Section 16: Staff Retention -- Appreciating the CIL's Most Valuable Asset

As a new ED, you may have inherited a team of dedicated, hard-working, passionate people, or you may have a number of vacancies to fill. When you have people who are a good fit for your organizational culture and contribute to the organizational mission, you want to keep them. Retaining high quality employees can be a challenge for nonprofits like CILs. Nonprofits experience a higher turnover rate (19%) compared to the 12% average turnover rate of other industries.[1] So, what do you do?

What Makes People Stay?

Before we discuss what you can do to help keep your team onboard, let’s look at the factors that make people stay.[2]

  • Leadership and planning
  • Corporate culture and communications
  • Pay and benefits
  • Training, development, and resources
  • Engagement
  • Role satisfaction
  • Work environment.

This should give you an idea of what is important to your staff, whether it’s someone who is already with the organization or a new hire. Think about how your organization is doing in terms of these factors.

Assess Your Organization

As a first step, create opportunities for staff to provide honest feedback to help you better assess your organization. This could be done through an anonymous survey, a staff meeting or staff retreat, feedback cards, or a mix of strategies. Consider asking the following questions:

  • How would you describe our organizational culture? What is our work environment like?
  • What do staff like most about working here? What do staff like least?
  • What is the average number of years that an employee stays with us? What was the shortest time and longest time that employees worked with us?
  • How are staff rewarded? What actions are taken if a staff member is not meeting their job requirements?
  • What opportunities are there for learning and professional development?
  • Are there opportunities for open communication between staff and management?
  • What would our ideal organization look like in terms of staff capacity, staff skills, environment, and culture? Which of the items mentioned is achievable and how can we make it happen?

Organizational Culture—It Starts with Leadership

Every company has a culture. The only question is whether or not you decide what it is. ~Jason Cohen, WPEngine[3]

As an ED, you must be intentional about establishing, nurturing, and maintaining your CIL’s culture.

Classy’s managing editor Elizabeth Chung notes that culture represents your team’s “collective understanding” of how your Center operates, your core values and beliefs. Every person in your Center—ED, board, staff, volunteers—needs to know what your CIL does and does not stand for. Chung states, “When your staff and supporters understand your organization’s core values, they’ll feel empowered to make the right decisions and you can trust them to accurately represent your nonprofit.”[4]

In this tool kit—and in IL-NET training and technical assistance in general—we spend a lot of time and space talking about the Independent Living Philosophy, which embodies our core values of consumer control, cross-disability, diversity, empowerment, inclusion, and leadership. The reason for this is that the IL Philosophy is at the heart of who we are. The IL Philosophy should be embedded in everything about your CIL, from job descriptions, to interview questions, to how your offices are arranged and decorated, to how decisions are made, to how you treat consumers and each other.

One way to ensure that everyone involved understands what your CIL is about is to develop a mission statement. Visit the Bridgespan Group's website  ( for tips related to creating mission statements and involving stakeholders. You, your board, and your staff should be able to recite the mission statement, even if someone woke you up in the middle of the night and asked you to state it. By understanding how your mission statement aligns with the CIL’s core values, you will all be able to make decisions that align with your mission and values.

Remember, if you as a leader do not proactively work to create an organizational culture, one will develop without you, and it might not be the culture in which you want to work. “If you want to build a culture that inspires people to dedicate their lives to your mission, you’ll need to take the time and effort to push it in the desired direction. These efforts will have a lasting impact on your employees, supporters, and overall success as an organization.”[5]

Retaining Employees with a Passion for Your Mission

Now that you have created a culture that exemplifies your CIL’s values, the next step is to address the factors that keep employees engaged and passionate about the mission.

  • Foster their interests and strengths. Learn more about them as a person. Create opportunities for them to use their strengths and capitalize on their interests. For example, if a staff member is interested in videography, they could create a video highlighting success stories from consumers. Identifying strengths can help you as a supervisor manage their talent by providing opportunities to grow in their role. If a staff member is expert at using accessible public transportation, they might be the best choice to train others.
  • Provide ongoing support. Employees should feel supported in a team environment. They will encounter challenges in their roles, but they should never feel like it is their issue to tackle alone. Be accessible and available. Find opportunities to gauge how programs or projects are going in both a team setting and one-on-one meetings. Find out how individual staff members feel about their job responsibilities and what kind of support they need from you.
  • Communicate effectively. Keep the lines of communication open with staff members. If there are issues with performance, be transparent in communicating what they are and create a performance improvement plan with the staff member. Highlight accomplishments too. One easy way to do this is to reserve five minutes of a meeting for all staff members to acknowledge the success of their co-workers. For example, “I want to give kudos to Sam for her work on completing that difficult home modification.”
  • Provide opportunities for professional growth and development. Individuals want to know that there are opportunities for additional training, mentorship with a veteran staff member, or even advancement. Learn about your employees’ goals and what they hope to accomplish. Budget for staff development and send them to workshops, courses, and conferences. Investing in your team’s professional development demonstrates that you value them as an individual and that you value their contribution to the organization.
  • Emphasize and model work-life balance. Let people know that you do not expect them to spend their time outside of work hours answering emails and calls from consumers. Staff burnout can cause the best employee to consider leaving their role, even if they’re passionate about the work. Although there is often urgency in situations that consumers experience, set up a system that will manage consumer expectations and give staff a break. This shows that you not only care about them as an employee but as a person. Taking care of staff members leads to better service for consumers.
  • Listen to feedback and ideas. Staff members want to know that their feedback and ideas are valued. Demonstrate confidence in your team by letting them try new approaches, processes, and programs. Give credit when staff ideas are incorporated into Center operations or lead to new projects. Allow people to learn from mistakes and failures. Scott Burlingame, executive director at Independence Inc. in Minot, North Dakota, said during a recent IL Conversation on hiring and retaining staff, “[W]e make full‑speed mistakes. If we are going to make mistakes, let's make mistakes because they were mistakes of effort [and] we ran into a wall at full speed. What I mean by that is I don't want to punish people who try something and [it] doesn't work. I don't like mistakes of laziness, but I appreciate and I support mistakes of effort. If somebody goes out and tries something and it doesn't work, we'll be like, all right. That's learned. That was a learning moment. Nobody was hurt. But what did we learn from it?”
  • Reward hard work and have fun. Maybe your CIL set a quarterly goal and reached it! Take this opportunity to thank your staff and find ways to reward them. This can be as simple as ordering pizza or rewarding staff members with a “half-day off work” coupon. However, do not limit opportunities for team building and camaraderie to when a goal is reached. Having fun while team building can be accomplished through potlucks, holiday gatherings at the office, friendly competitions, or even staff retreats.

Ways to Help Staff in Stressful Times

  • Encourage staff to engage in at least one self-care activity daily. Share the activities that you have found helpful and ask them to do the same.
  • Set up a regular time to connect and share ideas. Some CILs have scheduled daily “coffee breaks” and weekly chats in person or through teleconferences, or video chats with co-workers to just talk. It has been helpful to employees to keep in touch this way.
  • Check in with each staff member frequently to see how they are doing.
  • Send out routine updates to everyone to help dispel misinformation and concerns.
  • Consider sending out an email to staff with tips on self-care and managing stress.

Resources for a Deeper Dive

[1] Branson, T. (n.d.). Retrieved from


[3] Chung, E. Why Defining Your Nonprofit’s Culture Will Be the Most Important Thing You Do This Year,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Chung, E. Why Defining Your Nonprofit’s Culture Will Be the Most Important Thing You Do This Year,