Maintaining Employee Morale During Tough Economic Times

The current economic times are tough on nonprofit organizations and those of us working for them. Cash-strapped in the best of times, many nonprofits are tightening their belts even further. Because the services many of us provide are more important to our constituents then ever, organizational leaders are looking for ways to cut expenses without cutting services.

The current economic times are tough on nonprofit organizations and those of us working for them. Cash-strapped in the best of times, many nonprofits are tightening their belts even further. Because the services many of us provide are more important to our constituents then ever, organizational leaders are looking for ways to cut expenses without cutting services.

So what is being cut? It varies greatly. Merit and cost of living pay increases. Coffee and donuts at meetings. Office supplies. Professional development opportunities. Staff parties and gatherings.

Even though nonprofit staff continue to be committed to and motivated by their organization’s mission, coming to work can begin to feel grim under these conditions. In fact, the December 10, 2009, edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy predicts that 2010 conditions are "ripe for [staff] burnout" because of layoffs, salary freezes and other cutbacks, coupled with expanded workloads.

The societal and social justice issues we seek to address aren’t going away tomorrow. Therefore, we need to retain our workforce for the long haul. Maintaining employee morale is critical, and it doesn’t need to drain resources.

Keeping Our Focus

Consider some of these simple ways to help your staff stay focused and positive.

Mission

Remind people frequently and in as many different ways as you can think of why we are here.

  • Share stories from the front lines.
  • Facilitate brown bag lunch discussions related to breaking news in your field.
  • Arrange a day of service working with a partner organization.

And celebrate successes – even the small ones.

Communication

To the extent possible, keep staff in the loop. People are more relaxed when they know there aren’t any surprises lurking around the corner. You may not be able to completely reassure folks, but if they know that you will share information openly whenever possible, they are less likely to become distracted thinking up potential doom and gloom scenarios.

Don’t forget to remind them of the organization’s strong suits. Those strengths can help keep negative news in perspective.

Professional Development

Helping staff move forward in their careers doesn’t necessarily require sending them to conferences or trainings. Work with those who are looking for professional development opportunities to identify ways for them to keep learning.

  • Maybe a junior staff person can shadow a more experienced co-worker for an hour or two a week.
  • Or an employee who is ready for more but has no formal job to be promoted into can take on a small project or even just a few new responsibilities.
  • Invite staff who wouldn’t normally attend to come along to coalition meetings, community events and funder visits.

Remember that what feels like old hat to you may be a bright new experience for someone else. The vote of confidence professional development opportunities convey makes people feel recognized and valued.

Time Off

It isn’t always possible, but some nonprofits are able to give staff a bit of extra time off. For instance, some organizations close between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Generally there isn’t a price tag attached to this perk and it generates good will among staff.

It is important, though, in this age of easy access to email and information, to encourage employees to truly take time off on holidays, vacations and other days off. Otherwise the mental health and other benefits that come from being away from work are likely to be lost.

Small Gestures

What may seem like a small gesture can actually mean a lot.

  • Leave a sticky note thanking someone for a specific job well done.
  • Take a group walk around the block on a particularly nice day or to enjoy the first snow.
  • Check your own facial expressions and body language. Your cues tell others how they should feel.
  • Try passing around a bowl of M & Ms at a staff meeting. There is something about those bright colors, the simplicity of the snack and the lightness they evoke that brings a smile to people’s faces.

Remember that our employees are our most precious resource. Organizational effectiveness is tied directly to how well our staff members perform. So even though other matters may feel more pressing in the moment, giving some time and thought to maintaining staff morale may be one of the best long-term investments you can make.

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