What Employees Want

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 11th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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When I first saw the headline—93% of those employed at nonprofits are engaged in their work (and this was touted as being three times the national average)—I wasn’t surprised.  Nevertheless, I went to the original source to read the entire Work for Good report.

In actuality, only 55% of nonprofit employees feel highly engaged, while 38% feel only “somewhat engaged.”  And while, yes, the statement that 93% of nonprofit employees are engaged at work is not untrue, it is misleading and glosses over an important distinction:  41% of employees are only somewhat engaged.

Why would that be?  We put ourselves out there as the sector that cares, that does good, that helps others, communities, the world.  If that doesn’t completely engage employees, what will?  So, clearly, we must be doing something wrong that almost half (45%) of our employees are not wildly, enthusiastically engaged.

My dismay was lessened somewhat by discovering additional limits of this research.  These stats, and the rest that I’m about to share, are from Work for Good’s “nationwide” sample of a mere 205 nonprofit employees surveyed in the second half of 2017.  “Nationwide” actually spans only 25 states, the employees are both current and former, range in age from 18 to 53 plus, and reflect positions from the bottom to the top of organizational charts.   So, not really a national study, not just about millennials,  and covering an array of positions.  But the sample is really small given the size of the nonprofit workforce (14.4 million in 2016) in this country.   You can use this data to guide thinking and questions, but not for any definitive pronouncements.

Despite the limitations of this work, it was surprising to see that while a majority of employees report being highly engaged by their work there isn’t a whole lot of satisfaction happening.  Only 26% are highly satisfied in their current position, while more than half (51%) are only somewhat satisfied, and almost a quarter (23%) are not satisfied.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that folks are actively job hunting (26%), checking job sites more than once a week (42%) or “passively” (46%).  Almost two thirds of respondents indicated that they will change jobs with great frequency:  41% will change jobs every 3-5 years; 20% every 1-2 years.  We will become hiring machines and had best be prepared for the interruptions of services and costs that such frequent turnover will produce.

The lack of job satisfaction may stem from feelings of financial insecurity.  People are willing to accept lower wages for engaging work but that doesn’t mean they have to like it.  According to the study, more than half (52%) of respondents are feeling “financially uncomfortable.”  (Half are still paying off student debt, which certainly contributes to financial discomfort).  This financial distress does not appear to go away, either, as 68% of respondents said it was greatest when young (18-32 years), while 61% said it is greatest at mid-life (43-52 years).  Yet, despite this, compensation and benefits ranked third (21% noted this) on the list of top priorities for a workplace (following culture and values (36% place the top priority, followed by mission and vision at 26%).   And, when asked about top priorities for a job, compensation again ranked third (11%), following “interest in type of work” (34%) and “opportunity to learn and grow” (24%).

While more pay would be appreciated, I’m sure, there are other things that this group wants even more, and they are no/low cost.  They want to be valued, appreciated and thanked.  They want their input sought, to be challenged and then given the room to get the job done (no micromanaging here), opportunities for professional development (so they can grow and flex their skills) and clear expectations with continual feedback.  Add to the list flex time, telecommuting, a fun environment, and rewards for jobs well done, and these folks should be okay staying in the sector, which is what most plan on doing (just not staying in the same organizations).

Study limitations aside, some of what these folks want—an engaging job, appreciation, fun, and flexibility—are the very reasons many chose the nonprofit sector over the for-profit sector in the first place.  Finding out if you are (still) delivering on these might be a good place to start.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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