Which came first: nonprofit workplace issues or the pandemic?

According to the most recent Nonprofit Benchmark Priorities Report conducted by Wipfli, the top challenge that nonprofit leaders reported—employee burnout—is not a new concern. Workforce-related issues have been rising dramatically over the past few years, but the pandemic brought them into new focus. Indeed, workforce issues were identified as a top challenge by only 8.5% of respondents in 2018, compared to 62% of respondents in 2021.

But how do you cultivate a culture of innovation in a nonprofit where it does not traditionally exist? No foolproof plan exists, but five techniques can help get you and your staffers in the right mindset.

Three Challenges at the Top

Burnout isn’t the only serious challenge identified in the geographically diverse report. Fundraising was the second-most identified challenge, followed by recruitment. Here’s more about these concerns for nonprofit organizations:

1. Employee Engagement

Burnout is real. Organizational culture, engagement, and morale suffered as nonprofits switched to remote work environments and, in the case of performance venues, prolonged closures. For organizations focused on human services missions such as medicine, public health, and social services, increased demand underscored employee exhaustion.

Nonprofit executives identified several leadership and management development challenges related to engagement, with communication ranked at the top by 46% of respondents. Employee safety ranked second, with 44% of respondents naming it as a priority for the upcoming year. Both of these priorities have clear links to the pandemic.

Because remote work arrangements will likely continue for many organizations and safety concerns are still relevant, renewed thinking is required for employee engagement. The survey suggests several steps to building a new, strong culture.

  • Assess your current situation. A culture “audit” will let you know how your organization is faring today and which issues demand prioritized action. Consider an employee survey and focus groups followed by assessment and recommendations.
  • Use the right tools. Everyone who works remotely must have updated technology and training to be productive offsite.
  • Be clear. Be explicitly clear about what you expect from your employees in terms of hours, reporting, work product, and interaction.
  • Create a water cooler. It’s hard to overstate the importance of casual interaction. For all employees—remote and in-office—end-of-week check-ins or social hours offer a way to get to know and learn from each other.
  • Respect schedules. Just because people are working remotely doesn’t mean they’re available at all hours. Be respectful of workers’ life balance.

2. Fundraising

It’s no surprise that fundraising was the survey’s top financial concern for nonprofit executives. Fundraising is always top of mind for these leaders, but the past two years have created special challenges. With appealing, reliable events like galas and fun runs off the calendar, nonprofit organizations have had to try new ways to attract attention and wallet share.

Among other financial priorities for the year are identifying additional grant opportunities, implementing operational efficiencies, addressing employee compensation and benefits, and improving program metrics and results.

To meet these financial challenges, the survey suggests several steps:

  • Use technology. Technology has never been so important to fundraising. A slick website with an easy-to-use donor portal, social media links, and proactive database management can make the difference between financial success and a so-so financial picture.
  • Tap the board. Your board has a lot to offer in terms of financial analysis, donor experience, and fundraising innovations. Use them as a sounding board and as fundraising ambassadors.
  • Get the right people. As your fundraising needs evolve, so must your team. Think about restructuring or hiring to optimize skills and talents.
  • Focus on process. Small changes can have big impact. Consider how your team works and tighten up any loose connections and processes.

3. Recruitment/Workforce

According to Pew Research Center, 30 million baby boomers retired in the third quarter of 2020. This “Great Retirement” comes in tandem with the “Great Resignation,” which saw 4 million workers leave their jobs just in July 2021. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of these workers are in the 30-45 age range, so they represent seasoned employees who carry a significant amount of institutional knowledge.

How can your organization find and keep the talent you need? Try these approaches:

Cast a wide net. Of course, you can use the typical online resources to post your job openings and attract candidates, but don’t overlook other sources of referrals. Your team of trusted advisors—CPAs, attorneys, board members, and insurance agents—know a variety of people with a range of skills and talents. Depending on the breadth of your search and mission, you can also turn to the nonprofit industry, chambers of commerce, and even neighborhood websites for candidates. Think out of the box.

  • Create good job descriptions. Be as specific as you can about the experience and skills you’re seeking while leaving the door open to different types of workers. A candidate doesn’t necessarily have to have done the same job before if his or her skills are transferrable to your circumstances.
  • Onboard aggressively. Wow your new hires with a great experience. Get the whole team involved in welcoming, educating, and assisting new workers. Make your expectations known, and offer plenty of support.
  • Refine succession plans. Create a strategic document that covers next steps if an executive, board member, or key worker leaves your organization. Be aware of how you can grow and develop in-house talent into leadership positions.

Make a Plan, Take Heart

Your organizational priorities may not line up precisely with those outlined in the survey, but chances are there is some overlap. As mentioned above, it might be wise to consider a survey of your own to get the pulse of your workforce and determine your priorities.

While workforce issues seem daunting and competition for talent is stiff, nonprofit organizations have proven to be flexible and strong through the pandemic. While many nonprofit organizations have faced enormous challenges, the majority have survived, learned, and adjusted. Nonprofit leaders tend to be good problem solvers, which sets them up for success now and in the future.

Our team can help you tackle your toughest challenges and focus on your top priorities. Contact us today.


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Our firm provides the information in this article for general guidance only, and does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services, investment advice or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional tax, accounting, legal or other competent advisors. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional advisor who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation. Tax articles in this blog are not intended to be used, and cannot be used by any taxpayer, for the purpose of avoiding accuracy-related penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer. The information is provided “as is,” with no assurance or guarantee of completeness, accuracy or timeliness of the information, and without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including but not limited to warranties of performance, merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose.




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