Staff are people, too.

At nonprofit organizations, staff members (or, often, volunteers) can be equated to the programs they administer.

Program coordinator = program.

Ergo, investment in program = investment in program coordinator, right? Right?


Think about it this way. If organizational leadership/management doesn’t invest in a staff member, why should a staff member be invested in an organization? Why should they be loyal to organization leadership/management? Sure, in a tight economy people may feel more tied to a job that usual. But, if you were leading an organization, would you want people working with you to achieve your mission only because they were afraid of unemployment as an alternative? Doesn’t sound like a happy place to work to me.

Millennials, among many other characteristics made through broad, sweeping generalizations, have been said to be loyal to people, not organizations.

So how can we treat staff as people, not programs? How can loyalty be built with Millennials, the next generation of nonprofit leadership? Here are some proposals that spring to mind.

Ask for their opinion

Staff have ideas. But if the ideas are not related to their programs, it may be difficult to find an appropriate place to bring up an idea. So ask. “In your position, you work a lot on ABC. However, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on our work with XYZ as well.” Who knows, you might get some inspiring ideas out of it. People bring diverse work and life experience to a position, so tap into all of it and not just the parts related to their job.

Involve them outside their program area

Especially in the beginning, nonprofit workers are often drawn to an organization because of a belief in a mission. However, their jobs often only related to one small piece of that mission. If there is an appropriate space for committee work – an event that spans the organization’s mission, for example – create a committee to work on it. Granted, we’ve all been on committees that are just huge time sucks; however, speaking from experience, committee work that gets me involved with people and ideas outside of my daily routine can be invigorating.

Cross train

This is kind of an extension of the last point, I suppose. Cross training provides value to individuals, AND organizations. If work is siloed, ie where very clear boundaries are drawn between what is your work and what is mine, it means that losing one individual can cause paralysis to a program. However, especially for young staff that are trying to build their skill and knowledge base, cross training can be invaluable. If a staff member is responsible for communications, but is given an opportunity to learn a bit of grant writing, and maybe facilitate a workshop for program clients, the staff member has gained in experience, and the other program areas have a new person to reach out to in times of staff loss or time crunch.

Make investments in their personal development

I don’t just mean professional development. I mean personal development. Ask where they want to be in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years. While some people are fine with stability and constancy, many are looking ahead to the next move. That might be within the organization, but maybe not, and that’s OK.  What can they get involved with, inside or outside the organization, that can help them on that path? Some people may view this as setting people up for leaving; I believe it’ll keep them around a bit longer than they would have otherwise.

Staff turnover costs an organization money. One step to keep down these costs, and to keep moral up, is to treat staff like people, not just programs.

So, how do you invest in your staff? Or, how have you felt invested in?


  1. I have found non-profits to be pretty receptive to cross-pollination…generally there is so much work to be done that people can’t afford to be territorial about their project or program.

    I started in an admin role in a non-profit 10 years ago, with no clue where I wanted to go professionally. I found that people were happy to have my help in marketing, communications, fundraising, event planning or any other area I pursued, and that helped me refine my career goals over time…and it definitely kept me in my admin job longer than the day-to-day work would have.

    This cross-pollination effect is especially powerful in smaller non-profits, as the fewer the people the more there’s overlap between roles.

    1. I agree – small nonprofits are especially receptive. Everyone pitches in on everything, and job titles are about 20 words long.

  2. I think the heart of treating people like people is to allow them to bring their whole selves to the workplace.

    This plays out in two ways for me:
    1. Valuing that people have lives outside of work. The nonprofit can be flexible to allow employees to adjust their daily schedule to pick up their kids from daycare, or support employees to who want to take a three-week rafting trip down the Grand Canyon

    2. Valuing diversity. If a lesbian employee isn’t sure how comfortable other employees will be when she talks about what she and her partner did this weekend, or an immigrant employee is worried she’ll be judged if she shares about the emotional struggles of her cousin who is in the country illegally – it’s impossible for people to feel they can bring their whole selves to work.

    1. Dawn – I’ve taken a while to respond to your comment, though it’s been on my mind.

      While this post was more so about personal and professional development, your comments about flexible benefits and diversity are also incredibly relevant for (my) workplace satisfaction. It can be very surprising where inflexibility (to work structure/diversity) shows itself in even the most liberal of workplaces.

      Your comment also enhances a future post that I have planned about intersectionality. Often, organizations have a culture which assumes a “normal” – whether that be opinions, preferences, habits, skills, background, etc. Sometimes this assumption of “normal” is paired with other opinions, etc, that appear to be related to the first assumption. However, attaching the second assumption (and often the first, as you describe) can lead to exclusion.

      For example, if I’m a part of a coalition that likes cycling, it might be assumed that I would support advocacy for more bike lanes. However, if you attach on an assumption that all the members would also support meat-free lifestyles, you may be excluding some of the original supporters who also eat meat. Two different characteristics of an individual have “intersectioned” and have caused inadvertent conflict for the individual.

      Does that make sense? I’ll try to flush it out in the future post. Thanks for the thought trigger.

      1. I definitely agree that workplaces & coalitions can get into trouble when we assume some “normal” – we then quickly get frustrated with all the exceptions we have to make for those pesky “abnormal” folks who have kids or different family structures than we do.

        In my experience, it’s more helpful to have that intersectionality out on the table and ask people to respect and accommodate the differences they probably have on other issues. If you ask people to leave those other differences at home, it’s often too easy to slip back into some definition of “normal” as defined by our culture and end up excluding folks who already feel marginalized. Like when your bike coalition only has BBQ served at its meetings, and the vegetarian members just stop coming.

        Looking forward to how your thoughts coalesce on intersectionality!

  3. Involving staff (and volunteers) in making decisions really helps to keep them focused on the vision of the organization. Don’t worry about overcommunication, most leaders don’t do it because we have a really problem with unnecessary redundancy.

    Another strong point made here was the importance of making personal development of utmost importance. Turnover is high in the non-profit sector and I know of a non-profit near me that has gotten many supporters because people have been involved until they were ready to move on to their next big step (college students working on degrees mostly). But if a non-profit helps encourage this growth and people are growing out of your organization… not leaving because they are sick of it, those people help create support in the years to come.

    1. Thanks for the Kudos Jason. I definitely agree with your first point. I try my best (though I know I could do better) to confirm a volunteer or staff member’s value and their role in contributing to the mission.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *