5 Ways to Make Sure Your Best Employees Never Want to Leave

Retain Best EmployeesHere’s something that keeps your Executive Director (or you?) up at night.

“What happens if Jason leaves? Sure, I’m the E.D – but Jason is really irreplaceable. He has all the relationships that drive the big money. If he ever leaves, this place will fall apart.”

Every organization has its rock stars. You, as the leader, want to do everything you can to make them never want to leave.

Here are five things you can do to retain your best employees.


No one, not even Jason, is irreplaceable.

You may rely on him now, but you’d find someone else if you had to. And more importantly, it’s highly unlikely that Jason will stay as long as you’d like no matter what you do.

You also need to snap out of the mentality that you are only the E.D. If you really feel that Jason is more important to the success of your work, maybe you should be the one shopping.

A big part of your job is to build a team of five-star players. Absolutely take great care of your rock stars but remember… if the band isn’t also first rate, you’re probably not getting a platinum album (do they still call them albums?)


1) Champion purpose. A recent study by Harvard Business Review and The Energy Project (a company that assesses workplace productivity,) the single most important influencer for job satisfaction and retention is purpose.

Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations — the highest single impact of any variable in our survey. These employees also reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and they were 1.4 times more engaged at work.”

While it might be hard to sell purpose if you lead a company that makes clothes hangers, you’re the Executive Director of a nonprofit. You exude purpose. What an advantage! You must ensure that your staff touches and feels the work, especially your rock stars.

2) Be inclusive. Ask for their point-of-view and listen to their voices. As an E.D., you actually don’t have the best vantage point of your organization. Your key staff does. Ask them what’s working, what’s not, what new territory should be explored, if there’s a new way of doing the work. I guarantee you that your rock stars think about that stuff all the time. Their ideas will be terrific. That’s why they’re your best employees.

3) Give credit. What better way to illustrate that your rock star’s voice matters than to execute one of her ideas? Then make sure to give credit where credit is due. The best way is to acknowledge the contribution in a public setting.

4) Build a career path. Take extra time with your rock star (yes, it’s ok. Play favorites.) Understand his professional aspirations. Build a plan together to ensure that your high performer is gaining the skills and building the relationships that will lead him in that direction. (Just don’t do it so quickly that he leaves you sooner ☺).

5) Create new opportunities. My friend (and client) Axel Marrero at Hyacinth AIDS Foundation has been in his job for nearly two decades. He was a guest speaker at my class at The Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. A student asked, “How have you stayed so long without burning out? Haven’t you been interested in working somewhere else?”

Axel spoke of his personal connection to the AIDS epidemic, which brought a sense of passion. He explained that a big reason he never left is that he was constantly asked to take on new and different roles in the organization. He was allowed, even encouraged, to stretch different muscles. He praised his bosses for tapping into him as a thought partner and allowing him to have a real and valued voice.

Throughout this time, I have seen Axel at the near burnout stage. I’ve thought to myself that he wouldn’t last there too much longer. But each time I’ve thought that, either his E.D. or Axel saw it happening. Together, they created new opportunities for him, which have always been able to re-ignite his sense of purpose and reinforce his commitment to the organization.


Two last pieces of advice:

First, don’t be naïve. Rock stars like Jason will leave. You need to make sure that it doesn’t catch you off guard. Make sure your best employees are not lone cowboys. Institutionalize his relationships. Make sure they belong to the organization and not simply to Jason.

And finally, make it part of your rock star’s job to build bench strength. Chances are that he gets this and is already on it because he is, after all, a rock star. But the single best way to contend with the loss of a rock star is an internal promotion. It will provide the rest of the staff with comfort and security and you will skip way fewer beats.

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Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • CorporateRefugee

    May I suggest one more thing? A good friend of mine works for a non-profit. She is passionate about her job and does it extremely well. Yet, she hasn’t had a raise in years. Worse, she’s had several paycuts. Pay your people at least a living wage and they’ll stay!

    • Of course you can suggest one more thing. You are absolutely right. Sometimes, there are circumstances that lead to an inability to give folks a raise. But it can’t be a pattern. People are a nonprofit’s most valuable assets

  • Tom Shpakow

    yes, a worker is worth their wage. I agree totally with everything above and the added comment below 🙂

    • Tom. see my note to JZ above. you are right.

  • Joe Ziomek

    Hey Joan:

    These are some very valuable insights. Having served as Board member, board Chairman and President of a few local and national non profits, I admit to still not understanding The usual ” mostly by the book” process of election or appointments of directors of non profit institutions. In the 1980’s, I was almost thrown off the national stage for criticizing thrift institution managers and directors, for lack of proper oversight.
    Most of those directors and today’s non profit directors are CLUELESS to the machinations of their CEO, ED, or other members of senior management. My own experience with “too personally ambitious” ED’s and employees.
    Because of fear of retaliation or lawsuits, companies are reluctant to send job candidates through an extensive psychological screening process conducted by experienced clinical psychologists.
    Organizations also tend to avoid that kind of expense, rather than insuring against the occasional sociopath who wanders in through the employment office, or director recommendation.
    So, I respectively DISAGREE with your third point above…..give credit. Unless you include…….”after some time”, orgs are likely to be “feeding the beast” of sociopathic behavior. Based on recent experience, and interviews with numerous mental health professionals, sociopaths and their ilk are emboldened by “getting credit” and then pointing to performance reviews, public accolades in their own defense or justification for leaving the organization. In some cases, these “self described” rock stars use this “credit” to refute charges of misconduct or disruption of their former employer’s operations.
    Joan, I’m happy to discuss our very similar views on this subject of hiring rock stars.
    You know how to reach me. Peace out!….and Happy New Year!


    • JZ. Ah. Sociopaths on staff. Happens regardless of sector. I will agree with your friendly amendment AND add that I do believe that a really strong interviewer who asks really good questions can sniff out the red flag that takes someone from self-confident to arrogant to sociopath. And in the nonprofit world, there is a higher risk depending on the sector. Sometimes folks are drawn to particular causes because they are broken in some way and feel that working at an organization can “heal them.” Hiring managers have to be on the lookout for that. Happy New Year to you too Joe!!!!

  • Academic2

    I like that all the rock stars are men!

    • Would love more clarification here. Can you elaborate?

  • Lindsay Heffernan

    I love working for a non-profit, but the number 1 reason that I’ve found myself shopping at any time is the compensation package. I don’t just mean salary, but also things like comp time for overtime (which many non-profit workers have in abundance) and benefits. It can sometimes be hard to choose between a job you love but doesn’t have essentials like health insurance and a job you love a little less that keeps you better taken care.

    • LIndsay. I would hope that you would gather colleagues at your own organization to advocate for those benefits many others have. In your nonprofit life, you are advocating for something, for someone, for some community. You ARE an advocate. Maybe time to advocate for yourselves.

  • Tesselara

    Interesting article–lots of good meaty parts…I know people can’t always be everything all the time, but I would like to suggest that you use an equal mix of males and females in your “this person is awesome” scenarios next time 🙂

    • Tesselara. Very good point and thank you so much for raising it. I try to be mindful. In this case, I had my former staff member Jason in my head as I wrote it so that is probably why is skews more “he” than “she.” But a good point and duly noted.

      • Tesselara

        Thank you! I completely understand, and I appreciate your receptiveness. 🙂

  • Kyle Ridout

    You missed a big one. Keep their trust.

    • Kyle. you are SO right. I think i would frame it as BUILD A RELATIONSHIP OF MUTUAL TRUST. Very good addition Kyle!

      • Kyle Ridout

        Thanks Joan. I would also suggest additional strategies on keeping trust. I believe it is one of the most important and fragile components of a healthy relationship.

  • Jane Smith

    I would contend that purpose is important but having the ability to live off a wage trumps EVERYTHING. No one who is worried about their finances is going to be totally effective at their job. I’ve seen too many employers trade heavily on the soft benefits vs. monetary, thinking it somehow makes up for it. It doesn’t. If a person was paid a comfortable, non-extravagant wage with concrete goals to achieve in order to get raises and bonuses; they would be a loyal, dedicated, and effective team member.

    • Jane. Sorry I was slow in responding. You are quite right and i think often the more highly paid staff lose sight of the struggle of junior staffers to make ends meet. I always wished I could give my staff bonuses (I came from corporate America) and there were years when I actually did. I don’t have to tell you how amazing that made the staff feel. But the most important adjective here is ”comfortable.” You want your staff to give the work/clients their all. And if the rent is overdue, you don’t get 100% from the staff. Thanks for writing and for being a member of my tribe!

    • Lisa Sauder

      Daniel Pink has great youtube videos relating to this–pay people enough so money isn’t an issue. it’s not the driving force, especially for people drawn to non-profit work.

      • Readers take heed! Lisa is right. Have referenced him in other posts. Daniel Pink is fabulous!

  • Bobbie Jo Justice

    Here’s another idea (and probably the MOST IMPORTANT one). Don’t harass your employees with stupid, bullsh** requests or useless paperwork/bureaucracy.

  • Amy ‘Dessain’ Scavezze

    This is Great! I love working for my non profit and my boss is the number one reason. I’ve never met anyone more humble and invested in making my job worth coming back to day in and day out. He actually just met with me at the beginning of the month and asked me to start taking every other Friday off. One, because I have a five month old, and two because my annual average for hours worked is way over 40 hrs/week. That’s the kind of thing that makes me have a long-term vision for my position and organization. Good stuff in this article.

    • Amy. I’d like to meet this boss of yours. Actually I’d like to CLONE him 🙂 Sounds like you and your colleagues are mighty lucky. Why is it that so few people know how to be compassionate, fair, challenging, humble bosses?

  • Amy ‘Dessain’ Scavezze

    Also, because I see the behind the scenes of a non profit, I have been forever changed as I donate to other causes, charities, and non profits. I always dictate that my funds be used for general expenses including staff salaries. I am out to make donors more aware of the need for unrestricted funds in a non profit. All the food at the food bank has to be stored somewhere. If there is no money to pay for the space and utilities and people handing it out, there is no point in funding the food for the shelves

    • Amy. Your last line here is classic. And frighteningly true of donors. I admire that your own experience guides your philanthrophy. I remember a donor telling me she liked to support programs and not people. Who did she think DID the work? Did she think I had a box full of marionettes?

  • Kim Hunter

    Here’s a big one: Don’t waste their work. If you ask them to produce something say write a blog or come up with a list of three milestones, a concept outline for some out reach, especially on short notice, don’t let the work sit in your in box because you got too busy to look at it and pass it on to the group who could then put it to use. Do that three or four times and don’t expect your rock star to give you top work anymore when you ask for that extra last minute project.

    • KIm. This IS a very good one. It’s even worse when you have rushed to meet a deadline and THEN it just sits. I think the root of this is about a lack of respect, don’t you think?

  • Lucylovertoo

    This doesn’t just go for nonprofits….. Treat all of your employees as you would want your own child treated!

    Don’t just ask managers ( who all too often are protecting themselves) for opinions and suggestions ask customer service agents, janitorial help, night staff etc. trust me they are often the ones who really know what’s going on.

    Sit down, try doing some of the jobs your employees do, see what it’s like and offer a compassionate ear to their work related issues.

  • Moomoofish

    Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. As an employee at a non profit, I like my job, my coworkers and my boss, but I haven’t had a raise since I started and feel like I’m not paid what I’m worth. I work my butt off. I think about leaving all the time, and probably will.