How To Attract Top Talent and Retain Top Performers

by Joan Garry

Once you attract all that rockstar nonprofit talent, you have to learn how to keep them on for the ride. This free resource will help you create a Slam Dunk New Employee Orientation Process!

Through the years I have come to understand the real kryptonite of nonprofit supervisors, talent managers, executive directors, and HR professionals: they struggle mightily with firing or managing someone out. 

No one loves it but nonprofit managers really don’t like it. Not one little bit. Nonprofit managers are pleasers and helpers and that is a double whammy combination when it comes to accountability.

The high-powered CEOs of large organizations that I coach will do just about anything to avoid moving a poor performer out. I had one client I was coaching to move someone out (let’s call them Noa) and asked them to tell me the worst thing that could happen if they didn’t move this staffer out. 

Oh, that’s easy,” they said. “If Taj walked in and resigned and it was clear that they simply could no longer work with Noa — Taj is a rockstar and I can’t afford to lose them.

And guess what happened? Taj got a new gig and resigned, citing Noa as the main reason.

And still the CEO made excuses, and offered second and third chances to Noa while the rest of the team picked up balls that Noa was dropping. 

One moral of the story is obvious. Nonprofit managers need to see accountability as a key piece of nonprofit talent management (and organizational) success.

But today, I want to talk about another moral. Let’s acknowledge this nonprofit talent management kryptonite and work to avoid it all together by recruiting and retaining the very best talent.


I hear this all the time — people resigning in droves post pandemic. Nonprofits tell me they are having trouble building strong candidate pools and many positions are remaining unfilled.

But wait. What is motivating the resignations? Yes, you hear issues of compensation but that is hardly the only thing on the list and not often at the top. Folks cite poor managers who don’t seem to care about them, a lack of meaning and purpose in the work, a lack of attention to or commitment to building a culture of belonging.

Let’s connect the dots shall we? Think about the list above and consider what the nonprofit sector is all about. Our sector has so much of what these folks are looking for. Purpose is our business — we walk that walk every day. And our commitment to this work is rooted in how deeply we care.


It’s time for nonprofit managers, executive directors, and HR professionals to reject the culture of urgency in their organizations — the culture that leads to a “butts in seats” recruitment strategy. Hurry and post, hurry and interview, hurry and hire. This culture also leads us to promote folks who aren’t ready or aren’t the right fit. A client spent 20 minutes telling me why Kai was so not the right person to fill a more senior position and in the next session, the client, exhausted from doing the added work, made the case for Kai’s promotion.

Herein lies the root of the problem.

Hit the pause button. Maybe more focus on the breath – not kidding by the way.   

Here are three strategies that have worked for many of my clients — intentional recruitment has led to robust applicant pools; they are as a result attracting top talent. 

  • Engage HR expertise to evaluate your process and compensation.
    If your organization is too small for a Chief People Officer, it’s OK. This is a great pro bono gig for someone (like a pro bono legal counsel) or an HR task force of volunteers. Get support, learn best practices, consider benefits like unlimited paid time off, or include a professional development stipend. Get your HR house in order so you can present yourself as employee centered.
  • Don’t just post the job, market the job.
    You want to stand out so that your person sees the post and says “That’s me!” Brag about the impact you have, sell meaning and purpose, and make it wildly clear that you are committed to a culture of belonging.
  • Engage your own team in recruitment.
    The best recruiters for your team are your happy employees. Offer a referral bonus, sell the new position and the opportunity it presents at a staff meeting.


Once you have an intentional strategy to get the right people on the bus, you need an equally intentional strategy to retain them.

There’s that word again. Intentional. When it comes to nonprofit talent management – attracting and retaining the best people for your team, you must be thoughtful. Maybe you have to go slower to be able to go faster.

  • Onboard in three dimensions.
    Don’t just send an email with links to documents; begin a relationship! Send a welcome note or organizational swag. And then that first day, get to know each other. There’s a book out I love by Michael Bungay Stanier that we use with new folks, How To Work With <Almost> Anyone. It’s all about building a relationship from day 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.”
  • Engage your employees and be creative about it.
    Here I am not talking surveys or memos that end with “please let us know if you have other thoughts or suggestions.” I’m talking about meaningful engagement. Think carefully about what decisions must be made at the “top” and how you might develop a more diffuse decision making culture. There are two other factors in retaining top talent, and nonprofit talent management in general. I mentioned the first one above —  purpose. The other two are autonomy and mastery.

    Another strategy I find valuable? Cross functional working groups. It avoids silos, allows folks to engage with their expertise in a different context.
  • Teach managers to be good at it.
    Lousy bosses cause attrition. Full stop. My daughter works at a nonprofit and there are many days when we talk. I am of the opinion that she has one of the best instinctively good managers I’ve seen. Having a wonderfully supportive boss who holds you accountable in a clear and kind way is a key ingredient to retention. Here’s where that third factor comes in – mastery. Please invest in building strong management skills in your folks.
  • Embed professional development into your organization.
    Of course you want to offer opportunities for folks to learn specific skills but make it part of the culture. Ask newer staff or a few GenZ employees to recommend a reading, a book that everyone reads over the course of a month and the “book club” discussion becomes central to a staff meeting. Need ideas? Subtle Acts of Exclusion or Difficult Conversations. We have had terrific team conversations about each of these and we learn about each other in the process.
  • Walk the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion walk.
    DEI is (sadly) becoming a buzzword and folks are not investing the kind of time for the deep conversation it demands. This is a topic for another post but let me leave you with this. What this work is all about comes down to a single word. Belonging. A primal need we all have. Think about what you need to have that feeling. Think about what it feels like not to belong. Have a team conversation about that very subject and brainstorm about how you can build a culture of belonging in a more intentional way. Start there. It’s the most important step on the journey.

So now we need to brag and market our organization as the place where meaning and purpose are in our DNA and we work hard to bring our values to life every day.

Remember, nonprofit talent management isn’t just about getting the butts in the seats on the bus. It’s about getting the right people on the bus (and getting the right people to stay on for the ride). It’s about providing an environment where they can shine. It’s about recognizing that our missions are only as strong as the individuals who dedicate themselves to them.

So, let’s be intentional. Let’s invest in our people. Let’s champion purpose and create a culture of belonging. And let’s continue to learn, adapt, and grow, so our organizations can continue to be beacons of light in our world.


Curious about what it takes to be an outstanding nonprofit leader? Join me for this free workshop, where I’ll dive deeper into the practices, mindset, and leadership skills of the nonprofit sector’s top superheroes, and help you to fully understand the difference between nonprofit and for profit leadership.