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How to Retain Your Nonprofit Employees During a Recession

If you think the Great Resignation was bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

If you’re at all familiar with our vibe here at Do Good Better, we are a glass nearly overflowing full irrationally positive humans who think the best is always currently in front of you or just on the horizon.

But we’re realists too. And what the nonprofit sector is going to experience – especially when it comes to its workforce – will be a tough, anxiety-ridden rollercoaster of emotions. Like watching the final 3 episodes of Stranger Things and wondering - “Do I really have 7 hours to watch all this before I go to bed, because I have so many meetings tomorrow and I’m trying to be responsible with my self care and sleep regiment…oh, hell, I need to see what Eddie is about to do”- kind of anxiety-ridden.

Expect large donors to give more, and smaller donors to slowly vanish.

Expect more people to need your programs, and that you will need to justify the rising costs associated with them.

Expect that your board will ask your leadership to dig deep and provide more to those you serve, and also ask unreasonably for more money from fewer supporters.

Expect a younger generation to ask what you know about a band called “Metallica” and why Master of Puppets is so awesome, and if you’ve ever heard of them before.

Good Lord, I’m old.

I’m also increasingly worried about nonprofits being able to hang onto talented leaders and up-in-coming rockstars in the sector during a recession.

We actually wrote about this a few months ago on our blog – READ HERE! – as this storm began to creep up on the nonprofit sector.

Finding amazing employees is always a challenge for organizations – especially small and medium sized do-gooding nonprofits – and with the entire global economy looking for unicorn-type humans to fill company gaps, ensuring our tribe sticks with us during this next bout of turbulence is critical.

However, as always, we have your back, friends! Here are 3 Ways to Retain Your Nonprofit Employees…even during a Recession:

1. Raise Salaries. And Raise Money to Raise Salaries.

Simply put, you need to pay your employees more to keep them at your nonprofit. Data from a survey conducted by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank asked companies to reveal their labor market strategy, and what they did to keep staff. The number one answer? Pay more.

This is a tough conversation to have with your leadership team, board and your own brain as a nonprofit leader: How can we find the money to pay our employees more?

Easy. Fundraise for it.

Your donors are smart, savvy and dedicated to your mission and impact in the community. They understand that the market and inflation is upside-down. They, too, feel it at the pump and the grocery store. You don’t have to justify that competitive pay is a luxury to retain your employees – you can prove that its necessary.

Does it directly impact programs and services? Hell yes it does. If you don’t have the staff to run the programs at your organization, then you have no programs. Salaries are DIRECTLY tied to how well your nonprofit is run and how much good you can do for those you serve.

There is NO SHAME in wanting to pay your employees more. There is NO SHAME in asking your supporters to help you accomplish this.

How? Here’s the verbiage:

“In order to ensure the highest quality of care for those we serve, and lessen the financial worry at home for our employees, we are asking our donors to help raise $XX,XXX in funding to assist our organization in closing the inflationary gap in pay for our front-line heroes at this nonprofit.”

Not one donor will blink an eye at that kind of language.

They get it. You are doing the work that the government can’t, won’t or shouldn’t do. Your staff need and deserve a pay-raise.

And your donors are just the folks to help you get it done.

2. Offer Unlimited PTO & a Results Only Work Environment

You know what is more valuable than money nowadays?


Time with family. Time away from the office. Time for yourself.

One of the best books I have ever read is “Work Sucks. And How to Fix It.” A brilliant read by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson on a system of trust and accountability, but most of all, the idea that we don’t need to be in the office for the sake of being in the office.

A Results Only Work Environment.

Here are the highlights. You have a list of things to get done for the nonprofit/company. You have benchmarks to hit and things to do. And if you can get them done WELL and on time, there is no reason you have to ask permission to go to a dentist appointment, watch you kiddo play tee-ball in the afternoon, or take a random Wednesday off to go golfing.

You achieved what was asked and expected of you. And did it awesomely. So no need to ask for time off. Because you rock.

Now, does this work for EVERYONE? No. We’re all aware that some folks like a strict schedule, and more formalized, old-school mindset. BUT, for those who value the flexibility and assistance with navigating a chaotic outside-of-work-life, this is an ideal and really easy way to show your staff that you see, acknowledge and trust them.

ESPECIALLY for your fundraising folks.

The more you give to your team, the more they will give to you.

It also will force your hand in being more communicative about what is expected, what is needed and how you can help them accomplish the goals of the organization.

Speaking of which…

3. Communicate Dammit!

Your staff want to know what is going on.

What direction is the organization headed to avoid rocky waters? How is this environment affecting those you are serving? How can they help make the community a better place through your nonprofit?

Have you ever had an annual review from a boss, where you were blindsided by some issue they had with you, or something you did wrong in their eyes…and it was the FIRST time you even heard about it?

During your review no less?

Annual reviews should be just that: a review. A review of all the things you have done and continuously talk about throughout the year. There should be ZERO surprises in this meeting.

If I can emphasize a single thing you can do to retain your employees: do not keep them in the dark.

Be involved. Be engaged. Be curious.

Your knowledge of impending frustration or needs from your staff or co-workers is critical so that you can help relieve the pressure of feeling that the financial weight of the world is on the shoulders of your fundraisers, or the unreasonable belief that global eyeballs need to be focused directly on your nonprofit from your marketing team.

Ask authentically curious questions of those you work with – and not in an annoying, chat-to-just-chat and waste time conversations a la Bill Lumbergh from Office Space kinda way – to understand at a more visceral level the potential stress or need to celebrate wins on the team.

Yes, this takes a very conscious effort on your part as a nonprofit leader.

But the payoff is making sure that you can head off discontent or confusion WAY before your best talent serves you with walking papers en route to a corporate job that they deem better than wading through lack of communication produced by you and the organization.

If we are reading the tea leaves correctly, you’re going to want to make some adjustments in the way you help insulate your organization from the winds of recession-like change coming.

But, you’re a nonprofit rock star. So of course you freaking got this!

Now, go get ‘em!



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