Beyond the dollar: How non-financial incentives help retain staff

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There are few things as enticing to me as ice cream. Better than chips, better than cookies. And even my mom’s delectable lemon meringue pie (don’t tell her I said so). So you can imagine my delight when Michelle Hurtubise, executive director at London InterCommunity Health Centre told me about the venerable Ice Cream Fridays that her organization runs in the summer season.

“It’s all about creating an environment that people feel welcome in and where they can have fun,” she explains. With so many staff members on vacation in July and August, weekly ice cream breaks is a way to help those remaining at work feel appreciated.

Oh and they run hot chocolate Fridays in the winter. With marshmallows and all the fixings. (Needless to say, I will be packing up and heading to London, Ontario in pursuit of ice cream — I mean, a job. If you put in a good word, I’ll be sure to save you a few sprinkles. But I digress).

Few dollars, many options

The gastronomically appealing Fridays are just one example of creative, non-financial incentives that organizations can offer in an attempt to attract and retain top talent in light of limited resources. It’s becoming an increasingly valuable tool for HR professionals and EDs alike as the competition for the best and brightest intensifies.

We all know nonprofits can’t compete with for-profit salaries. Innovative responses in the form of bonus, incentives, professional management and the like become the answer. But how does one decide which program to implement? What challenges exist? And are the payoffs clear?

“Any form of incentive, financial or otherwise, is important for organizations to consider today, offers Lynn Stevens, president of Inspiring Action, a consultancy based in Ottawa. “Many companies have either frozen wages or, in some cases, rolled back salaries due to the difficult economic times companies have faced in the last couple of years. Keeping employees engaged and showing them they are valued in the organization is more important than ever.”

And so it was for Hurtubise when she took over the helm of the organization 11 years ago. “When I started we were under a salary freeze for the past 10 years,” she explains. As part of the healthcare sector, London InterCommunity Health Centre invariably competes with hospitals for staff, many of whom can offer $10 to $25 thousand more in wages. Knowing there was no way she can make up that gap, the ED turned to other means.

She first surveyed her staff, asking them for ideas. The creative initiatives began with community massage therapists who offered 15-minute moments of respite. The staff enjoyed it and, at less than a thousand dollars for the year, Hurtubise considered the program well-worth the results. Discounted gym memberships came next, with the employees saying they wanted something that contributed a healthier work environment. That one didn’t cost Hurtubise anything, with gyms often open to negotiating corporate discounts for groups.

“I have a lot of fun with this stuff,” she enthuses, adding other popular choices include an eight-week yoga class and a book club where staff discuss books relevant to the organization’s work and receive a copy for free. “It feels like a gift to them and we get a discounted rate from local bookstores.”

Ice Cream Fridays began about six years ago. “We’re always looking for things that will engage people.” It costs her about $500 for the summer and the receptive audience makes it worth every penny. “It doesn’t cost a lot but it’s about creating a sense of fun and appreciation.”

Then there are professional development programs. “The first thing I did when I got here was to reinstate money toward professional development,” Hurtubise shares. “It’s always a priority to me, even if you have a small amount of money.” Truth is, often the first place that organizations cut when the going gets tough is professional development. “But there are creative things you can do with little that really benefits the whole organization.” Her staff is entitled to 10 professional development days that they can use in a wide variety of ways, such as, mentoring, job shadowing and university courses.

Those are just a few of the many programs the ED has been implementing. “The research is pretty clear: financial incentives will get people to you but it’s the nonfinancial engagement that will really keep people in organizations feeling they’re valued,” explains Hurtubise. “It’s about creating an environment that is fun and social but also says ‘I don’t have a lot but what I do have, I’m willing to invest in staff.’”

It’s more than (lack of) money

It can be argued that it’s not just tight resources — and the need to compete with others in the competitive workplace — that make these incentives so popular. They’re vital for anther very important reason: engagement, something that any nonprofit, or for-profit for that matter, can benefit from. “Acknowledgement, incentives and appreciation are really important to employee’s relationships with their managers,” explains Ann Clancy, national director, human resources and volunteer services at the Canadian Red Cross. “Feeling part of something, being valued; that’s becoming more and more important.”

In line with that vision, some of the creative programs the Canadian Red Cross has introduced are integral to their culture, including flexible work schedules. People work really hard and are up against a variety of external circumstances that make flexibility a most appreciated benefit, Clancy says. The organization has also implemented certificates for days off, granted by senior leaders to employees at raffles or holiday parties. And there’s Take Back Lunch – a program that encourages employees to step away from their desks and take a much-needed break from work and the office.

Certificates of appreciation are also on the agenda, as is the continuous encouragement for staff to get involved with activities outside their job, like conferences. “They get to meet new colleagues, use new skills and the energy it creates is fantastic,” says Clancy, adding the younger staff are most appreciative of the initiatives, as they allow them opportunities to grow and do something new.

Secrets to success

But for any program to be successful, support from senior leadership is often key, suggests Clancy. That commitment can take a variety of forms. It was a senior leader, for example, who directed the Take Back Lunch effort, effectively giving employees the permission to take his lead, without feeling they’d be frowned upon.

For Hurtubise and Clancy, it’s also usually important for initiatives to originate from a grassroots level – ideas generated from the staff are seriously considered and acted upon.

Surveys, like the one used by Hurtubise certainly help.

As does being direct and honest. “We share our financial information with our staff throughout the year so they know we’re not holding a bucket of money away from them,” says the ED. “They know what we do have is being invested in them.”

But getting any program right comes down to trial and error. Look at what works with your organizational culture, what’s meaningful to your staff and, of course, what’s affordable. “When you’re open to hearing staff feedback and about resources, people will give you great ideas and will be quite creative themselves,” Hurtubise adds.


Not every plan is smooth sailing, though. There are many variables and considerations, least of which is trying to please a multi-faceted staff, while keeping the leaders on-board. Sometimes it’s a matter of tailoring the incentives to the receiver, says Stevens. Additional time off with pay, for example, would certainly be appreciated by most employees, especially if they are given the flexibility to use it when most important to them. “Some employees, however, have a hard time using all of their granted vacation so more time will not mean anything to them,” she adds. “Making sure that you understand what motivates your employees is important.”

For Clancy, the biggest obstacle to successfully implementing a program can be the managers. It’s not that they don’t want to implement these programs, she explains. But they would rather avoid any perception of conflict that may result from showing appreciation to one person or group and not another. Taking an egalitarian approach, however, can defeat the purpose if the point is to recognize performance,” Clancy says.

What’s more, if a manager in one department is really good at implementing a program and another one in a different department is not as effective, there’s a potential credibility issue as employees have a tendency to talk. “The managers have to be reminded to look for an opportunity, be trained and get some guidance for it,” Clancy says. Even if it’s an informal program, training and coaching are essential. “An initiative can sink pretty quickly if you have hit-and- miss with the managers.”

Clancy also learned that appreciation needs to be universal. If a group of people work really hard, put in extra hours and you do something nice for them as recognition, that’s great. “But don’t forget the people that kept the day-to-day running while everyone was working to finalize a project.”

As for Hurtubise’s biggest challenge, she sums it up thusly: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Sometimes it’s easy to be drawn into initiatives suggested by the small vocal minority. But it’s not always the best option. She once offered a Zumba class, for example. But, with 20 out of 80 employees participating, the ED is unsure of the initiative’s ROI. Some ideas are simply not doable. The request to top-up maternity leave benefits is one.

Still, she continues to defer to her staff for ideas and is constantly impressed with the results the approach has garnered. “If you’re willing to try different things, that creates an environment where people feel valued and know you care about working with them to make them happy,” she says. “We don’t offer the best compensation but we do offer one of the best work environments.”

And, though she admits to not following-through on every idea, many are obviously here to stay. “I can’t get rid of ice cream Fridays if I tried,” she laughs.

Save a cone for me.


Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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