What’s Your People’s Strategic Plan? Why Nonprofit Leaders Should Invest in Talent and Culture
Today’s nonprofit leaders are facing new challenges to their workforce — overwhelming Zoom fatigue, the demands of 24/7 digital connectedness and increasing employee burnout. These challenges are amplified by the societal pressure for greater flexibility around the hybrid workspace, and the nation’s reckoning with racial and social injustice. As a manager struggling to navigate these competing demands, I have one burning question: Where is the roadmap?
What nonprofit leaders need is a "people’s strategic plan," a clear and consistent framework and set of measurable actions to invest in their people and culture. Just like organizations have a strategic plan to achieve financial and programmatic goals, they should they have a roadmap to invest in talent development, too.
Meeting the Moment
If the current dialogue around the Great Resignation is any indication, nonprofit leaders need to make greater investments in their people and culture to create the best professional environment for the sector’s top talent. While recruitment, onboarding, employee development and retention are often treated as separate, unrelated challenges, they should, instead, be viewed as interrelated parts of an organization’s talent development strategy.
By integrating these investments into a larger strategic plan, nonprofit leaders can build a stronger, more cohesive and connected workforce. This will allow them to scale their impact and have the greatest benefit to the communities they serve.
A People’s Strategic Plan: Your Guide to Investing in Talent and Culture
A People’s Strategic Plan is critical to attracting and retaining top talent and to creating an inclusive culture. Grounded in five key pillars, it offers a holistic roadmap and action-oriented strategies for nonprofit managers to build and empower a diverse workforce and create an environment where people can thrive. It should reflect the current landscape and embrace opportunities for the future with a distinct focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and well-being at all levels of an organization.
1. Attract and Hire the Strongest Talent That Reflects Our Multicultural World
From the very first point of contact, nonprofit organizations need to make the case for why a prospective employee should want to work here. Reinforce your mission and values prominently on your website and during one-on-one conversations with candidates. Be prepared to speak not only about the work you do and the communities you serve, but also your organization’s unique culture, opportunities for professional development and potential career paths. If a candidate is applying for a major gifts officer role, share the career trajectory of a major gifts officer over a three- to five-year period. Highlight what makes this career path and the associated opportunities unique. Do you offer a mentorship program? Curated leadership experiences? Employee resource groups?
Furthermore, it’s essential to evaluate recruitment processes from a lens of diversity and inclusion to build and retain the strongest workforce. If I’m a person of color or a working mother, will I feel like there is a place for me at all levels of your organization based on your website, recruitment materials or interview experience? This is especially relevant when I look at your senior leadership team. Is there an executive who looks like me? Who has shared lived experiences? Candidates are not just looking for a job; they are looking for a vibrant professional community where they can authentically be and grow. Show them what makes your culture special and how they can be an integral part of your future.
2. Build Community Through Onboarding Experiences That Set Employees Up for Success
Onboarding is grounded in community building. It is a key moment when organizations welcome new team members and make them feel valued, energized, and prepared with the knowledge and resources to be successful. Yet in today’s remote environment, new employees are often expected to hit the ground running without a purposeful onboarding experience.
An effective way for organizations to onboard new team members is by offering a one- or two-day workshop for new employees each quarter. This curated convening might include a CEO state of the company, perspectives from diverse colleagues and a deep dive into the projects for which new employees will be responsible. Including mid- and senior-level leaders sends a powerful message to new employees: “You are valued, and we are invested in your success.”
While onboarding new team members in a remote environment can be challenging, there are ways to make the experience impactful. Be creative—send a custom welcome box to new employees with a branded notebook, coffee mug and something to make their remote workspace special, like a succulent plant or headphones for upcoming Zoom calls.
A positive onboarding experience builds a strong foundation for new employees to feel like valued members of your professional community. It energizes and empowers your future leaders with the knowledge, resources and support to thrive.
3. Invest in Professional Development Opportunities That Fuel Innovation and Growth
As employees experience project successes, gain confidence in their role, and build relationships at their organization, they will begin to crave new learning experiences that will accelerate their career advancement. Offer opportunities for employees to learn timely and relevant content from subject matter experts, build relationships with team and industry leaders, and enhance their technical and interpersonal skills. By prioritizing and facilitating professional development opportunities — and by covering the associated costs — organizations demonstrate their continued investment in employees’ growth, project success and career satisfaction.
Do your employees have great ideas but struggle to communicate them clearly and with confidence? Hire a coach to elevate their public speaking skills. Have they expressed interest in networking with industry professionals? Invite them to join you at an upcoming conference or nominate them for a local association board. Would they benefit from learning best practices from senior colleagues? Assign them a mentor to serve as a role model and trusted advisor.
When I joined my current organization, I was assigned a seasoned member of my team to serve as a mentor. This person offered guidance on projects, effective strategies to navigate organizational culture and motivation when I needed support. My mentorship experience built a strong foundation for professional growth and future success. More importantly, I developed a strong relationship with a senior colleague whom I continue to learn from years later.
4. Develop a Rewarding Career Path and Celebrate Wins
Organizations often struggle to retain key team members who see opportunities for greater innovation or compensation elsewhere. An employee’s desire to leave an organization in pursuit of new opportunities can be jarring, but the situation highlights the need to work proactively to develop personalized and rewarding career plans.
Just like hiring the right candidates, organizations will only retain key team members by showing them that they are an integral part of the organization’s future. This includes setting ambitious yet attainable goals, discussing key milestones for advancement, and facilitating conversations around leadership and performance with greater regularity.
Personally, I schedule quarterly career check-ins with my executive. During these meetings, we workshop project challenges and identify growth opportunities that reflect my professional aspirations and unique identity. Through these conversations, we have built a strong working relationship grounded in open dialogue, honesty and trust.
Beyond career conversations, nonprofit leaders should recognize employee excellence and celebrate accomplishments. This can be done formally though industry awards and organization-wide newsletters, and informally through ongoing positive feedback. At our organization, we have a weekly “Good News” email that highlights employees’ project wins across the company. To be featured in “Good News” is a point of pride whether you are a first-year associate or a seasoned leader. Celebrating wins builds community while recognizing the individual and collective accomplishments that distinguish an organization’s people and culture.
5. Prioritize Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Wellbeing to Create a Thriving Workplace
America’s reckoning with social and racial injustice has demanded that nonprofits reevaluate organizational structure, leadership composition and culture from a lens of racial and social equity. From top to bottom, organizations must build a diverse workforce, offer equal opportunities to succeed, and cultivate an inclusive environment that prioritizes mental health and well-being.
What this looks like is building and developing teams that reflect the communities in which we live, and where employees of all backgrounds and identities are heard, valued and set up for success. One way to lift up diverse backgrounds and shared lived experiences is to establish employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs, such as “people of color,” “women’s leadership,” or “working parents,” offer meaningful support for employees networking within an organization and tools for greater employee engagement.
As leaders build authentic relationships with team members, they will be challenged to lead with greater compassion and empathy. To respond to overwhelming burnout and Zoom fatigue, organizations must prioritize employee mental health and emotional well-being. Reaffirm mental health by encouraging employees to use their sick days and offer dedicated opportunities to disconnect and recharge. This could include a morning meditation series or a wellness budget for employees to enjoy a gym membership or other activities that promote a healthy lifestyle.
A people’s strategic plan is the cornerstone to investing holistically in talent and culture. If organizations want to be employees’ “career home,” then leaders need to take specific, measurable actions to demonstrate their investment in employees’ personal wellbeing in addition to professional success.
As nonprofit leaders continue to navigate an evolving environment, it is essential to create a workplace that reinforces their mission, reflects their values, and supports their people to achieve the highest levels of innovation, performance and growth. If these dedicated activities are pillars of organizations’ identity and culture, then nonprofits can unlock the extraordinary potential of their people and their teams.
Elizabeth Abel is an expert in nonprofit fundraising and thought leader in philanthropy. She has designed, advised, and directed development initiatives and capital campaigns that have collectively raised nearly half a billion dollars, positively impacting tens of thousands of lives.
Elizabeth is a senior vice president at CCS Fundraising, a global fundraising consulting firm to nonprofit organizations. In this role, she provides counsel on strategic planning, major gifts fundraising and board engagement. She is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania where she teaches “Fundraising & Philanthropy: The Donor Journey” to graduate students in the Nonprofit Leadership Program. Beyond the classroom, you can find Elizabeth offering her fundraising expertise at industry conferences, on nonprofit podcasts and on social media platforms, including LinkedIn and Instagram. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter and is an avid hiker, traveler and tea drinker.