The Two Things Every Nonprofit Staffer Wants

by Joan Garry

Assuming you’re not underpaid, what are the two most important thing every employee wants? Employers take note!

He was the Executive Director. And he wanted to be great.

He was also my newest coaching client and I quickly learned his biggest issue wasn’t fundraising or marketing.

In fact, he was already great at bringing in big donors and important partners. He brought worldwide attention to his nonprofit’s cause. He had a good board.

Nonetheless, he had a huge problem that was holding his organization, and himself, from greatness.

His staff didn’t like him very much.

And that was causing big issues. Like lower productivity and higher turnover.

All because he didn’t understand what employees want. Here are the two things every employee wants.


Employees want to be successful.


But wait! Don’t go yet. Take a BuzzFeed quiz later.

This isn’t as simple as it seems at first glance.

Employees what to know that they are adding value. It makes them feel valued. But this isn’t simply ‘a pat on the back.’

Employees need to know WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE.

The first half of my 30-year career was in the corporate world. Here are a few tips I learned from that experience:

  • Job descriptions matter. Creating a job description is a real activity and not simply a formality. Make sure you have thought through the components of the position and that it is reasonable and achievable for one person to accomplish. Upon reading it, you have to believe that it’s not a “kitchen sink job description” and that there is really someone out there who can actually do all those disparate things. If not, re-write.
  • Build a 90 Day Plan. The best way to be successful is to start successfully. Have your employee draw a very specific picture of what success will look like in 90 days. Talk through it with her and agree on it. Be sure it has a few “quick wins”.For a Communications Director a good 90-day goal might be to “Write a Strategic Communications Plan” but it’s better to get more specific. For example, a more specific goal might be to write, pitch and place an op-ed for the CEO that positions her as a thought leader to an influential audience.One of my clients, for example, is focused on financial sustainability but made time to write and publish a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Impressive. Successful. You can see it. And she can feel it.
  • The New Year’s Eve List. I love this exercise. Just before the start of each fiscal year, ask every employee to imagine herself sitting in front of a fire on New Year’s Eve holding a glass of champagne. The employee turns to her spouse, her dog and to her imaginary friend and looks back on the last 12 months.What were the big things she accomplished? This should not be a haphazard discussion. There should be a document she can pull up on her computer (after she puts down the champagne momentarily) and review. How did I do? WOW! I got 9 of these 10 big things done! Or she can print the document, toss it in the fire and spend the rest of the evening revising her resume. But at least she will know.


Every employee wants to be treated like a human being.

I learned more about this when I moved to the nonprofit sector but it is a universal truth.

So I became the Executive Director of GLAAD in 1997. I had three kids. No one at GLAAD had kids. No board members; no staff members. Nobody ever asked to see pictures of my kids. There was no one to schmooze with over coffee about potty training. This was a huge part of my identity; I wasn’t just the leader of a gay rights organization.

That’s not how it was in my previous life at Showtime. I loved chatting with my colleagues about their little kids. I loved knowing that I wasn’t the only parent out there making it up on the fly.

Have you ever read the book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink? If not, go pick it up. It’s a great and interesting read.

But nonprofit people are among the busiest people I know. So if you’re too busy right now to read an entire book, here’s a 10-minute video that explains the book’s basic premise.

If you don’t even have time to watch the video, here’s the tl;dr version: Pink demonstrates that when it comes to motivation at work, what people care about, even more than money, are three things:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

Now, nonprofits have purpose in spades! Pretty much, if you work in nonprofit, you’ve got plenty of purpose happening at work.

So it comes down to autonomy and mastery.

I would suggest adding one thing… treat people like human beings.

Remember my coaching client? The one whose staff disliked him? I asked him to tell me about his staff; who they were as people.

He mentioned that one of them had a daughter who had recently come by the office – he and his assistant gave them some cookies. He was very proud of that – evidence that he was a good and thoughtful manager.

Then I asked him the girl’s name. He had no idea.

We kept going. He wasn’t even sure if some of the staff members even had kids. As we dug deeper, it became clear he really didn’t know his staff at all.

He didn’t even understand why it mattered.

It matters because sometimes managers look at the phrase “human resources” and focus too much on the “resources” and not enough on the “human.”

This is about more than just about knowing people’s kids. It’s about spouses and dating and “how was your weekend” and “how’s you mom’s hip surgery recovery going.”

It’s about “how did that meeting go? Is the client feeling any better?”

I want my boss to know I am three-dimensional. That I watch TV, have Oscar favorites (Boyhood for the record), just downsized, have three kids in college (these last two are related) and that my dog absolutely hates the snow.

I want to be thanked and appreciated – not just when I secure a $50,000 gift but when I bring back a donor at $250 who was disenchanted. A quick note that I handled something simple very well and if I hadn’t, something simple might have become something big.


A whole that is greater than the sum of those two parts.

When you move your management style away from being transactional (if you do these 10 things then I will give you a bonus at year end) you end up focusing on the humanity of your staff.

When you have a staff member, you have an obligation to define and monitor success with them. The corporate word is accountability, which can feel a bit harsh. Maybe that’s why nonprofit managers shy away from it.

Excellent management is neither edgy nor soft. For-profit or nonprofit makes no difference. There are universal truths in the world of excellent management and to find them, both nonprofit leaders and corporate executives need to be willing to learn from each other.

In the comments below, please share an experience where a boss or supervisor (or if you’re the CEO, perhaps a board chair) helped you be successful or went out of her way to treat you like a human being. Let’s celebrate the great leaders in our lives!

1 thought on “The Two Things Every Nonprofit Staffer Wants”

  1. I am very happy to share about my experience with my good friend, mentor and former boss, who, as the Director of Advancement for a state-wide non-profit, saw the potential in me to be a good fundraiser and ultimately an executive director. Thanks so her I learned how to read and manage budgets, I learned how to use and pull data from databases that was then used to help assess donor giving. I learned that I was talented, smart and capable and that I had purpose! Because of this amazing mentor, I am now an executive director for a small, local non-profit and I couldn’t be happier. She continues to support and mentor me and is always open and honest in her communications with me. I am richly blessed to have this woman in my life and so grateful that she was and is willing to not only share her personal wisdom with me but to see in me my own strengths and to help me build upon these. I am trying to follow in her footsteps as I manage my own small, mostly volunteer, staff and open the door of opportunity for them to grow and become their very best through the work they are doing for our organization!

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