Investing in Employee Engagement: A Business Case for Animal-Centered Nonprofits
Updated: Aug 23
Most pro-animal nonprofit leaders and funders already know that they can’t achieve their missions without people. What can still feel challenging is the question of how and how much to invest in people without drawing too many resources away from animals. Even employees themselves often adopt a “people vs. animals” mindset and feel guilty tending to their own needs in the midst of so much animal suffering.
But asking if we should put employees or animals first is like asking if our bodies need sleep or food. For animals to ultimately flourish, we need the organizations that fight for them to flourish. Thus, we need the people who fuel these organizations to flourish, too. We need to see care for people and animals as parts of an interdependent ecosystem rather than competing priorities.
So how do we invest in the people-side of our ecosystem thoughtfully? A helpful starting point is to pursue employee engagement.
What is employee engagement?
Employee engagement refers to an eager willingness to dedicate one’s energy toward the organization’s goals. It is not just about being satisfied with one’s workplace but about feeling an urgent and persistent drive to contribute to its success. In fact, some of the most engaged employees can be quite dissatisfied because they care enough to want things to be better.
Engaged employees take more initiative, think more creatively, help out their colleagues more often, and pour more effort and care into their work. In short, they are committed to the success of their organization’s mission.
Why does employee engagement matter?
By the time an organization faces employee turnover, performance issues, and reputational harm, it’s difficult and costly to make improvements. Employee engagement is an incredibly helpful early indicator of organizational health and workplace culture – allowing leaders to catch and address issues early and quickly.
Thanks to decades of research, it is also a fairly easy and reliable construct to measure. And it serves as a strong predictor of at least three essential drivers of organizational success:
Engaged employees stay with their organizations longer. In a 2020 meta-analysis of 456 studies with 276 organizations and 2.7 million employees across 96 countries, Gallup found that employee engagement predicted 18% - 43% lower employee turnover. This outcome is important since high turnover drains an organization’s institutional knowledge and relationships, while forcing everyone to stop, start, and figure out how to work together rather than making progress toward their goals. Employee turnover is also expensive, costing organizations between 90% - 200% of the departing employee’s salary, including direct costs such as recruitment, training, and severance, and indirect costs such as lost productivity and heightened workplace stress (Cascio, 2006). On average, animal advocates stay at their companies for just 2.3 years (Anderson, 2020). We can do better.
Engaged employees do better work. In their 2020 research review, Gallup also found that highly engaged teams are 18% more productive and have 41% fewer work defects than disengaged teams. In the nonprofit world, these findings translate to reaching more of our fundraising and program goals while spending less time cleaning up unnecessary mistakes. What’s more, various studies have shown that employee productivity is contagious, with the power to either lift up or bring down coworker effectiveness (Lindquist, Sauermann, and Zenou, 2015). In other words, the higher performing your current employees are, the better your new hires will be.
Engaged employees engage donors and volunteers. Aside from the positive impacts employee engagement has internally, there is also growing evidence of its impact on external stakeholders. For example, in a 2019 study, Zhao and Chamberlain found that for every 1-point increase in Glassdoor reviews (a website that aggregates employee ratings of their employers) there is a 1.3-point increase in customer satisfaction. This finding should come as no surprise to anyone who has been on the receiving end of customer service from a disengaged employee. Within nonprofits, engaged employees contribute to more engaged donors and volunteers. Just as co-worker productivity is contagious, so is people’s passion for their work. We are more likely to want to give our time and money to individuals who radiate genuine enthusiasm for their cause.
How can we measure employee engagement?
The simplest way to assess your employees’ engagement is through a survey using questions that are reliable measures of engagement. Survey items range from broad perceptions (e.g., “I would recommend this organization as a great place to work”) to specific predictors of engagement you can influence more directly (e.g., “I know what is expected of me at work”).
Check out this tool for a list of recommended questions and other engagement survey tips.
Most organizations survey employees twice a year so there is time in between to discuss results and implement changes. Many also send short pulse surveys more frequently to track whether they are making progress.
Engagement benefits all animals, humans included.
In the field of animal protection, increasing employee engagement isn’t an organization-specific issue. It is a movement-wide imperative. Disengaged employees don’t just leave companies. They are also more likely to leave the animal movement entirely, draining us of the very talent, knowledge, relationships, and energy we desperately need to grow.
On the flip side, engaged employees will stay in the movement longer, learn faster, contribute in more meaningful ways, and attract newcomers to join our mission.