Superior Engagement Managers (SEMs) in U.S. nonprofit organizations

How do the best (aka superior) middle managers engage their nonprofit employees?


Managers help drive organizational performance and productivity through employee engagement and development. Yet, all too often, they fall short on effectively engaging their employees. A 2012 Gallup poll reported that 70 percent of U.S. employees do not regularly feel engaged at work. These unengaged workers experience increased employee dissatisfaction, higher turnover rates, decreased morale, and lowered productivity. This impact is felt more intensely in resource-limited nonprofit organizations, many of which depend upon passionate individuals to overcome tight budgets.

Managers that overcome these challenges raise employee engagement levels, improve overall productivity, lift employee morale, and can be classified as superior engagement managers (or SEMs). SEMs convert employee potential into organizational productivity. They heighten talent recruitment and inspire current staff by employing specific leadership traits, such as making decisions with integrity and clearly communicating their messages of improvement. Approximately 10 percent of individuals possess all of the traits that define a SEM, and when placed in mid-manager roles, these SEMs outperform their peers by up to 48 percent.


Recruiting and retaining top talent in the nonprofit sector is a challenge. To mitigate the risk of rapid turn-over, the following trends must be addressed:

Talent Competition has led to a leadership shortage among nonprofits. Solely relying on volunteers to take on leadership roles is no longer a viable option. Today, nonprofits compete for and secure the same professional talent hired by their for-profits counterparts.

Budget & Compensation levels are noticeably limited within nonprofits. This is further hindered by the social taboo in the U.S. against giving high salaries to those doing mission-driven work.

Diversity & Inclusion, or the lack thereof, often stems from the recruitment and hiring process. In a 2013 survey of over 580 nonprofits conducted by the firm Nonprofit HR, over 90 percent of employees believe their organization values diversity. However among those falling short of their diversity goals, only 37 percent have a formal workforce diversification strategy. Those interviewed cited this and challenges in diversity recruitment as major causes.

An altruistic mission statement can help get talent in the door, but a compelling purpose alone is not enough. HR-to-employee ratio is often much less among nonprofits than among top for-profit companies. With the high workloads and flat organizational structure common in many nonprofits, some employees become frustrated by a perceived lack of skill development and career advancement opportunities. Many nonprofits do not have the budget to afford an intricate career advancement program.


Accenture developed a Leadership Model to highlight the key attributes of top performing managers. Built from leading corporate practices, this model, with input from nonprofit leaders, can also be used as a lens to better understand management practices within mission-driven organizations. This model consists of the following pillars:

  • INSPIRE: Communicate the Vision – Encourage extraordinary performance and greatness in others

  • BUILD: Foster a Collaborative Environment – Build high performance teams that excel when challenged

  • DECIDE: Delegation is Key – Make decisions with integrity, balancing risk or ambiguity

  • DRIVE: Drive Outcomes – Drive high quality business results

  • FOCUS: Plan Ahead While Multitasking – Prioritize and communicate critical areas of focus

  • COACH: Training Successful Managers – Unlocking your team’s potential to maximize their performance


When it comes to recruiting and developing SEMs, there are several steps nonprofits can take in the hiring and development process:

  • Consider Future Potential

  • Targeted Hiring

  • Demonstrate Opportunity

  • Create an Inclusive Environment

  • Invest in Training & Knowledge Sharing

  • Measure & Communicate Performance

  • Avoid Indoctrination

Middle managers and any individual in a managerial position—including executive leadership— can be defined as a superior engagement manager (SEM). Many executives were once mid-level SEMs themselves and continue to provide targeted attention to the improvement of their direct reports’ capacity for engaging their employees and teams. . A number of the characteristics outlined in this paper could be defined as natural talent—possessing visionary leadership, having an affinity for individual needs and being adaptable to unforeseen changes. However, SEMs can also be developed or groomed over time. In addition, nonprofit organizations must learn how to identify and retain this type of talent: they must create a formal strategy for recruitment and development, and ensure their talent pool is diverse and inclusive to keep their employees engaged. If the right managers are selected, placed and rewarded, future managers will continue to promote this culture— increasing the impact, creativity and productivity of their organizations and the nonprofit sector as a whole.