Employee OwnershipIn my “entrepreneurial culture” workshops at Duke and other places across the country, we always talk about one key concept – employee ownership. If you want your nonprofit to go to the next level, employee ownership is key to unlocking this success. Ownership doesn’t mean that employees officially own the company, as some for-profit employees do, but rather they feel as though they have skin in the game. Unfortunately, according to Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace,” only one-third of employees feel like owners. Instead, most feel like “job renters,” bringing their hands, but not their hearts to their job. They show up, keep a low profile, push papers and collect a paycheck.

But in these turbulent times, we need more owners than renters in our nonprofits – there is just too much to do, and decisions need to be made fast. So, how as a leader can you transition your employees from renters to owners? Likewise, how do you change your own thinking to go from being a renter to an owner?

Understand Your/Their Why

Employees: Spend time upfront thinking about what you bring to a job. I tell my students to brainstorm the nexus between what you are better at than anyone else, what you are deeply passionate about and what the world needs. Then, don’t search for just any job – find one that helps you unlock skills and experience. People often strive for happiness in their life, but research suggests that this pursuit does not actually lead to happiness. Instead, happiness is a function of finding your purpose. The closer your job feels to your purpose, the more ownership you will take on.

Employers: Spend time upfront on personality traits that will make a job successful and, in turn, attract the right “owner” to the job. Mismatches happen all the time in nonprofits, because too much effort is put into the job description rather than seeking the right job competencies.

Act Like You’re/They’re the Boss

Employees: When you get an assignment, are carrying out your normal job responsibilities or are servicing a client or donor request, adopt the attitude that you are the only person who will have eyes on the final product and that your most important VIP asked you to do this task. The reputation of your organization, your leadership and you depend on the highest-quality output only you can provide. Do not expect your manager to catch your mistakes or oversights. Do the deep thinking and research on your own.

Employers: Relinquish control over the final product (once you have laid out the specifications and guardrails) and only concern yourself with the final outcome. There are many roads to success and often those on the frontlines are best equipped at judging the way forward.

Roll Out the Red Carpet

Employees: Taking ownership also means anticipating what your client, donor or team needs and acting on it now. Much of nonprofit work is cyclical – we know which events happen at different points of the year. This cycle allows us to prepare and take action in slow periods, with the added benefit of improving upon what has been done in the past. Do not wait to be asked to take on responsibility or hope your teammate deals with it. Actively seek those opportunities and run with them as far as you can before handing them off.

Employers: Reward forward-thinking behavior that sets the company up for success and invest in professional development during slow periods to help employees polish skills. Remember that the human brain is wired to remember every negative critique as a protective measure, so you have to be at least five times as generous with compliments. And, when possible, know which “love language” your employee actually hears (e.g., positive affirmation, gifts). This will help your employees balance their risk-reward response and push the boundaries as owners.

Put on Your Game Face

Employees: Taking ownership demands doing it all with a smile. Having a good attitude about shouldering your responsibilities is tantamount. If you do all the motions right but forget to leave passive aggressive and negative behaviors aside, all the strong work you are doing to benefit your organization will be overshadowed. It matters how your colleagues, clients and donors are left feeling after they interact with you. Remember the quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Employers: It is important to give employees ways to share their viewpoints and new ideas in productive ways. Hold “office hours” to encourage open-ended conversations with employees. Also, be sure to circle back with them so they know their ideas are heard and why or why not they are acted upon. This shows respect for their contributions and will foster continued ownership.

Nonprofit employees often wear many hats. With COVID-19, everyone is doing more than their stated job responsibilities, so we need more owners and fewer renters in the field. We know many nonprofits want more owners, so what are you doing to encourage this behavior? We’d love to hear your time-tested advice.


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