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Embrace a Culture of Continuous Improvement and Elevate Your Nonprofit to a Higher Level

Non-profit organizations are committed to supportive environments, celebrating diversity, cultural humility, educational development for children, and empowering families. They foster individualized and personalized relationships with clients and communities to develop a continuum of care for all people.

Nonprofits achieve these feats because they employ dedicated, passionate members who are deeply committed to the mission. Unfortunately, deep commitment does not always translate into best practices for an organization, nor does this commitment always fulfill client needs.

Addressing the gap between commitment and performance begins by moving from a culture of compliance to a culture of continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement is a journey that rests on three essential components:

1) engaged employees.

2) a clear plan with a shared wildly important goal.

3) a reliance on data to inform decisions.

Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is much more than job or work satisfaction. It's the strength of emotional and mental connection workers feel towards their jobs, team, and organization. Engaged employees are highly motivated, perform better, and are connected to the organization's core mission.

Employee engagement ties directly to the level of involvement, connections between individuals, and the amount of respect, value, and recognition accorded to them. Workers feel valued at the workplace if they can build excellent professional relationships and get positive reinforcements, alongside tangible benefits such as pay equity and transparency. Earning living wages is crucial to employee engagement.

Yet, many organizations maintain a dramatic wage differential between an executive CEO and their frontline staff. In a world where women earn up to 9% less than men, the gender pay gaps only tank employee engagement, even in the face of positive feedback.

Proper resource provision is also necessary to create an engaged workforce, but many nonprofits fail to deliver on this front. They ignore paperless technology, operate in cramped offices, and don't provide adequate office supplies. Even when running on a tight budget, investing in employee resources should be a primary concern because it can improve employee engagement and performance.

Gallup came up with "The Q12 Survey," a simple and effective blueprint to improve worker engagement after studying over 2.7 million workers across 100,000+ teams in different organizations. This blueprint highlights the 12 needs managers can use to enhance employee engagement.

The 12 employee needs that make up the items on Gallup's engagement survey are:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.

  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.

  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.

  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.

  8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.

  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.

  10. I have a best friend at work.

  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Another Gallup's research found a 2% decrease in global employee engagement from 2019 to 2020. The drastic measures to curb a raging pandemic led workers to experience more stress, anger, worry, and sadness. School and work closures, social distancing and isolation, remote work, and zoom fatigue took their toll on people's wellbeing.

Gallup maintains that physical health, financial stress, and community factors impact the involvement of employees. Gallup argues that organizations can help employees become resilient and thrive under adverse conditions.

One of the surprising aspects of the pandemic is that in the United States, employee engagement increased to 34%. The increase is exciting, but this is still less than one-third of the workforce. The percentage of workers who are actively disengaged hovers around 20%. An actively disengaged employee complains, gossips, and is rude to coworkers and clients.

My experience has been to help find that employee a different job with a better fit; those employees do not seem to change. This still leaves about half of the workforce not actively disengaged but not engaged either. You need specific strategies to engage the nonengaged employees without neglecting your already engaged employees. The best engagement strategies focus on resources, connections, recognition, and growth.

Enhancing Engagement

Taking a data-centric approach is the best way to enhance workplace engagement. There are multiple reliable ways to measure employee engagement within a nonprofit organization. The data will show you where you stand and let you pick the most effective strategies to enhance engagement.

Share the real-time data about workplace engagement with your employee to spark a conversation across the entire organization. Be proactive, and solicit employee input and feedback. Make your employee feel heard by acting on their feedback and providing the resources they need to thrive. Empower your managers to involve employees in daily operations, relationship building, and program planning.

Part of empowering employees is also about valuing all employees. Pay attention to the microaggressions that can destroy relationships; ensure that work practices do not have unintentional consequences (dress codes, hairstyles).

Provide opportunities and guidance for talking about differences and diversity. In the United States, race, gender, age, and sexuality are issues of contention. If your organization indicates this has been solved, there are hidden problems.

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is core to improving engagement because it allows nonprofits to move beyond platitudes. Focused and involved planning engages employees across the entire organization.

It enables you to form cross-department committees with employees drawn from all levels of the organization. The committees can drive the conversation about the mission, the wildly important goal, and the strategies.

Strategic planning empowers the employees to determine what to implement and how. For example, through a consensus model, employees may decide the organization needs to become trauma-informed. They could pick a consultant or training firm, determine the necessary resources, and even when to do training. While an initiative will fail without a commitment from the leaders, it is equally likely to fail without widespread employee engagement.

Involving employees in the planning process begins with the why. Reexamine your mission statement to find a common thread. Most non-profits have long, vague, and optimistic mission statements.

Nonprofit Organization #1 will empower children, families, staff, and the community by providing and valuing each individual, supporting families by fostering independence and self-sufficiency, promoting partnerships within the community, and encouraging and mentoring all staff.

Begin with the "why"

Simon Senek is a huge proponent of finding your "why" as it enables you to focus on the what and the how. Nike's "just do it" is as familiar as Microsoft's goal of a computer on every desk at home and in the office.

An excellent example of a "why" for a nonprofit organization is Girls of Transformation, "We transform communities by ensuring equity in all walks of life for African-American girls (8-16).

Most nonprofits struggle with worker engagement by having too many goals. The best organizations focus on one wildly important goal aligned with their mission. Having too many goals is ineffective, and Covey recommends concentrating much of your effort on one (or two) wildly important goals.

Look at what will impact the organization the most while meeting your client's greatest needs. Make that your wildly important goal, and all the other pieces will fall into place.

Implementing a wildly important goal requires accountability, and the 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) can help you bridge this gap. The 4DX approach is based on timeless, universal principles of human effectiveness. It recommends creating a compelling scoreboard and holding accountability meetings.

A compelling scoreboard is simple, visual, visible, and continually updated. It makes it easy to engage your employees in determining what the scoreboard will look like and what it will measure. Your scoreboard will tell you at a glance where you are in your journey. Accountability meetings are short (less than 30 minutes) and focus on reporting progress towards goals.


Once your engaged employees have created a mission statement, a wildly important goal, and designed a scoreboard, it's time to analyze the data. Many nonprofit organizations collect and report data as part of funding requirements. Unfortunately, most fail to leverage these data for continuous improvement.

While pie charts, bar graphs, and tables are helpful when displaying important data, trend lines are even better. They let you determine how strategies impact outcomes and choose the most effective strategies for your nonprofit. Detailed analysis such as breaking the data down by gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, native language, and citizenship status offers profound insights.

But data analysis requires your staff to have high data proficiency. Luckily, you can improve data literacy through training and practice. Regular, daily practice will improve and enhance data analysis skills and abilities. The daily practice also reduces the discomfort of working with data while building proficiency.

Data literacy is as essential as reading and writing, but we face a significant skills gap. Several excellent organizations are devoted to helping your staff become data literate, including QLIK and Data Literacy. Just as you are committed to providing resources such as time, office space, and technology, you can provide training in data literacy.

Harness the Power of Continuous Improvement

Nonprofit organizations set out to change the world and improve the quality of life. That means they must operate at a high-efficiency level to achieve their objective, which calls for continuous improvement. Embarking on the journey to continuous improvement requires you to address its main components – worker engagement, set a plan with a wildly important goal, and use data to make informed decisions.

At Sunshine Nonprofit Solutions, we specialize in helping nonprofit organizations achieve their primary objectives. We offer consulting, planning, and grant writing services to help nonprofits achieve the three goals that lead to continuous improvement. We can help your nonprofit craft programs that fit your specific needs.

Count on us when you need specialized guidance on your journey to continuous improvement.

Dr. Cathleen Armstead, the owner of Sunshine Nonprofit Solutions, provides strategic planning, consulting, and grant writing services to nonprofit organizations working with children and families. With twenty years of experience in the Head Start/Early Head Start world, she continues to advocate and work for social, economic and racial justice.