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Roxann Mayros headshotBy Roxann Mayros, CEO, VisionServe Alliance

 In today’s environment, nonprofits working in this “blindness biz,” face many challenges, including tight budgets, a new tax law that could impact donations, an aging and scarce workforce, a more culturally diverse citizenry, and an aging population that will need vision rehabilitation services.  All combined, this means that VisionServe members have little choice but to think and act in new ways to attract, motivate, and keep employees to meet the varied expectations of community, clients/patients, funding sources, elected officials, boards of directors, interest groups, and the media.

I truly believe that recruiting and retaining good employees in the nonprofit sector is more difficult than recruiting and retaining good employees in the for-profit sector.  Unlike businesses, many VisionServe Alliance members are too small to provide meaningful career development opportunities, or salaries and benefits that are competitive with for-profit businesses. In many cases, foundations, United Way, and other funding sources, will support programs and services, but not salaries or continuing education.   And because the largest line item on a nonprofit budget is the salary line, it is the easiest place to cut when a budget needs trimming.

Funders and donors should assure that their financial support includes resources for employee development and retention; and boards of directors should resist hiring under-qualified candidates, accept the need to pay qualified candidates well, and to fill key positions even if that means increasing “overhead” costs.  Salaries must reflect the realities of an increasingly competitive marketplace that allows a nonprofit to “get the right people on the bus and in the right seats,” as explained by Jim Collins.

With that said, the reality is that most nonprofits do lack the necessary funding, which is why I encourage you to think like VisionServe Alliance member, Association for Vision Rehabilitation and Employment (AVRE) in Binghamton, NY.  The NonProfit Times recently named AVRE one of the top 50 Best Places to Work in the United States!  In talking with AVRE’s CEO, Ken Fernald, I asked what got them on this list.  His answer, “We consciously care about the life/work balance.  At AVRE, we believe in trust, family first, freedom to make adult decisions in the workplace, and we are not clock watchers. If there is something going on in an employee’s personal life, they let us know, and we make adjustments to help them balance work and life.  This is where trust comes in.  We provide a generous PTO policy that each employee controls – they don’t have to tell a story about a doctor’s appointment to take time to go to the ballgame.  They know their workload, project deadlines, and their responsibilities on the job.  We trust them to make the right decisions.  It doesn’t mean we don’t monitor or counsel, but we have a culture of trust.

We also do a few other things like Fitness Friday where we invite in a yoga instructor or nutritionist.  We have a Health & Wellness Committee who find ways for employees to do things together.  For example, we have a competitive hoola hoop group that meets each week after work, and we recently had a relay race in our parking lot where blindfolded employees raced with an egg on a spoon.  It was one of the best bonding experiences ever!  I also have a Stand-Up Meeting with each department monthly, where I spend a few minutes updating them before I stand up and listen – to the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Ken told me that these are just a few examples of how they support their employees, and ended our call by saying, “The bottom line is that even though we pay good salaries and provide generous benefits, but most importantly, we truly care about employees by believing in the work/life balance and trusting each employee to be the best they can.”

Another example of providing non-salary benefits is at Wegman’s Supermarkets, a family-owned and managed business, consistently named by Fortune Magazine as a best place to work. Wegman’s embraces a motto, “Employees First, Customers Second.”  At first glance this appears upside down to the more commonly heard motto, “Our Customers (clients/patients) Are #1.”  Wegman’s allows employees to meet family obligations, creates opportunities for employees to participate in company decisions, and provide extensive training to both managers and employees. Wegman’s says, “We believe we can achieve our goal only if we fulfill the needs of our people.”

Nonprofit funders and donors, boards of directors, and nonprofit leaders can learn from both AVRE and Wegman’s.  Pay your employees as well as possible, support them in every way possible, but also create a culture and attitude within the organization that supports and motivates employees without spending a lot of money.  Here are a few more ideas:

  • Provide opportunities for part-time employment, flexible hours, job sharing, work-from-home, and mentoring.
  • Continually ask employees about their work systems and/or environment and whether it is causing satisfaction or not. Ask them how to reduce organizational inefficiencies that drain their time and energy, including useless paperwork or rules that impede creativity.
  • Encourage open communication in both directions – tell employees about the loss of funding or an increase in health insurance costs and include them in the decision process.
  • Encourage employees to apply for open positions before seeking people from the outside.
  • Make employees feel they are part of a team or, in some cases, part of a family! The better nonprofit employees feel about themselves and their role in the organization the better they will feel about the clients/patients/students they serve.
  • And last, but far from least, implement the MBWA Policy – Management by Walking Around. Executive Directors and managers with integrity and concern for employees, regularly wander around assessing the mood of staff and seeking input.

The environment for nonprofits in the twenty-first century has changed how many organizations are structured, the way work is organized and produced, and even how employees and their work are managed.  Nonprofits who realize and embrace the notion that employees are an important asset and critical to the organization’s success, will ensure that the organization remains robust and effectively meeting society’s needs.

What other ways does your company attract and retain its employees? Please respond in the comments below.