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Dos and don'ts for hard times

Nonprofits often face hard times: loss of funding, changes in the political climate, economic recessions and more. In extreme cases, these factors can lead to unpleasant consequences, such as staff reductions or reduced or suspended services. Naturally, any of these scenarios can hurt employee morale — even with the best proactive efforts to prepare staff for foreseeable changes.

Still, you can take steps to reduce the negative impact of serious funding changes on staff morale. Start with these dos and don'ts.

Do this ...

Focus on the mission

Focusing on the mission will help maintain the unity of purpose that drives your organization. Even if you're forced to reduce your staff, keeping your mission in the foreground is a reminder of the importance of your work.


The unknown is often scarier than the known. If you're paring down the budget, let employees know why — and when. Develop a timeline, prioritize cuts and share the list.

Keep your doors open

Communication isn't a one-way street. Make sure leaders keep the (literal and figurative) doors open to new ideas, questions and suggestions. Openness is a way to support innovation and invention. In some cases, solutions come from unexpected sources.

Continue recognizing success

Recognition can mean taking a moment in a staff meeting to appreciate a job well done or leaving a note for an individual employee expressing gratitude for a particular contribution. It's also important to acknowledge employees to your donors and to the public.

Give employees time and space

Budget cuts can be traumatic — or the result of traumatic events — and employees will need opportunities to process major changes. If this means setting aside time for additional teambuilding or ignoring some grousing or grumbling at the office, that's OK. Let employees blow off steam. Then let them know they're valued and encourage them to refocus on the mission.

Offer professional development for displaced employees

If you must reduce your staff, do the best you can to help displaced employees move into new jobs. You might ask senior staff and board members to provide networking support, offer suggestions for resumes or online profiles, or submit recommendations or endorsements on professional networking sites.

Use adversity as motivation

Budget struggles offer the opportunity for streamlining and a renewed dedication to the mission. As your organization regroups, learn from the experience. Create an ongoing action plan for keeping employee morale high.

... don't do this

Ignore signs that employees are uncertain, anxious or unhappy

If you sense these things, address them in a clear, respectful and sensitive way. Communicate the struggles your organization is facing, be open about the steps you're taking to address the struggles and be ready to receive suggestions from any staff member ready to help.

Let the "depreciation mindset" take hold

According to the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, the "depreciation mindset" describes a workforce that feels weak, powerless and unappreciated. This mindset can contribute to issues such as decreased productivity and increased employee turnover. To combat the "depreciation mindset," show appreciation for the work that employees do and make it a priority to value their contributions.

Overwork your staff

Take a break, even if it's a short one, to acknowledge the completion of a task or project before moving on to the next one. Although budget cuts may require you to do more with less, employees need time and space to take care of themselves.

Cut teambuilding activities

Catered or off-site teambuilding activities might be first on the budget-cut chopping block, but don't lose sight of less expensive options — such as a potluck lunch or friendly soccer match. Activities don't have to be expensive to have strong returns in the form of employee morale.

Keep secrets

Your first impulse might be to hide financial struggles from employees, but an atmosphere of secrecy is often more toxic than one in which leaders are open about the problems they're facing. Sharing these struggles allows your organization to take advantage of your prime asset: your employees.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



The Poynter Institute: For nonprofits, mission is key to employee morale by Katie Hawkins-Gaar (2015)

The Center for Nonprofit Excellence: How is office morale? (2015)

Causeview: How to improve nonprofit employee morale on a budget by Doron Barbalat (2016)

Nonprofit Risk Management Center: Coping with crisis: Managing employee fear and low morale

Cypress Ridge Solutions: Low morale in a non-profit organization



Baltimore-based writer and educator