Special Nonprofit Report

How to make the list of the Best Nonprofits to Work For

Mug of coffee with napkin notes which are intended to help you make yours one of the best nonprofits


The NonProfit Times just published its annual report of the “Best Nonprofits to Work For”.  It inspired us to pick the brains of some of the brightest folks we know and get their advice on How a nonprofit can become a place that people flock to, take pride in, and make it onto lists like these in the first place—which are valuable PR products that can be used to boost both employee and donor morale.


What’s more, when you take into consideration many of the stereotypes surrounding a life in nonprofit, which comprise a sort of “culture of martyrdom,” it’s almost like having hit the lottery to have great talent apply in the first place!


What can be done at any organization, regardless of size and financial resources, to attract and keep the best and brightest?


I thought it was vitally important to include a Millennial perspective.  Not (just!) because everyone is obsessed with “understanding the millennial,” but because they quite literally will be the sector’s leaders of tomorrow.  It’s just an added bonus that by satisfying many of their expectations, you’ll also be making those of us who are a bit older more satisfied at the same time.


Emily Goodstein, is Managing Director at West End Strategy Team  and prior to that, worked as Client Success Manager at Blackbaud (formerly Convio) in addition to having held  a variety of positions at a number of nonprofits focused on reproductive rights and Jewish Campus Life.  Emily is also an experienced Cake Decorator and a Birth Story Photographer.  And—yes— you do need to know all of this, because she is a woman who is always all. of. these.


Her response to my question:” What makes an organization one that attracts and keeps great people?” explains her quite well.  “I think it’s crucially important that an organization recognizes the Whole-Self .“ she said, speaking for herself and on behalf of her friends also grouped under the “millennial” umbrella.


“Millennials fully expect that their workplace will be an integral part of their lives.  Their colleagues are as much friends as they are co-workers.  Gone are the days of always going into the office from 9-5 or 6- and then ending the workday.”  Goodstein reminded me that Millennials, are known to be multi-taskers  and often characterized by having numerous tabs open in their browser at the same time. She suggested thinking of each tab as a slice of their whole self and identity.  In her case, one tab would be yoga enthusiast, one a reproductive rights advocate, one a photographer, one a great fan of Austin.


Emily Goodstein

“The best organizations are those that foster a culture where its staff can keep all those ‘tabs’ open at the same time.”-Goodstein


An additional benefit to your organization for all these open tabs?  This melding of personal/professional life in social media lends authenticity. When the same person who is your organization’s advocate shares updates on Facebook, to his or her network and ties together these groups that no longer need to be mutually exclusive, it also helps expand your organization’s reach.


In response to my (not near millennial-self) comment, that “even people of my age want those same things,” she offered: “Nothing that Millennials want is really any different that what others want. It’s the way we show it that is different. We’re not quiet about it. “


That explains her fitting analogy, that describes a great work environment as more “a Work-Life Harmony vs. a Work-Life Balance.”


Just think, in four short  years from now, not only will there be more Millennials leading  this sector, but we’ll surely be captivated with the best ways to engage Generation Z!



Dr. Sarah Nathan, Assistant Professor at Bay Path College is currently instructing nonprofit managers of today and tomorrow, so I thought she’d be a great resource for advice on the topic.   I asked Sarah if she could suggest some action that an organization’s board members and management could take to keep the talent that it has been fortunate enough to attract in the first place. 


A natural teacher, she didn’t miss this opportunity to turn my question into a teachable moment: “Why not think about that as it relates to donors?

Sarah Nathan

“As donor-centric organizations we are always thinking about how we can connect with our donors on very meaningful levels so they will want to make long-term commitments to our organizations. So, doesn’t it make good sense to cultivate the same quality relationship with our employees?”-Nathan

If your group is fortunate enough to have individuals join its team with: a dedication to the mission, who are bright and educated, who bring themselves and want to be challenged and make the organization a part of his or her life don’t you want to provide a way for them to make a “long-term commitment” in their career?


This could mean anything from having a system or process that helps on-board new employees and set them (and the organization) up for success to picking up cues that employees are growing beyond the responsibilities of their original work. “Actively listen to what your employees are telling you—if they are talented and passionate about the mission it only benefits your group to find out what will keep them committed.”  The flip-side is that they will outgrow their role, become dissatisfied and eventually leave.


Disheartening, but true.  According to the Council on Foundations, the average annual turnover rate of nonprofit employees is 24% and that’s just an AVERAGE.  There are data showing rates of 100%-300% coming from child welfare agencies. Take just a moment and think about how losing at least one of every four staffers each year can impact your mission.  Now think about how that impacts your organization’s connections with community and clients, not to mention its budget.  



Ed Lord, spent more than  25 years with the American Cancer Society where he held a variety of leadership roles, helped raise over a billion dollars, and pioneered peer to peer events like Making Strides Against Cancer and Relay for Life. He recently joined DonorDrive  Social Fundraising Software  as Vice President  of Client Growth Consulting. So, it’s a safe bet that Ed knows something about what keeps productive talent within an organization.


Ed Lord

“Nonprofit employees work an incredible amount of hours, long days and work on weekends comes with the job-so generous vacation and personal leave policy is essential to keeping good employees.”-Lord  



Lord also strongly recommends providing flexibility in work hours. “For example, if an employee is working on Saturday give them time off during the week.”


“A bonus for hitting fundraising goals or for longevity is a great way to retain your most talented employees.” Bonuses cannot be a percentage of dollars raised, but they can be based on reaching goals. These guidelines and FAQs  from AFP on fundraising ethics are a great resource.


But perks like flexible work hours and bonuses aren’t going to work without a cohesive plan with buy-in from all levels.


“In order for a nonprofit to be most effective in engaging employees, both its leaders and its employees must be on the same page, with an understanding of how they are all working together toward accomplishing the charity’s mission”

  • Long term goals must be determined with input from employees from every level of the organization
  • Leadership must provide employees with the resources and the freedom to develop their own personal ideas to accomplish the tasks necessary to reach long term goals



What about some input from someone who works with a lot of different nonprofits and has seen many a great candidate walk through her door? As Vice President/Managing Partner of Nonprofit HR, Patty Hampton  knows talent when she sees it. That’s her job!  


I asked her if she could identify a common trait among those nonprofit professionals that she has seen get snatched up by the best organizations.

 “It’s that “fire in the belly” connection that a nonprofit can arouse from the moment a prospective employee is engaged and then during and after the recruitment process.” -Hampton

“The burning desire to be a part of an initiative or mission that can cause a societal shift is what many people want in their life. People want to be a part of a movement that will cause a monumental shift for others. At the end of the day, it’s about people helping people!”



The Alzheimer’s Association is a perennial recipient of  “The NonProfit Times’Best Nonprofits to Work For” It ranked #7 in 2014’s Top 50 and #2 among Large Nonprofits (250+ employees).  Jane Weaver is the Interim Executive Director for Alzheimer’s Association of  Western Carolina- and has a very rich history in the sector, having held executive posts at National Kidney Foundation and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  You can read more about her and her leadership style in this recent interview.  Jane knows there are intangibles that attract and keep great people.


She offers some fabulous advice—and, note, these can be fostered regardless of organization’s financial resources. It’s more about cultivating a tone.

  • Get to know your staff as people
  • Encourage communication between departments to enhance cross promotion and break down silos
  • Be transparent with both staff and volunteers
  • Emphasize how you value the entire staff and what each one contributes to the overall mission
  • Make sure the mission is integrated into every aspect of the non-profit’s activities
  • Be sure you don’t just give lip service to “work life balance” but rather really embrace it (staff will truly appreciate this gesture)
  • Show gratitude to staff, volunteers, board and everyone else who works with the organization
  • Show equal emphasis to program enhancement, not just fundraising (bottom line)

Jane Weaver


“These are traits I look for when considering which nonprofit to work for. These are also items I try to adhere to so folks around me want to remain in their jobs.”-Weaver



The quest for understanding how interviewees might perceive an organization led me to Julie Gallion, PHR, Senior HR Consultant and Benefits Practice Leader at Nonprofit HR.  I asked her if she could identify one common trait among the best nonprofits with whom she has worked.


“I think the best nonprofits help employees feel connected to the mission of the organization on a regular basis.  In organizations or positions where employees don’t see progress toward the mission from their daily work, employees can lose track of why they do what they do. It is very important to find ways to consistently show employees that the organization’s mission is moving forward. This could be accomplished by:

  • Providing employees of all levels and types of work an opportunity to work directly with those served by the organization.
  • Allowing them to work at an annual meeting or event (such as an association annual meeting).
  • Regularly sharing success stories from those served or holding an all staff meeting where an executive speaks about the successes that the organization has experienced.
  • Having annual mission-based goals that employees can tie their work to each year and see the end results


Gallion added, “Going back to the association example, employees often tell me that the reason they stay is because they enjoy working with or interacting with the members.  Members of associations are often so enthusiastic about the association and have so much respect for the organization that their enthusiasm rubs off on employees and keeps them motivated.“


And let us not forget that the opportunity for ongoing learning is an important characteristic of any great organization. I caught up with Claire Axelrad noted author, blogger and nonprofit consultant extraordinaire with more than 30 years of nonprofit development and marketing leadership experience under her belt.

She offered these observations from her experience: 

  • Everything starts at the top.  If leadership isn’t effective, the organization won’t be effective either.  “Leadership”  usually means the executive director, but it can also mean other senior managers as well as the board (depending upon how the organization is structured and governed).
  • Staff need to be able to do what they’re hired to do.  They need access to the board (especially if they’re development staff), but they also need to be protected from micro-management. They need to be given both responsibility and the authority to carry out that responsibility. They need to be trusted and relied upon. They need to be respected. And they need to be appreciated.
  • Once an employee has demonstrated merit, they should not be infantilized. They should not be taken for granted. Their wisdom should not be diminished. They should not have to bring in an outside consultant to tell leadership exactly what they’ve been suggesting.
  •  Staff at all levels should be given the attention they’ve earned and deserve, and the resources they need to be successful. They should also be given the opportunity to innovate.


And I think that closing this article with Claire’s last comment makes perfect sense:

“People — and organizations — learn from their failures.  Celebrate successes, but also embrace mistakes. It’s how we learn. And if an organization doesn’t keep learning, it stagnates and eventually withers.”-Axelrad


Here’s to growing and learning!  Do you work for an incredible nonprofit and want to share your tips on attracting and retaining great talent? We’d love to hear from you and showcase your work. Please email your contact info and a brief overview: [email protected]

Additional Resources: 

Interview with Jane Weaver

Profile of Emily Goodstein in The Washington Post

AFP Guidelines and FAQs regarding compensation

How the “It’s Not my Job” Syndrome Pervades Nonprofits and Kills Fundraising