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Budget-friendly ideas to retain nonprofit staff

Posted September 12, 2017 by Virginia Davidson

Ideas to retain nonprofit staff

A few years ago, I arrived bleary-eyed at my desk the morning after a big event hosted by the nonprofit organization I worked for. I was tired out from the months of preparation and from the event itself, but as any fundraiser knows there’s still plenty of follow-up work to be done after an event, too.

My eyes brightened when I saw an envelope with my name on it. Inside was a gift card to the local ice cream shop. Along with it, the executive director had written a note of thanks for my hard work and encouraged me to enjoy the warm weather by taking a break for an ice cream treat. It was a thoughtful and seemingly small gesture that each staff member was treated to that morning—but it was also indicative of an organizational culture that cared for its employees and was mindful of providing us with non-monetary benefits. We worked hard, and we also felt appreciated and respected.

These non-monetary benefits and actions by leaders like the ones I experienced are incredibly important for nonprofit employees, for whom salaries tend to be low. In 2013, a national study exploring challenges facing the nonprofit sector confirmed that there are high levels of turnover throughout the sector and lengthy vacancies in development positions. Of course, it’s not just development positions that are vulnerable to high turnover. Program staff and administrative staff are also plagued with a revolving door. This phenomenon strains organizations’ ability to achieve their missions.

I wanted to learn how nonprofits of any size can implement strategies to retain staff, so I reached out to Laura Weinman of Kistner Eddy Executive Services (KEES). Laura has more than 20 years of experience with development staff recruitment and staff management. She loves supporting the nonprofit sector by helping to build transformative teams so they can do what they do best, change the world for the better! Laura shared a wealth of information.

First, the cost of turnover:

KEES’ research found the cost of turnover to be 150% of the vacant position’s salary. Why so high? There are a number of key factors:

  • Stress placed on other staff members
  • Expense of searching for, hiring, and onboarding a new employee
  • Value of lost caseload activity, especially with regard to fundraising—each time a development position turns over, there are lost opportunities for cultivation and stewardship of donors

Thankfully, the following proven strategies help with both preventing turnover and retaining existing staff.

Competitive salary

Determine what a competitive wage is for your organization and for the position you’re filling. Laura recommends conducting a salary study to get a sense of an appropriate salary range. What do other organizations in your geographic area pay? When hiring staff, trying to get a bargain will likely backfire on you. Equally as important, you don’t want to disrupt your salary scale for one person; otherwise, you may have a harder time retaining the rest of your staff.

Non-monetary benefits

Even with limited budgets, there are plenty of non-monetary benefits that you can provide, such as:

  • Increased time off
  • Opportunities to work remotely
  • Employee appreciation days
  • Recognition – though Laura cautions that, when recognizing employees, it’s important to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Some employees may relish being recognized at a staff meeting; for others, that attention could be unwanted and they’d prefer to not be publicly recognized
  • Spot benefits – these are unexpected, small surprises like the gift cards mentioned previously. Consider gifts cards to a local coffee shop, or giving the staff a Friday afternoon off. Tip: When announcing time off, give advance notice so that employees can plan ahead and take advantage of the perk.

Increased communication

  • Avoid surprises. Be as transparent as possible with your staff, and share impending changes with them
  • Learn what your employees’ aspirations and goals are
  • Whenever possible, work to align your organization’s goal with employee goals

Professional development

Talk to employees about what interests them, and provide them with opportunities to grow:

  • Promotions
  • Educational grants
  • Funding to attend seminars: Your local or state nonprofit association is a great resource for training as well as for scholarship funding
  • Encourage employees to leave the office for networking lunches or coffee with colleagues at other organizations


Replacing staff takes time and money away from your mission. By implementing some of these practical tips from Laura Weinman, you can retain staff and increase the effectiveness of your organization. Last but not least, thanks to Laura for sharing her expertise!


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