The Secret to Managing Nonprofit Staff

managing nonprofit staff

Shh… I’m gonna let you in on a little secret.

Why did you choose to work at a nonprofit? How about your staff? Certainly it’s not for the money.

But to understand the answer is the key to managing your employees.

After all, it’s really easy to screw this up. Way easier than in corporate America.

During my fourteen years in corporate America, my expectations as an employee in order of importance were:

  1. To be paid bi-weekly
  2. To be treated with respect by my boss
  3. To work with my boss to set annual goals so I understood what success looked like
  4. To make a significant contribution to the bottom line of the organization (in my last years at Showtime Networks, that meant extracting money from Don King)
  5. To secure a very nice year-end bonus if I delivered aforementioned significant contribution

The list isn’t quite the same for managing nonprofit staff, is it?

Here’s what nonprofit people care about:

  1. To be given the opportunity to have a voice
  2. To make a significant contribution to a cause that is deeply and personally meaningful to them
  3. To be treated as a three dimensional person and not just as “a worker”
  4. To work with a boss to set goals and expectations so that success is clear
  5. To be paid bi-weekly

Nonprofit folks have made a tradeoff. No year-end bonus. The anxiety of wondering if there’s enough cash in the bank to even get paid bi-weekly. It’s about commitment to the work or cause itself and the stakes feel really high.

The most important item for nonprofit people is having a voice. Great nonprofit managers understand this.

Here’s what a nonprofit staffer wants to feel and think.

“Decisions aren’t being handed down to me. I believe my thoughts, insights, and opinions have real value in shaping decisions.”

As an organizational leader managing staff, there are a lot of ways you can help your employees feel empowered. Here are two that have worked really well for me.


My eldest daughter Scout once referred to me as the “might” in our family.  I thought this was “mighty” high praise. She did mean power, but it was a double entendre, because I used the word “might” so often.

The power of “might”

Here’s what Scout meant. Instead of directly leading someone to an answer, I begin a sentence with a staff member (or a daughter) with this phrase: “You might want to think about …” I also think of it as helping a staff member “try something on” in response to some problem they are trying to solve. It offers a sense of ownership. It can even lead to a conversation about why someone might not.

The power of ownership

One day Glennda, my lead programming person (today an Executive Director in her own right) came into my office with a knotty problem she was struggling with. She asked for my help.  I asked her a simple question:

What would you do if I weren’t here – if the decision was entirely yours? 

With that, Glennda spoke for maybe 5 minutes, outlining the pros and cons of each different option. Without my saying a word, she reached a conclusion about how to resolve it.

I spoke two more words: Sounds good. And with that Glennda left the office with her problem resolved.

Sound good? Hope so. You might want to consider this approach. It might lead to a boost in morale, a more cohesive management team, and that little bit of the world you are changing could get just a little bit bigger.

Do you have any other tips you’d like to share? Please weigh in below in the comments.


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