17 Jun Every Nonprofit Is Missing This, And It’s Huge
I was asked recently, “If you could go back and change one thing during your time as a full time Executive Director, what would it be?” I knew the answer immediately. While I can say with certainty that I fully supported my staff, what I did not do is offer recognition or awards. Looking back, it was a mistake.
Something I know for sure is people place more value on recognition from their associates and peers than they do a gift, or even a salary raise. It has deep meaning for people. I see now how important it is for there to be a mechanism in nonprofits where people are rewarded for innovation, creativity, growth, reaching new goals, and even tenure. Instead, the prevailing (unspoken) sentiment is keep them poor, keep them without resources, and don’t recognize or reward them. Even the really robust organizations that have the money don’t do it.
What’s so interesting is how in a rush nonprofits are to thank partners and funders. Sure, let’s give an award to that corporation because they sponsored the golf tournament. Meanwhile, the four staff who were crushed in order to pull off the actual event didn’t get so much as a thank you. Instead, they get to watch you hand over a gold plaque to thank the sponsor who crushed them. The appetite to reward externally in order to keep the money coming over the threshold trumps any mention of the people on the inside doing the heavy lifting. How very backwards that is.
Personally, I see several reasons why recognition is avoided in nonprofits…
If a nonprofit chooses to recognize and reward, criteria is needed. What causes someone to get this award? That takes effort, time and work. Added to that is the need to match it with something tangible and worthy of receiving. That’s even more work. Need I say more?
If a nonprofit doesn’t do anything, they treat everyone the same. There’s comfort in that because you don’t have to make a decision. Everyone sits on the same bench. Everyone is a good worker. If you do awards, it requires picking a first and a second. That takes courage, and most simply don’t have it.
There is a deep jealousy that lurks under the table. I think it lives in the same family as toxicity, which we know is plentiful in nonprofits as I’ve written about before. Toxicity most definitely births jealousy within an organization.
Finally, recognizing and rewarding staff would shatter the “we’re working so hard, we’re doing the best we can” narrative that nonprofits are so addicted to. After all, who are you if you aren’t sounding the call of The Struggle? The scarcity conversation keeps nonprofits in business. “We can’t celebrate our people or the community will think we don’t need any money – because we’re too successful”. Can’t have that.
Here’s why this conversation matters: loyalty and tenure. After 30+ years as an Executive Director, I know these two elements strengthen a nonprofit above ALL things. When staff leave, you have to start over. When they stay and grow, you’ve got a shot. Recognition and rewards are an insurance policy of sorts. It’s high time nonprofits demonstrated care for those who dedicate their livelihood to caring about and fulfilling a Mission.
So what can recognition look like in the nonprofit sector? For starters, let’s ditch the plaque for heaven’s sake. Nobody cares that you spent $8.99 for a piece of wood engraved with an inspirational phrase. Instead, let’s do this…
More and better tools to do their work. What software, technology, machine, or instrument would make life easier and better for staff? What have they said would help them if only it was available to them? What can you give them that would allow them to finally stop “getting by”?
A paid-for professional development seminar. Spend some time considering what kind of workshop or learning event would help staff do their job better. What would add to their stable of knowledge that would help the organization reach its goals?
A team building drill. For example, have the Finance Clerk and the Fundraiser switch jobs for one day. Let them experience what it’s like to wear the other person’s shoes. At the end of the day, have them sit together and share what they learned. Most of all, ask them to acknowledge one another for jobs well done.
A personally meaningful and memorable gift. Does your Front Desk Assistant love cats and coloring books? Give her a small stack with brand new colored pencils for her birthday. It’s not the books and pencils she will remember. Rather, it’s the gesture and the feeling of being seen and known that she will take with her.
When it comes to recognition and awards, it’s not about the money spent. It’s about creating meaning for the person who pledged their loyalty and tenure to a life of service.
Want help? I offer individualized coaching and consulting specifically tailored to meet you where you are, with the people and resources you have available to you, and with your goals in mind.
Reply to this message directly to set up a conversation. Even if we don’t end up doing work together, I promise our conversation will highlight a direction and solutions you haven’t yet considered.
Let’s start there.