Staff Retention

Resource-strapped start-ups and small NGOs may need to be creative when it comes to ensuring staff and volunteer retention, and as a sector traditionally suffer from high turnover and its associated costs of knowledge and skills loss, discontinuity and time spent running and re-running hiring processes. Organizational culture and morale are key factors in improving staff motivation and retention. You may not be able to offer the most competitive salaries in your field, however the following tips can help promote career satisfaction among both staff and volunteers.

Best practices in retaining staff and volunteers

Be clear about commitments and expectations

This is important from the start of your engagement with a new colleague, i.e. prior to hiring or formally taking on a volunteer or intern. This may help avoid misunderstandings and resentment further down the line.

Recognition through titles

If a non-remunerated collaborator, such as an intern or volunteer legal adviser, is being given any sort of title with regards to their work, they should be expected to perform as if they are working. Indeed attaching an appropriate title to a volunteer position serves to acknowledge the work an unpaid staff member is doing.

Alternative forms of promotion

Volunteers could be termed program assistants, and promotion opportunities could come in the form of a change of title, based on work and efforts put in. Rewarding employees with greater responsibility or decision-making autonomy is another way of recognizing competence and can refresh a staff member’s interest in the challenges of the workplace.


The importance of appreciation is often under-appreciated, though it is vital to career satisfaction – whether with paid or unpaid staff. Supervisors should take the time to give specific and detailed feedback to their direct reports about what is working, and what someone is good at.

While money is primarily a factor influencing whether someone can stay with a job, it is rarely a daily motivating factor. Beyond the initial pull of working in the refugee rights movement, such as contributing to social justice in an innovative and arguably provocative manner different to dependency-inducing institutional models, daily motivation is key to employee satisfaction and retention. Employees, interns and volunteers should be acknowledged and thanked for their efforts genuinely and in person, as well as before other colleagues.


Keeping communications channels open between staff is vital, so that issues are addressed before they become problems. Whilst your organization may not have a dedicated Human Resources department, or even staff member, it is important to foster an environment in which complaints, dissatisfaction and concerns can be listened to and acted upon before employees or volunteers feel that leaving the organization is the only path available to them.

Pastoral care

Working with refugees, and coming into regular contact with stories of suffering and human rights abuses takes its toll on everyone. Whilst coping mechanisms vary greatly between individuals, it is important to foster healthy mechanisms of dealing with stress, to avoid burn-out and improve staff and volunteer resilience and retention.

Development and networking opportunities

Connecting volunteers, interns and staff with personal and professional training opportunities can help enhance satisfaction among employees. Attempt to set aside a small budget for training, or at least be proactive about communicating such opportunities among your colleagues. Participation in external trainings can help forge relationships and networks that will benefit your employees both in their current roles and in future. Other networking events and opportunities should be communicated within your organization, and creating your own network of former and current employees, interns and volunteers may help promote community support and bring people together beyond their functional profiles or between offices and departments.

Causes of high-turnover

If your organization experiences high turnover, it is advisable to analyse the causes of staff departure both by directly communicating with departing employees about their reasons for leaving, and by researching your organization’s appeal in comparison with other non-profits engaged in similar work in your area. Frequent factors responsible for low employee motivation and high turnover, include:

  • Low salaries
  • Restructuring and job insecurity
  • Concerns for personal safety and security
  • Lack of respect and appreciation
  • Over-qualified employees in junior roles
  • Lack of development opportunities
  • Non-alignment of values in the workplace
  • Lack of participatory management or consultation over major developments.

Investigate the factors specific to your context and plan to mitigate these push-factors. The following resources look at pull and push factor mitigation in greater detail.