needs, you signal to your team that their professional goals and skills have a role in your nonprofit’s success. That recognition creates a sense of purpose, but it also helps your employees feel supported, engaged, and motivated, even when the going gets tough. 

To get the conversation started, schedule regular check-ins with your direct reports to give feedback, talk about pain points, and identify opportunities for growth. During your one-on-ones, ask your employees about their short-term and long-term goals, and discuss how you can make those goals happen within your nonprofit.

Additionally, offer professional development options for your team. Here are a few ideas:

  • Set aside funds to send employees to workshops or seminars that align with their professional goals, or offer to reimburse a portion of their costs. 
  • Create or join a career mentoring program to help employees at the start of their career interact with senior employees.
  • Ask employees what professional skills they would like to develop, and host seminars or presentations around those topics. Alternatively, offer access to platforms like LinkedIn Learning or Udemy for online courses or certification programs, like what you can find at edX.

5. Advocate for Work-Life Balance 

If a team leader is in heads-down work mode 24/7, you’re setting the expectation that other members of your team will follow suit, too. The problem is that not everyone can work at the same high-octane output around the clock, nor should they. That’s why managers should be vocal about the importance of work-life balance. To get there, routinely check in with your team. 

Ask questions like:

  • Do you feel like you have enough time to accomplish your tasks?
  • Do you have what you need to get your work done?
  • What challenges do you face right now, and how can we find a solution?
  • Are you clear on the priorities and goals of your tasks right now?

Remember that you (as a manager) set the tone for your team, and you have a responsibility to talk the talk and walk the walk. Be mindful and vocal about taking time off and limiting communication to work hours whenever possible. This serves two purposes: it sends the message to your team that self-care is an expectation, and it gives you space to take care of yourself, too.

6. Celebrate Wellness

Wellness and work are not mutually exclusive. Help your team bounce back from adversity by empowering them to manage their stress and put their best foot forward at work. Advocate for practices and programs that help your team feel happy, motivated, and inspired. This doesn’t mean ping pong tables or happy hours. Instead, invest in ways to help make your staff’s lives easier. Here are a few ideas:

  • Partner with a local gym or yoga studio to offer free or discounted memberships.
  • Offer discounts for goods and services, like a local dry cleaner or an online music streaming service.
  • Allow flexible or remote work schedules so it’s easier for people to schedule appointments or pick up their kids.
  • Send email reminders with self-care tips like meditating, taking walks throughout the day, or a 10-minute break from screens. Make sure that your employees know that self-care is a priority and encouraged and not just something you mentioned in passing one time.

7. Foster a Sense of Community

Stress and burnout thrive in isolation. By creating a strong community within your nonprofit, you encourage collaboration, help your staff understand they’re not alone, and expose opportunities to lighten the load. For example, if everyone on your team is stressed about a looming deadline, see if there’s an opportunity to push the deadline back or distribute the workload differently. 

Creating a strong community makes it easier for people to feel empowered to advocate for their needs. Half the battle of building a resilient team is understanding these stress points and avoiding bottleneck situations where an entire project is held up due to a fear of speaking up or asking for help. 

While team-building activities can help build community, once-in-awhile events will only take you so far. Instead, consider hosting weekly gratitude conversations. In these roundtable discussions, open up the floor to allow members of your staff to share one thing they’re grateful for, whether it’s a gratitude from work or their personal life. Gratitude is more personal than talking about success, and it’s more motivating than lingering on setbacks. By refocusing the conversation on what makes your team feel most grateful, you invite connection and introspection. 

8. Communicate Regularly and Openly

Internal communication is as important as external communication. Regular communication with your team about priorities and project status is grounding because it helps frame the conversation and reiterate objectives. 

One easy way to improve communication is to host a debrief after major events and campaigns. Talk about metrics, what worked, what didn’t work, roadblocks your team faced, and lessons to incorporate into the next project. This is another place where actions will speak louder than words. Take those lessons and stick to them so your team understands that not everything is the same uphill battle. 

Communication extends to the way you handle problems and obstacles, too. How you respond to stressors sets the tempo for your team. In order to show your team how to respond to adversity and thrive, treat problems as learning opportunities, and be vocal about the steps you take to find a solution.

Conclusion

You’ll notice that all of these tips hinge on one essential skill: communication. When you engage with your employees about their projects, workload, and career, you’re building a sense of community. Remember, great companies have great people, and great nonprofits are built by resilient teams. When you prioritize communication, you’re connecting with a person’s humanity, recognizing their professional goals, and prioritizing their emotional well-being. That’s a win across the board.

For more resources on building a highly resilient and effective team, make sure to watch the recordings from the live sessions at the Collaborative: Virtual Sessions, as well as over 20 bonus Extended Sessions, for free below.


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