A researcher studying ways to stem the high rate of employees leaving nonprofits has been searching for low-cost solutions and homed in on inclusion and leadership.
Associations know all too well the burdensome costs of high employee turnover. Hiring and training staff only to lose them after short periods is a significant problem in the nonprofit sector, notes Kim Brimhall, assistant professor of social work at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
“Part of the reason I am interested in working with public and nonprofits is they have limited resources, so they are always struggling to keep good workers,” Brimhall said. “The for-profits can offer bonuses. The nonprofits really can’t. If you’re struggling to attract good people and having them stay, what can you do?”
That was one of the central questions Brimhall hoped to address in her research, “Inclusion is Important…But How Do I Include? Examining the Effects of Leader Engagement on Inclusion, Innovation, Job Satisfaction, and Perceived Quality of Care in a Diverse Nonprofit Health Care Organization,” published in February in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.
Brimhall spent roughly 18 months at a nonprofit hospital looking at job satisfaction among staff and what factors influenced that. From staff surveys, she learned that feeling valued and included was a key factor in employee satisfaction. “[W]hen inclusion was examined directly with employee job satisfaction and perceived quality of care, results were significant,” Brimhall wrote in the research.
While diversity and inclusion are often used together, the terms are not synonymous. “For a long time, people used these terms interchangeably,” she said. “You can get a diverse team together. That does not mean a diverse team will feel comfortable sharing their opinions.”
That is where the inclusion part comes in. The research found that making people feel included is essential. Leaders were useful in setting the tone for the organization and making staff feel included. “A part of it is ensuring that you’re encouraging lower-level staff to be involved,” Brimhall said. “If they’re not even in the room in critical conversations about them, then they’re not going to feel valued. This is about seeking out the perspectives of the people on your team. The perspectives that can be of value.”
While a nonprofit hospital is a huge organization, Brimhall said the principles still hold true in smaller settings. In a large organization, it is often not possible for the top leader to hear every person at every meeting. Logistically, it doesn’t work. So, the large organization tends to break off into smaller segments with lower-level leaders taking charge of their teams.
“It’s those front-line supervisors, those middle management teams that make a huge difference,” Brimhall said. “Leader as an official role sets the tone, but there are people who are not in the official leadership roles who certainly set the tone. It’s also about the folks who are highly influential who might not be in those top positions.”
Brimhall says leaders can help people feel valued by seeking out each person’s opinion in a meeting. For example, if everyone didn’t get a chance to speak, the leaders in her study whose teams felt most valued reached out by email after meetings, saying something like, “Hey, I didn’t get to hear your opinion at the meeting. What did you think of the proposal?”
Brimhall said it is important for leaders to “express value and appreciation for everyone’s opinion, no matter what job position they have.”
Brimhall is continuing her research in this area. This study, she said, gave a broad overview that leaders making staff feel included is an effective retention strategy, but didn’t get specific enough. “My goal is to develop very simple, cost-effective interventions so that people feel valued,” Brimhall said. “We have all these general recommendations, but we want to know what actually works. What are the kinds of things you can do, so you’re not losing people to your competitors because they don’t feel valued?”
Certainly, Brimhall’s continuing research is one to watch. In the meantime, how is your association doing at making staff feel valued and included? Any examples you’d like to share?