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  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

How to be a Better Supervisor: Motivating Employees as they Work on Projects

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Effective staff management is essential to work completion, employee satisfaction, and retention. Managing staff isn’t easy especially with employees now working hybrid, virtual, or leading programs off-site. Motivating employees is essential whether staff work in the office or virtual. Understanding employee motivation can be a helpful tool for supervisors in task and project completion.

Nonprofits have experienced significant change with COVID, hiring freezes, great resignation, and the difficulties in hiring and retaining talent. Organizational change can come in the form of staff and volunteer transitions, expansion of programs and responding to evolving community needs. Supervisors and managers should help prepare, motivate and frame for their staff as change occurs whether it is internal or external change. Understanding what motivates employees and how to manage change and frame change can help teams be more effective especially in the nonprofit sector which is so mission-driven.

People choose to work for nonprofits for the mission, impact, collaborative environment, make a difference, earn a competitive salary and share their talents and skills in a meaningful way. Everyone has a driving factor that has led them to work in a nonprofit. If you are a supervisor, do you know your staff’s motivating factors? Do you ask them beyond just in the interview process?

Understanding employee motivation can be a helpful tool for supervisors. Some motivating factors discussed in Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory in Project Management can be a useful framework for supervisors in framing, motivating and preparing employees. We discussed several of these factors in great detail below and how supervisors might be able to implement them in practice.


Employees want to experience a sense of accomplishment at the end of a task and see a project through to the finish. Completing a goal is motivating and gives employees a sense of accomplishment. Achievement in the workplace gives employees a sense of pride and accomplishment. In practice, supervisors need to help employee sets and achieve goals, acknowledge the end of a large project, structure projects so that employees have autonomy to be creative while still in alignment with expectations and offer incentives through pay, benefits, promotions and opportunities for growth. Employees feel a sense of accomplishment when they achieve goals. Supervisors shoud work with their employees to help them achieve goals.

Goal Setting

Setting goals is motivating for employees and helps with task completion. To help employees set goals, establish a timeline for when a goal should be achieved. Perhaps the timeline is connected to an upcoming gala, fundraising campaign, the launch of a new program or end of a fiscal year. Goals that have clear timelines are more achievable. Next, supervisors should help employees create actionable goals that are easily tracked whether in a project management system such as trello or in the organization’s calendar. Every goal you set up for an employee should have a milestone that will be achieved before the final date of the big goal that your staff is working towards. For example, if your nonprofit is leading a 10,000,000 capital campaign there are specific milestones that must be met prior to completing the capital campaign. Milestones are helpful benchmarks in goal setting and make the process more achievable for staff and your organization.


People work in the nonprofit sector for inspiration and a paycheck. To retain great employees, employees must be acknowledged for work and organizations need to retain talent through raises, promotions, and competitive benefits. In the nonprofit sector, staff are the programs and without talent, missions won’t move.

Advancement: Opportunities for growth within the organization and transparency in how someone can move up to a different position. Compensation and advancement opportunities need to be transparent to retain employees. An article from SHRM points out, "To ensure pay structures are fair, explain pay ranges and compensation strategies that link pay with market rates". Many states now require transparent and equitable compensation practices including posting salary ranges on job descriptions when hiring.

Responsibility and Independence

Employees want the ability to be autonomous and independent in their work. In practice, supervisors should frame projects with goals, deadlines and metrics to allow employees to do their work independently. Check in on a regular basis and frame in advance how often you will check in employees. The check-in process is different for every organization; it may be through daily or weekly 1:1 supervision meetings, a project management system such as Trello or towards the end of the day when your staff has had enough time to work on the task. The framing gives employees enough guidance to be successful in their tasks.

Personal Development

No one wants to stay stagnant in a position, it gets boring! Once employees have gone through training, orientation and onboarding and have shown progress in their position then it is time to give opportunities to learn new skills and develop professionally. In practice, supervisors should have a rough estimate of time and length it takes to train, orient and onboard new employees whether it is 1 month or 6 months. The timeframe should be known for all positions in an organization. After the period, there should be opportunities for learning new skills through professional development, mentors, coaches or special assignments or shadowing opportunities.

How do you incorporate these motivating factors into the supervision and employee management practices at your organization? One method is to discuss these practices during strategy sessions, senior leadership team meetings or brainstorming discussions related to recruitment and retention within your organization. Thinking about ways you can start to discuss these practices at your organization could be a step in integrating some of these practices if they are not yet part of your organization's culture.

Interested in learning more about managing a team or staff? Register for our next session of the "Effective Staff Supervision: How to be a Better Supervisor" workshop series here!


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