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Crash Course for First-Time Managers: 12 Suggestions

By Bridget Murphy posted 09-05-2023 15:30


A manager—good, bad, or well-intentioned but inexperienced—can make or break an employee’s overall experience and success in a role.

For nonprofits, management is especially important. People are often drawn to this work for idealistic or community-minded reasons. They might feel personally invested far more than employees in other organization types.

Nonprofit budgets are often tight. Relationships with donors, sponsors and governments are complex. Funding is a continuous challenge.

It’s a lot to juggle and can create a hectic environment where the employee experience falls by the wayside.

Nonprofit employee turnover is around 19%, consistently higher than that at for-profit organizations, which sits at roughly 13%.

While the effects of the pandemic and Great Resignation disrupted the labor environment, employee retention is still very much within nonprofits’ control. NonprofitHR’s 2022 Retention Survey found these top reasons for sector turnover:

      Employees found better opportunities

      Employees experienced a lack of opportunity for upward mobility/career growth

      Employees were dissatisfied or disengaged by the organization/culture

Your Duty as Manager

You can’t prevent employees from finding new opportunities that better align with their goals and passions. However, you as a manager can shape their experience into one that’s engaging and encourages growth. A great manager can make someone’s job easier, help them drive greater impact, and feel fulfilled in their roles.

Let’s say you’re about to begin managing your first direct reports—what are the best practices to help your team thrive and organization grow? We’ll break them down into three categories: Communication, Development, and Empowerment.


Management is an interpersonal responsibility. How you communicate with employees directly affects how they experience the workplace, their roles, the mission, and the organization as a whole.

For more effective communication:

      Hold regular one-on-one meetings for all employees. Set up weekly 15-30 minute meetings for employees to bring any discussion items on their minds or provide updates. These can be extremely helpful for uncovering pain points in employees’ roles, driving engagement and deepening your relationships.

Use standard agendas to ensure time is used productively and employees have ample room for their topics and updates for the week.

      Institute an open-door policy. Regular meetings can centralize most discussions and updates, but having an open-door policy ensures that you can quickly resolve ad-hoc questions and issues. Help employees refine their own decision-making and prioritization skills over time so the open-door issues they bring you truly require your input.

      Emphasize transparency and directness. Provide straightforward answers and acknowledge when you don’t have them. Provide the reasons behind organizational decisions, get additional context from leadership when needed and back it all up with a friendly—but direct—tone.

      Actively solicit feedback and ideas. Your employees probably have tons of good ideas. Yet, they might not be asked for them very often. Your one-on-one meetings or suggestion surveys are effective places to collect ideas.

If you implement a suggestion, treat it as an opportunity to coach the employee through seeing it to completion. When an idea isn’t acted upon, transparently explain the reasons why it isn’t an organizational priority.


Part of a manager’s job is helping employees develop their professional skills. Remember that lack of upward mobility and career growth opportunities were reported as top reasons for turnover.

Through intentional coaching and development while fostering a team culture that encourages continuous improvement, you can help employees build the skill sets that will open new opportunities for them and your organization.

To promote employee development:

      Give regular feedback. Consistent (positive and constructive) feedback is the best way to nudge employees in the right direction and course-correct over time. It produces better experiences overall than addressing poor performance as a surprise during less frequent performance reviews.
Frame feedback productively. Explain why their action was correct or incorrect, the impact it had ,and an actionable request, whether that’s to “keep it up” or “please approach this differently.”

      Recognize standout contributions. When employees go above and beyond, recognize them for it. Give team-wide shout-outs or simple recognition messages that express gratitude for their hard work. You likely don’t have direct visibility into all the ways that employees drive impact or interact with one another throughout the day. A peer-to-peer system for team members to recognize each other can also be effective. Clearly explain what they did well and the impact it had so positive behavior can be easily repeated.

      Set goals with employees. Go further than encouraging development through feedback and recognition. Give your employees a more helpful structure through goal-setting. Ground them in relevant challenges and organizational priorities. Make sure they’re time-bound and measurable with specific performance indicators. For instance, if a gift officer has struggled with donor retention, set clear benchmarks to hit between performance management periods. Actively check in on progress, offering help, resources, and feedback along the way.

      Encourage and financially support certification. Industry-recognized credentials like the CFRE and CAP® enable staff to demonstrate their fundraising knowledge. Obtaining a credential shows donors, funders, and your board that development staff have met a set of criteria and standards—ultimately driving trust. When employees are encouraged and financially supported to earn a professional designation, it’s the proof in the pudding you believe they are well worth investing in. 

      Pursue additional learning opportunities. Set an example for your team by staying on top of nonprofit trends and current events. Find helpful resources from experts, read books and blogs relevant to your role, and share them with employees. If you have recurring team-wide meetings, use a portion of them to cover trends and best practices. Clearly tie key takeaways to how you can improve day-to-day tasks. Work with leadership to implement more structured or subsidized professional development and credentialing opportunities.


Empower employees with autonomy and decision-making responsibilities. Do you have an engaging, productive culture? Do employees waste time and energy on unnecessary tasks throughout the day? As a manager, you’re in an ideal position to identify and remove hurdles. Consider these tips:

      Foster productive mindsets. Positivity is infectious, but toxicity is insidious. Approach challenges as opportunities to lead with a productive mindset in which things don’t have to be perfect but do need to continually improve. If employees express negativity or toxicity, learn more about their concerns. Address them quickly and transparently while encouraging forward movement.

      Stay organized and respectful of your team’s time. Don’t waste your team’s time that could otherwise go to their core responsibilities. Meetings need clear time limits and set agendas. Watch for role-specific opportunities to give employees greater structure to simplify their work. For instance, improve your prospect portfolio process for gift officers on a development team.

      Encourage wellness and balance. Use one-on-one meetings to check in with employees on a personal level. Encourage them to take time off. Offer hybrid remote/in-office work arrangements when possible. New wellness programs and benefits can also show employees you value their well-being, but you’ll likely need to work closely with your organization’s leadership and HR to institute them.

Looking Ahead

The quality of an organization’s management practices becomes exponentially more important as it grows.

As fewer employees have direct contact with top leaders, it falls on managers to demonstrate the right habits, communicate effectively, and help grow the organization’s culture in a positive direction.

Think of the concept of “managing up.” This framework encourages employees to understand their managers’ management, leadership, and communication styles.

When everyone is on the same page and communicating in similar ways, employees are empowered to make an impact and grow in their roles. Here are two examples:

      Let’s say your organization and its leadership have a quick-moving, anti-perfectionist, constantly-improving attitude to work that prioritizes getting things done over taking months to get them perfect. Reflect this attitude in your relationships with direct reports, your expectations of them, and the feedback you give them to set them up to thrive within the organization’s culture.

      For a simpler example, imagine your boss is a pro at concise, actionable emails—you’d think twice before sending them a long message with no clearly expressed takeaways or questions. You should encourage your direct reports to do the same.

In both examples, it will reflect well on you as the leader of a productive team well-aligned with the organization’s priorities. Although responsibility for shaping employees’ experiences can be nerve-wracking, successful management ultimately boils down to demonstrating the right skills and empowering people to do their best work.