How to Engage Nonprofit Employees with 3 Proven Strategies

Trauma-informed organizations rest on a foundation of healthy, engaged employees with healthy and engaged leaders. This is especially true during a time of uncertainty and acute crisis.

Establishing a comprehensive trauma-Informed organization requires an organization-wide commitment, a planning process, training, time, and money. This article provides a roadmap for a transformation of your organization, based on my experiences, which have included successes and challenges.

Here are three key strategies to strengthen your workforce for a trauma-informed organization:

  1. Ensure that the Leaders are Fully Engaged

  2. Support Your Employees’ Health and Well-being

  3. Engage Your Employees at Every Level


Alameda County describes the six guiding principles of a trauma-informed organization: 1) an understanding of trauma; 2) safety and stability; 3) cultural humility and responsiveness; 4) compassion and dependability; 5) collaboration and empowerment; 5) resilience and recovery. This is a holistic set of principles that involves the entire organization. Moving your organization to becoming a trauma-informed organization provides a more powerful impact than trauma-informed initiatives or a singular focus on the client in terms of trauma-informed care.Every layout comes with the latest social features built in. Readers can easily share posts on social networks like Facebook and Twitter and view how many people have liked a post, made comments and more.

Fully - Engaged Leaders

Fully engaged leaders begin with a set have core beliefs that translate into proactive and creative solution, according to research in Harvard Business Review. Core beliefs of engaged leaders center around the value of caring – particularly caring for their employees as individuals. This caring goes beyond words or deeds and is captured in by Maya Angelou’s words, “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.'

Fully engaged leaders build upon a core belief in caring and develop key behavioral skills. Engaged leaders are invested in proactive solutions and outcomes. Engaging others and steering groups towards a task-focused approach are key leadership behaviors. Energizing others and connecting groups together occurs through active listening, encouraging dialogue and remaining calm. Empowerment and development of employees are key leadership competencies.

In an era of uncertainty, it is also critical that leaders remain calm and manage their own emotions to help with their employees’ fears. Part of being calm is being informed. For COVID-19 this means relying on information from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It means avoiding minute-by-minute new organizations and social media.

Here is how an employee responded to their supervisor’s calm communication of facts and knowledge:

Thank you for the email. It's difficult to not buy into the panic being spread, but you are the voice of reason in these times. I am upset about our work being cancelled, a bit more than my other projects. I hope we can still continue our normal pace even though it's online. Sending you well wishes! Keep yourself and your family safe.

A calming presence and sharing of knowledge engender trust as is apparent in this email. Trust is paramount. Trust your employees to do a good job. The best workplaces establish set times when their employees are available in the remote setting. Beyond that, employees are free to engage with their clients and dive into “deep work”. Yes, employees are also free to engage with their children and walk their dog. Trusting your employee to do good work without an 8 to 5 schedule will result in more productivity and better quality of work. At the same time, the serotonin surge from playing with their children or petting the dog makes for healthier employees.

Employees' Health and Well-Being

Engaged leaders are important for engaged employees – so are healthy habits.

Leaders need to model the behavior. All too often, directors and executive directors work long hours without proper nutrition or breaks – thinking that is effective leadership. Instead, effective leadership is healthy leadership and encompasses self-care. The recipe for healthy leaders is the same as for employees, and it is simple, clear, and irrefutable: Eat Move and Sleep!.

· Start small with incremental habits

  • To do this, have Tiny Habits as a core reading for everyone in the organization. There is a special section for handling COVID-19.

  • Commit to changing behaviors through small changes in habits

  • Find a local community college professor to hold meditation hours during lunch.

  • Bring in a wellness instructor for after-hours Zumba classes.

  • Encourage (as in participate) daily walks

  • Think about walking meetings

  • Replace pastries with fruit.

How is this possible during COVID? Adaptations include on-line classes structured solely for employees. Add virtual Zoom reading groups that enhance connection while providing valuable information. Create contests for walking programs. How about a walking meeting, in different parts of the city, connected by FaceTime?

Engage Employees at Every Level

Engaged employees, according to Gallup, are passionate about their jobs, committed to the organization and put discretionary effort into their performance. In the business world employee engagement results in lower absenteeism, lower turnover, fewer injuries, higher profitability, and higher customer engagement. Translated into the non-profit world employee engagement results in less absenteeism, lower turnover, higher client engagement and more robust client outcomes.

Gallup’s research consistently shows that approximately a third of the nation’s employees are fully engaged. Surprisingly, Quantum Workplace finds that employees have even less engagement in non-profit organizations.

Gallup has identified twelve core elements (measured through the Q12) that link powerfully to employee engagement. These core concepts are

  1. Clear expectations

  2. Resources to do the job right

  3. Opportunities to utilize strengths and talents

  4. Receiving regular and frequent recognition for good work

  5. Caring relationships

  6. Someone at work who encourages employee development

  7. Consideration of employee opinions

  8. Connection to the mission of the organization and its relationship to the job

  9. Quality of work from their co-workers

  10. Having a best friend at work

  11. Periodic discussions of progress

  12. Opportunities to learn and grow

Clear expectations are needed in work requirements and what is considered excellent work. As a strategy, clear expectations enhance employee engagement in a remote working environment. Focus on purpose and results, not on detailed directions. Staff need adequate resources, materials, and equipment. For instance, if working remotely do staff have adequate technology and internet access? Nonprofit organizations and Head Start programs are stretched thin. I get it. However, it is less expensive to invest in adequate resources, including digital technology, than to replace a valued worker. One of the most important resources for employees is time.

Opportunities to use strengths is a central factor in engaging staff. Identify key strengths and interests of each staff and build their role so they can use these strengths daily. Identifying key strengths can be observational or determined through strengths surveys such as CliftonStrengths 34 (Gallup) or the Values in Action Character Strengths.

Just as important as using strengths is the encouragement employees receive for professional and personal development. Discussions of growth and progress need to occur periodically – and more often than the annual assessment. Opportunities can be chances to lead meetings or special projects. Non-profit organizations are often invited to local or regional meetings, so send your employees.

Caring about an employee as a person means remembering their father just recovered from COVID-19 and their daughter was this year’s competitor for national recognition in debate. Caring also means taking the time, every day, to smile and greet them by name. A simple phone call once a week whether in the office or at remote work - just to say hello - has an enormous return on investment. Gallup indicates that having a best friend at work is important for engagement. Organizations cannot create friendships, but they can facilitate relationships through cross-departmental teams working on special projects.

Employees thrive with specific positive feedback and recognition for a job well done. This cannot be limited to "wonderful job" but must include what was done, how well it was done, and why it is important. One-on-one meetings are becoming recognized as effective in connecting employees during remote work.

Trauma-informed organizations are focused on empowerment – of clients and of staff. Empowerment begins with careful and thoughtful consideration of staff opinions, especially when they are different from leadership directives. Just as organizations solicit feedback, listen, and respond to clients, organizations need to do the same for staff.

Non-profit organizations attract employees who already believe in the mission. That is why it is surprising that non-profit organizations have lower engagement than for-profit organizations. Factors that contribute to lower engagement include non-profit employees may feel their role is disconnected from the mission. It is a shared responsibility between the employer and employee to continually reconnect jobs and roles with the mission of the organization.

A Partial List of Tasks:

  1. Implement a health and wellness plan such as Eat, Move and Sleep or Tiny Habits

  2. Review Strategies for Engaging Leadership found in Harvard Business Review

  3. Enhance employee engagement through Gallup’s research working with the COVID crisis

  4. Enhance employee engagement in nonprofit organizations through the work of Quantum Workplace

With engaged leaders, healthy employees, and engaged employees your organization will thrive during COVID and into the “new normal.” If you are interested in more information checkout my website on an engaged workforce and schedule a free consultation.