Staff Retention and Engagement: Strategies for Associations

As you’re well aware, the nonprofit world contains a whole constellation of different types of organizations, from 501(c)(3) nonprofits to community foundations, grantmaking organizations of all shapes and sizes to professional associations. Despite this high level of diversity, there are a few common challenges faced by all types of organizations in the broader nonprofit space — staff recruiting, retention, and engagement, to name a few. 

After all, there are a ton of misconceptions about what it’s like to work for a nonprofit. Plus, the confusing categorizations of different types of organizations can make it difficult to cast wide nets when looking to diversify and strengthen your team. 

Smarter staffing and hiring strategies can definitely help to attract talent, but how do you make sure your organization’s staff stays engaged and excited to be a part of your work? 

Turnover is costly for any organization, and keeping it to a minimum should be a continuous goal. This is especially true for those with fairly tight budgets like nonprofits, community groups, and associations. At Astron Solutions, we specialize in nonprofit HR and compensation strategy, so we’ve seen firsthand the kind of difference that doubling down on turnover can have for nonprofits and complex organizations like professional associations.

Looking specifically at associations, we’ll walk through a few core retention and engagement strategies that can help reduce turnover and strengthen your team:

  • Take a holistic approach to compensation.
  • Build a stronger internal culture.
  • Get more strategic with your HR.

As member-based organizations, associations already know how to keep their members engaged and involved year after year. Turning some of those strategies inward to retain your hard-won staff can be a game-changer for associations looking to grow their operations more sustainably over the long-run. Let’s get started!


1. Take a holistic approach to compensation.
As organizations with tighter or much less flexible budgets than for-profit employers, associations can seriously benefit from updating their approach to employee compensation. 

This is a strategy we recommend to all organizations, from nonprofits to associations to small businesses. By taking a more holistic approach to compensation, expanding your understanding of how your organization compensates employees for their work, you can open up new strategies and routes for boosting retention and engagement.

This is typically called the Total Rewards concept of compensation, consisting of both direct and indirect forms of compensation. Direct compensation includes salaries, bonuses, and any other direct forms of financial payment for employees’ work. Indirect compensation includes elements like:

  • Benefits, like healthcare, PTO, savings plans, etc.
  • The quality of your organization’s internal culture
  • Your organization’s performance management style
  • How you recognize achievements and contributions
  • The work-life balance your organization promotes

Think of these elements as all of the non-monetary benefits and factors that make your organization a place where people want to work. These forms of indirect compensation are often the deciding factor for potential candidates or staff members making the decision to look for new opportunities. 

Simply put, a stressful, aggressive, or otherwise poor culture will drive away more talent than a competitive salary will attract. 

The main idea is to approach these more intangible elements as central parts of your compensation strategies alongside salaries and bonuses. (Of course, this does not mean you can take basic steps to strengthen your culture simply to pay your employees less money.)

Giving indirect compensation more weight as a strategic asset to be strengthened and cultivated can be a game-changer for organizations with inflexible budgets. This is especially true for associations whose bottom lines depend so heavily on member retention and unpredictable non-dues revenue. To learn more, bookmark the Astron Solutions guide to nonprofit employee compensation to check out later.


2. Build a stronger internal culture. 
As an element of your association’s indirect compensation, the quality of your internal culture plays an outsized role in determining your staff retention and engagement. 

While some business leaders might be skeptical about the extent to which intangible cultural elements affect organizational performance, this logic often feels more natural for those of us in the nonprofit or broader mission-driven spaces. 

After all, your association doesn’t exist to make money from dues or to sell access to particular resources. It exists to serve more human-centric purposes in your industry or community, like empowering individuals or other organizations, starting conversations, and advocating for the causes and developments that bring you all together. If your goal is first and foremost to deliver that kind of value to your members, take the same approach to your internal culture. 

How do you deliver value to employees beyond paying their salaries? The answer to this question can reveal a lot about your organization’s ability to retain and engage talent. Remember, according to the Total Rewards concept of compensation, ‘value’ doesn’t only refer to money. A pleasant, engaging workplace is immensely valuable for staff, too (and even more valuable in terms of minimizing turnover and employee onboarding costs).

There are a few steps associations can take to strengthen their internal cultures:

  • Prioritize communication and openness. This is a best practice for any organization looking to strengthen its culture. Consistent opportunities for feedback between staff and leadership help staff feel engaged with the broader projects of your mission and strategic goals. Just as you likely use association management systems to help you build community among members (learn more here), take steps to build an internal communication, resource-sharing, and feedback infrastructure, as well. 
  • Stay genuine. When dealing with culture and other intangibles of management, it can be easy to slip into an ingenuine mode of thinking by trying to over-quantify your efforts or focusing solely on how your culture delivers business value. We see this all the time in the corporate world with the public turning on or mocking disingenuous CSR messaging. Your ultimate goal should be to foster an authentic, engaging, and inclusive culture for your association’s staff, not an efficient but superficial one.
  • Focus on proactive community engagement. How one Foundant user took a more human-centric approach to grantmaking is a great example. Getting to know your members, having unstructured conversations, and hosting engaging, rewarding events strengthens relationships between members and your staff. After all, associations are membership organizations; your member relationships are an important (but likely underutilized) asset when it comes to keeping staff engaged with your mission and work.
  • Explore grantmaking trends. Speaking of grantmaking, if your association makes grants or awards scholarships, take some time to explore new trends, specifically the move toward more equitable and participatory practices. Taking these kinds of steps shows members and your staff that you take your role as a key player and steward in the community seriously. 
  • Connect your mission to the real world whenever possible. We already touched on the fact that associations have broader missions beyond simply raising money to sustain themselves. Clearly articulate your mission and communicate it to employees. Then, take steps to deliberately connect your operations, special projects, and opportunities back to that mission. This is an excellent way to keep staff aware of and engaged with your association beyond basic day-to-day work. Check out Re:Charity’s guide to corporate philanthropy for inspiration.

Your association’s internal culture plays a huge role in keeping employees engaged with your work and ultimately retaining their talent. Define your values, and then find ways to articulate them in tangible ways. Taking culture for granted, being inauthentic, or simply not listening to employees almost always backfires in the long-run, usually in the form of unsustainable employee turnover.


3. Get more strategic with your HR.
Heading into 2020 and beyond, organizations of all shapes and sizes can expect to see a shift toward a more strategic approach to human resources. Specifically, this means HR data and insights can (and should) be used to drive more strategic decisions for the organization.

In recent years, all types of organizations have learned how data can strengthen their outward-facing strategies like relationship-building and marketing. However, HR analytics have rarely been utilized to their fullest extent internally in most organizations. 

The main idea is to dig into that engagement data to find areas for improvement as an employer and anticipate issues in advance. For instance, to start improving retention rates, learn as much as possible about why and when staff members choose to leave. Correlate departures with any and all relevant metrics, like times of compensation changes, promotions, and more. 

Then, try to find any commonalities across different segments of your team. For example, let’s say turnover is highest among team members who’ve been at your organization for between one and two years. Why? Reach into your HR data to find some answers, and then start to proactively address them. This is similar to how savvy nonprofits might dig into their donor data to identify supporters at risk of lapsing before losing those donations.

Your association almost certainly has at least some human resources systems in place to help facilitate day-to-day logistics and management of staff. However, without dedicated performance management or HR software in place, it can be difficult to start implementing more data-driven strategies around retention and engagement.


As complex organizations with fairly inflexible budgets and other restrictions, associations can stand to benefit greatly from boosting their staff retention and engagement rates. Turnover quickly becomes unsustainable, derailing your efforts every time a team member makes the choice to leave. 

By implementing more flexible compensation strategies, focusing on culture-building, and laying a stronger data infrastructure, you can start to see some improvements. Even small steps in these directions can have significant impacts down the line, so don’t be afraid to get started or experiment with what will work best for your unique association and team. Best of luck!

About the Author

Jennifer C. Loftus

Jennifer C. Loftus (MBA, SPHR, PHRca, GPHR, SHRM-SCP, CCP, CBP, GRP) is a Founding Partner of and National Director for Astron Solutions, a compensation consulting firm. Jennifer has 23 years of experience garnered at organizations including the Hay Group, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Eagle Electric Manufacturing Company, and Harcourt General.

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