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How to Recruit and Retain Talent in the Nonprofit World

Last November we had the absolute pleasure of attending the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference where we first heard Ian Adair speak. Adair is the Executive Director of the Gracepoint Foundation, has a Tedx Talk and is the author of Stronger Than Stigma, A Call To Action!. We were inspired by his presentation on nonprofit employee mental health, couldn’t agree more with the message that he was sharing and are thrilled when he was interested in chatting for our audience. As a 3x nonprofit CEO he knows what it’s like to be a leader in the sector and has some tangible advice for nonprofit leaders on how they can start, and continue prioritizing the mental health of their employees.

“Before the pandemic nonprofits really only had 2 goals. One was staying viable through fundraising and the second was taking care of the populations they serve to the best of their abilities. Now COVID has caused a mental health epidemic within the pandemic and we really have to be taking care of our people,” said Adair. He explained that this can be a daunting task for nonprofit leaders. “We need to ask ourselves; ‘Are we ready for that? What are we putting in place to do that? How are we addressing it? Are we taking it head-on or are we shying away? I think we are seeing people leave jobs that they enjoyed doing because their organizations have not evolved to care about their people.”

“If you have been working at an organization for too long I think your idea of leadership can become skewed. You may think that because you have the title of Manager, CEO, or Director that makes you a leader. A title does not make you a leader. I like to say the definition of leadership has truly changed and leadership today is about taking care of the people doing the work, not just the work itself.”


Adair noted that this is not the same workforce nonprofit leaders remember. “If you look at the statistics, 70% of the workforce is under the age of 40, and they want different things. The other 30% of the workforce that is over 40 only ever really cared about titles and salaries. You might not be able to pay the most but those 70% of people are looking for other things too and salary and title sometimes don’t even make their list of top 4 or 5. They are looking for a flexible work schedule, a positive work culture, for organizations that care about their mental health and wellness, for mentorship and sponsorship, and they want to work with the latest technology. However, nonprofits are still basing their recruitment, retention, and culture around salary and title. We shouldn’t be surprised when we lose good people because we aren’t taking care of them,” said Adair.

While we had Adair on the phone we wanted to ask how nonprofits can show that they prioritize their employee’s mental health in a job listing itself. He said; “ A couple of things. Firstly, the nonprofit industry is really adamant that we show the salary in the job posting. Secondly; wouldn’t it be great if instead of the 600 word description of every possible thing that a person might be doing in that role you spend a little bit of time talking about the work culture of the job. In the about us section instead of talking about how many people you have served or how long they’ve been in a community, talk about the work environment. I don’t think any of us have chosen to apply for a job because of how long someones been in business.”


“You have to start looking at what makes people’s times at work more enjoyable and productive. We spend more time at work than we do anything else. More than with our spouse, our friends, or our families. And today the workforce is demanding it to be an enjoyable experience.” As Adair acknowledged, this is a daunting task for leaders so he shared with us 5 strategies that any size organization can use to build a better culture of empathy and support; create a safe environment, allow for accommodations, share stories of lived experiences, educate, make wellness a priority in your organization.

“We know from research already that people are extremely productive working from home, (if your employees do work from home or hybrid you need to create a safe environment both in-person and virtually). The big fear was if we let our employees work from home they were going to grab a bottle of wine and watch Netflix. But research shows that we’re actually working longer, harder, answering emails faster when the notifications pop up on our phones, and oh by the way we think we have to do it until our heads hit the pillow.”

As a family-run organization, we asked Ian specifically how leaders can support employees who may have a child who is struggling and requires a lot of care and attention at times. He said; “So what does that look like to take care of an employee who is going through something? Give employees who are suffering from grief, loss, or who are caregivers flexibility. There are a lot of ways that we can accommodate. We can allow them to work from home, allow non traditional hours, a compressed workweek, what about a private space for someone to use Telehealth to speak with their therapist? Then they wouldn’t have to use their whole lunch break to get across town and back. For example if your employee has a child who is transitioning onto a new medication and they can’t give it to their child until 10 am they can’t get to work by 8, so just be flexible." said Adair.

As a leader, Adair goes further than simply offering workplace accommodations. He sets the tone of an accepting workplace by encouraging discussions around mental health. “I think that one of the best ways to break down stigmas associated with mental health is by listening to and sharing stories of lived experiences. Stories have the ability to impact us on a personal level, especially if we feel a strong connection to the storyteller and if that is someone who leads an organization, that can create a very strong bond. Leaders need to show empathy and support openly for change to take place. When a leader is vulnerable and shares their experiences it helps to foster transparency and acceptance in the workplace and your employees will hopefully start to feel like they can share.”

“But you can’t just say one day; “Okay everyone, we care about mental health. Let the disclosure begin! Your employees will think it is a trap. Luckily for anyone jumping into this there are mental health awareness days all the time. The majority of them run from May to November and that is a pretty hefty chunk of time on the calendar to jump in, just do a quick Google search and use one of them as an opportunity to get started,” said Adair.

“I always tell everyone that the research shows that your people want it and it’s saying that the time is now. You can’t say that 25% of our population is suffering from mental illness and just assume that none of them are your people. I get it all the time; ‘What if we don’t have anyone that is suffering?’ and I say; ‘Well, whatever helps you sleep at night but you do, statistically speaking.”’

So, you may be asking yourself; “What does this look like on a daily basis?” Adair suggests; “During a pandemic, you should be checking in pretty frequently, especially if you are working virtually. If you were in an office you would notice if someone was not acting like themselves. You can still do that through Zoom. I can see if an employee's engagement levels are off or if they're no longer interested. I always tell people that a great place for a leader to begin educating themselves on this is the Mental Health First Aid Training from NAMI. It’s an 8-hour course and it by no means makes you a mental health expert but it gives you the awareness to feel confident when you recognize the signs of depression, anxiety, etc,” said Adair.

“As a leader, I need to be able to go to my people and say ‘Hey, what’s going on? Can I help you?’ Not; ‘Hey you haven’t been hitting your fundraising goal, pull your head out or you’re fired,’ that would be bad leading. You don’t have to force someone to disclose, you just have to let them know that you recognize something and that you are there to help. We all want to be the fixers, but someone going through something just wants us to be there. Be present; be engaged and that will mean a lot to them. Listen and then be a conduit to encouraging professional help. You're not the professional help,” said Adair.

“There are lots of ways to do it but if you have only ever led one way these could all be new and scary. But the research backs it up. It backs up that we’re more loyal to organizations, bosses, and managers who actually display empathy, care, and support us in taking care of ourselves and our families. It isn't hard to implement if you want to keep someone who is doing an amazing job for you,” said Adair. Want to stay connected with Adair? Check him out on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter!

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