How to retain and engage employees in the NFP sector

Guide Dog Victoria’s CEO shares how they increased employee engagement by 57 per cent in just two years.

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report, only 14 per cent  of Australian employees are actively engaged in their work.

In the fast-changing not-for-profit (NFP) sector keeping employees safe, happy and dedicated to the cause is tricky. This is especially true considering recent trends, such as decreased individual public donations and volunteer involvement; more competition for funding; and the challenge of high politics, emotionally-taxing work; and low (or no) remuneration.

Unfortunately, NFP organisations can’t give employees the on-site gyms and fancy technology that companies like the Apples and Googles of the world use to keep employees happy.

However, despite a lack of resources, here at Guide Dogs Victoria we’ve still managed to improve employee engagement from 34 per cent to 91 per cent in just two years. So, what does it take to get (and keep) people “on the bus”, so to speak?

Relying on passion leads to burnout

Gallup CEO Jim Clifton once noted that employees are “now driven more than ever by mission and purpose and require a workplace culture that delivers it”. One common assumption in the NFP sector is that helping others on its own improves worker engagement. But relying on staff’s emotional affinity for the task leads to burnout and higher turnover rates.

Best practice engagement in the NFP sector requires as much – if not more – dedication to supporting staff every day. Communicating a clear mission, playing to staff strengths, balancing flexible lifestyle demands, improving access to technology, and employee recognition are all proven ways to help bring the team together.

These methods, along with revolutionising safety and wellbeing and prioritising strong leadership, are just a few examples of how we’ve reached that elusive 91 per cent.

Don’t be scared of being divisive

In global studies, “quality of senior leadership” is seen as one of the most important opportunities to improve engagement. But what makes a good leader? That’s a discussion unto itself but, at its core, it involves leadership that isn’t afraid to lead, or of empowering employees to feel what they have a say is important.

Bringing the whole business together and working through issues at the outset helps get people on the bus. When I came on as CEO, I shared my long-term visions with the company and controversially gave staff the judgement-free opportunity to jump ship if they weren’t on board.

Perhaps it sounds like a paradox, but this divisive (albeit educated) stance brought people together. We addressed existing discord upfront, clearly dictated a path, and gave employees a chance to opt out if they weren’t keen. This meant we had a team who had actively decided to engage with our vision.

Throughout the company’s journey, sharing developments and milestone updates along the way is also imperative, as is being held accountable for the vision and changes you’d like to see actioned.

Wellbeing works wonders

Greater engagement can lower the number of employee safety incidents by 70 per cent, according to Gallup’s research. But it’s a two-way street. Prioritising workplace safety sends a clear message of commitment from leadership that the wellbeing of your people is important – and that no task is so urgent that it’s worth doing unsafely.

Our lost time injury rate (LTIR) – an indicator used across industries to measure absenteeism as a result of safety incidents – used to be a disappointing 16. This meant that for every one million hours worked across our business, 16 work-related injuries were serious enough to result in staff missing work. Now, after intensive progress in our OH&S department, this important metric has been sitting at a relatively unheard-of “zero” for two years. A great result considering our staff regularly work outdoors, with dogs and on the road.

Safety engagement needs to encompass everything from first-aid and recovery support, to preventative mental health strategies and education. Proper training for higher risk work, risk assessments for non-routine projects, and making safety a line item in every board meeting, should all be key parts of daily operations.

“No news is bad news”

Nurturing a strong company culture where everyone’s voice is valued is probably one of the most influential ways to improve engagement. You can have the best systems in place but it’s the people – and a culture of caring and engagement that stops people from hurting themselves and others – that make a company work.

A “no news is bad news” policy is very effective in communicating that feedback is always valued and that there’s always something to improve on. If no one is bringing anything up, that’s not always positive. This culture should not only be limited to on-campus work – take it on the road, to marketing events, and with clients. Celebrate the milestones. Nurture a no-blame space where staff feel able to share and report grievances or suggestions, however small.

The bottom line is, if you want good engagement, start engaging.

Karen Hayes is the CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria.

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