Inspiring staff and volunteer excellence in nonprofits

Inspiring staff and volunteer excellence in nonprofits

June 16, 2016

Staff and volunteers are the engine of great nonprofits, and can truly power the organization forward when they feel connected to its mission and results. Alongside the people the nonprofit serves, staff and volunteers – working at all levels of the organization – should be benefitting from the nonprofit’s purpose with better health, happiness, life longevity and professional success. 

Great nonprofits are mission-driven, results-oriented and people-focused. Here are some quick tips for inspiring excellence among the staff and volunteers at your nonprofit.

The strategic plan: The nonprofit's strategic plan sets the direction of the organization and serves as a foundation for staff and volunteer excellence. Staff development and volunteer development should be critical goals within the strategic plan. 

Inspiring mission-driven staff: Staff in nonprofits succeed when they are personally mission-driven and when the organization sets clear expectations, fosters trust, allocates resources to priorities, commits to caring supervision, offers training and recognizes performance. Mission-driven staff are motivated by the organization's mission, vision, values, plans, goals and standards of excellence. 

Structure follows strategy: Great nonprofits continuously assess their organizational structure based on the organization's strategic and annual plans and feedback from staff and clients on the organization's effectiveness. 

Staffing for excellence: Staff – the program providers, service delivery team and administrators – are the keepers of the mission. They are the voice. Every staff person selected must possess skill and will to both do the job and live the mission. Excellence and diversity are strategic assets of a nonprofit. Staffing excellence requires a continuous development cycle of: up-to-date job descriptions, annual objectives, performance reviews, training and career plans and code of conduct commitments. Compensation should be fair and equitable based on work and market comparisons. Each element of compensation – salary, benefits, time off, special awards and training resources should be clearly documented for every position level. There should also be a written action plan that includes daily, weekly, monthly and annual strategies for recognizing and acknowledging staff. 

Building staff skill and will through ownership of the mission: The nonprofit's goal should be every staff employee feels they have "the best job in the world," and ownership of the mission. Maintaining communications systems, transparency and authenticity are critical to building skill and will and ownership of mission. It is consistently the No. 1 goal and challenge for organizations. Communications plans should be designed and owned by staff. Leadership sets the tone but communications should be horizontal and vertical at every staff and volunteer level.

Volunteerism: A nonprofit's strategic plan should establish the strategic value and centrality of volunteers to the organization. The origin of the nonprofit sector was voluntary and this legacy should be considered by every nonprofit in its strategic plan, mission and vision. The strategic plan should define the full continuum of volunteer engagement, from serving on the board of directors to participating in recurring volunteer programs to one time volunteer service by participants and community members. 

Good Governance: The act of governing nonprofits is a unique and complex partnership of shared power and accountability between staff and volunteer leadership. Boards of directors are a legal requirement for nonprofits, and the duties of care, loyalty and obedience are fundamental. Good governance requires that boards of directors embrace their role in policy making, planning, resource development and oversight. 

Volunteer management system: Volunteer engagement and a continuum of volunteer roles – structured to support the strategic plan – is key to success. A great volunteer management system defines volunteer roles, recruiting, training, recognition and retention. 

Leadership Excellence: All great nonprofit organizations align leadership with mission, vision, values and goals. Nonprofit leaders lead, direct, command and guide the mission through a strategic plan. Nonprofit leaders manage and organize the plans, goals, systems and controls used to achieve the mission. Nonprofit leaders live the mission with passion, energy and commitment. 


Paula Gavin is New York City's chief service officer, responsible for NYC Service. NYC Service is the city agency which promotes, engages and supports volunteer service in New York City and connects volunteers to the city's greatest needs. She also spent many years in the nonprofit world, as executive director of New York City’s Fund for Public Advocacy and president and CEO of YMCA of Greater New York.

Paula Gavin