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How to Effectively Manage a Remote Nonprofit Team


    Successfully managing a nonprofit team is never a simple endeavor, but especially so during a global pandemic.

    In 2020, much of the world has pivoted online, including nonprofit organizations.

    PNP’s survey found that, in February 2020, nonprofit organizations of all sizes, sectors, and regions had 52% of staff working at home for some fraction of their work time, but 48% had no staff working remotely at that time. In July 2020, most nonprofit organizations had at least 75% of staff working from home, and 61% reported that 100% of their staff were working remotely.

    Undergoing such a radical transformation is by no means easy. While some activities lend themselves wonderfully to virtual execution and remote work (e.g. social media management), others are harder to conduct online (e.g. program delivery). 

    Furthermore, while a good percentage of corporates in the last few years have shifted to (at least partially) remote teams, this has been a rarer occurrence in the nonprofit world, even though remote work features many benefits.

    • For one, a lot of research shows that remote workers are more productive than their in-office counterparts. (Source: Flexjobs)
    • Furthermore, remote teams can help a nonprofit save the much needed funds. Conservative estimates show that companies can save an average of $11,000 per employee per year by enabling teams to work remotely half of the time. (Source: Global Workplace Analytics)

    However, while shares some similarities with managing in-person teams, they aren’t exactly the same.

    This is why we’ve come up with our essential tips for successfully managing remote nonprofit teams.

    Here are our top tips for managing remote nonprofit teams:

    1. Take a step back

    If the concept of working remotely is unfamiliar to your nonprofit, it’s important that you first take a step back. Pause, take a breath, and zoom out. See which of your processes need to be tweaked or overhauled.

    For example, you might want to take a look at your:

    • Meetings
    • Performance reviews
    • Project management
    • Task management

    See how you will shift these, and anything else important for your nonprofit, online.

    Next, it’s very important to create a centralized way to manage remote processes. To do this,  develop a remote work policy that will clearly define what you expect from your team while working in a remote environment. A good remote work policy encourages accountability and establishes clear expectations with all stakeholders.

    Here’s a good resource if you want to read more about how to build a remote work policy.

    2. Communicate as you go

    As you’re going about this process, it’s of key importance that you communicate with your nonprofit employees and other stakeholders from the get go.

    Whether your team has worked remotely for years or your team only started working remotely last year, setting strong boundaries and providing clear guidelines is at the foundation of successful nonprofit management.

    Every member of the team should understand how their priorities have shifted, if they have, and what are the new expectations.

    Sharing the new etiquette is also important. For example, you might want to share new video meetings guidelines.

    Pro tip: While it’s important to talk about what’s changing, it’s also advised to talk about the things that aren’t changing. Having some sameness and familiarity can be very grounding for your nonprofit employees, especially if they were “forced” online by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    3. Stay accommodating

    Remote teams are usually successful because people like flexibility. This is why it’s key to be accommodating and offer your team as much flexibility as you possibly can.

    Pivoting from in-person to remote work only to require your nonprofit employees to be at their desks from 9-5 isn’t exactly providing the flexibility that’s so appealing about remote work.

    Provide your nonprofit employees the freedom to work when they know they are the most productive.

    This is especially important during a pandemic when your nonprofit employees are likely juggling many other responsibilities, such as child care or even homeschooling.

    When you provide your employees with flexibility, you also show them trust. And when employees feel trusted, they’re more satisfied at work, which leads to better productivity.

    See your employees as people. Remember they might have sick parents, doctor’s appointments, and might want to leave their house for a walk every day.

    4. Pay extra attention to communication

    Communication is key to all successful relationships, both personal and professional.

    And when teams are remote, communication becomes even more important.

    Since your nonprofit team is working in isolation, it takes more time and effort for team members to reach out to each other. Furthermore, informal communication is a big part of team culture and plays a key role in building a sense of community. However, informal communication becomes much harder when team members are not working in the same physical location. For example, they don’t randomly meet next to the coffee machine and engage in a conversation.

    Additionally, the reduced communication can lead to misunderstandings regarding tasks and overall responsibilities. Furthermore, without any of the non-verbal clues that come from what we see and hear, communication issues can easily arise. This is why it’s important to regularly organize video calls.

    Here’s how you can supercharge communication efforts within your remote nonprofit team:

    • Organize quick daily check in-ins (quick is the keyword here!) to ensure you are keeping the most important priorities front and center, as well as evenly distributing workloads and supporting each other in real time.
    • Reach out to team members for one-on-ones. It’s important that these spaces are regular and that your employees know when they’re going to happen. Let these be the space where your employees can share their doubts, concerns, suggestions, and successes with you.
    • Make sure there’s an easy way for everyone to exchange information on the daily. Sometimes, remote nonprofit employees can struggle with the added time and effort needed to obtain information from their team members.
    • Use video conference calls when possible – they’re more engaging and they let us have the non-verbal cues that make up so much of human communication.
    • Use messaging tools internally to keep in touch and give visibility into whether employees are “available” or “away”.
    • Ask your team how they prefer to communicate. Maybe you have a team that prefers emails over calls or the other way around. 
    • Send a monthly or quarterly survey gauging your employees’ sentiments around remote working and gathering their feedback and input.
    • Ask everyone to clarify and share their availability. (E.g. “I tend to be more available in the mornings for video calls.”)

    Stay intentional with your communication. Be deliberate about when and how you communicate with your remote nonprofit employees. 

    Make an effort to connect with them consistently -- whether that’s through phone calls, email, instant or text messaging, or videoconferencing.

    5. Don’t forget about the fun

    Loneliness is often cited as one of the biggest drawbacks of remote work. This is because remote workers tend to miss the informal social interaction of an office setting. 

    Over time, this loneliness can impact productivity, engagement, job satisfaction, and can even make someone want to leave an organization.

    To combat this, find ways for your remote team to socialize while working remotely. Ask your team what they’d be interested in doing and make these optional. “Obligatory fun” isn’t fun after all!

    Here are some ideas to get you started:

    • Do a virtual yoga or meditation session together.
    • Do a virtual workout together.
    • Organize a happy hour.
    • Attend a virtual conference together.
    • Invite your team to optionally join scheduled video calls 5 to 10 minutes early and spend that time chatting about casual, personal subjects before getting down to business.
    • Invite your employees to share their talents. Maybe they can share their poems, sculptures, and artwork with each other.
    • Create a group chat that all your team members are in (or a #Random channel on Slack) so your team members can interact about anything and everything, from sports games to favorite food.
    • Organize a virtual pizza party and deliver pizza to everyone’s homes at the same time (if possible).
    • Organize a virtual office pamper hour and deliver care packages to all employees to enjoy at the same time.
    • Put efforts into special occasions. For example, you can hold a happy birthday celebration for an employee, recreating the experience the employee would have had in an office. You could deliver the gifts and cake in a timely fashion to the person celebrating and gather the entire team through videoconference to virtually celebrate.

    6. Be smart with technology

    Remote work has many challenges, but lack of technology isn’t one of them. There are countless platforms and applications out there enabling remote work.

    This is why it’s important to not overwhelm your team with dozens of new systems and platforms.

    Keep it simple. Your employees shouldn’t spend half of their working time figuring out and maintaining virtual systems and platforms.

    Make sure every platform has a purpose and clarify how team members should be using each one. (E.g. “We use Zoom for weekly team meetings and one-on-one’s and Asana for project and task management.:)

    Here are the basics that you need to cover when it comes to online tools enabling remote work:

    • Project management software: Find a project management software (most come with integrated task management tools) that works for you. Monday, Trello, and Asana are some of the most popular ones. These platforms help you keep track of projects and progress towards your goals. They also help allocate and track tasks and deadlines, among other features.
    • Internal communication apps: It can be hard to communicate within the project management apps, and no one wants to receive hundreds of emails per day. Integrating an internal communication/chat app can help streamline the conversations within your team. Slack and GChat are good options, depending on your needs.
    • Video conferencing: For real-time meetings, you’ll need a video conferencing software. Whether you’re using Skype, Meetings, or Zoom – make sure it works for your team.
    • Documentation and digital storage tools: OneNote, Evernote, or Google Drive could be some of the tools you choose. You need a place to store and share documents, and ideally be able to collaborate on them online.
    • Pro tip: If possible, provide laptops with all the software your employees need to do their work. This helps control external data breaches, manage remote connectivity issues, and allows you to monitor usage.

    We wrote an article about 19 online tools you can use to drive fundraising activities. Read it here.

    7. Be clear and make the work traceable

    When managing a remote nonprofit team, you might fear a lack of productivity or full attention to the work. While this is certainly a common fear, a lot of research suggests that employee productivity doesn’t decline when they’re working remotely. In fact, it might even increase.

    It’s important to keep building trust with your employees. The less you micromanage them, the more they will feel empowered to keep showing up for their tasks and responsibilities.

    To help this process along, communication around availability is key.

    For example, you can implement peak hours. Say you decide that from 10-12 pm is the time during which all employees are required to be available for meetings and conversations. You can also ask all employees to have their calendars available for public view. This can also create a more transparent atmosphere.

    Additionally, focus your team on deliverables. This way you’re ensuring that your nonprofit organization is reaching its goals. Instead of insisting your team members stay at their desk from 9-5, find reassurance in obvious results of time well spent.

    Pro tip: Recognize your employees for their accomplishments. Effective recognition not only motivates but indicates desirable behaviors you want other employees to emulate. Whether it’s a verbal recognition one on one, a public recognition, a pay increase, or a development opportunity – you can rarely go wrong with recognition.

    8. Help your employees manage the overwhelm

    Although working remotely boasts many benefits, it can be quite overwhelming for some employees.

    The lines between work and free time are becoming increasingly blurred. With email apps on our phones, it becomes very easy to check work emails before bed, during our daily walk in nature, or while eating.

    Here’s how you can help your nonprofit employees manage their overwhelm:

    • Consider setting a rule that no one should send emails after working hours.
    • Try to schedule meetings on a specific day of the week or batch meetings so that employees don’t have to start and stop what they are doing or anticipate potential meetings all day long.
    • Limit the number of emails you send to avoid overwhelming employees with inboxes overflowing with content of varying importance.
    • Put special focus on making meetings effective. So much of our lives are on screen now and Zoom fatigue is real. Make meetings short and sweet, and don’t organize meetings that could have been emails!
    • Take into account the unique situations of your employees. Some might be alone and in need of connection, while some might be desperate for a moment of peace. See how you can help each member individually, or instruct team leaders to do so.
    • Invite your employees to create schedules, structure their breaks, and in general, create rituals around work.
    • If you can, hire a therapist to help your employees cope with any challenges they might be facing.
    • Recommend that employees use the delayed send feature in Gmail or Outlook so recipients aren’t getting emails in their off hours. 
    • Encourage your team members to take a daily walk while taking a call (for example, if there's a call they only need to listen into and doesn’t include screen sharing). This way they can get outside, get some fresh air, and exercise.

    Sometimes, nonprofit employees working remotely can struggle accessing help. They might even feel that their leaders are out of touch with their needs. As much as possible, keep an open doors’ policy so your employees feel comfortable to reach out to you.

    9. Trust and care

    We’ve mentioned it before in this article, but we’re going to mention it again because it’s so important.

    Trusting in your employees, their commitment, and their willingness to show up for their roles is crucial.

    Your employees will feel if you trust them or not.

    Same goes for care. Treat your employees as humans that they are. Listen to their anxieties and concerns, and empathize with their struggles.

    Even a general question such as “How is this remote work situation going for you so far?” can provide the space the employee needs to share how they are.

    You can also ask:

    • How is your work routine now that you don’t have to go into the office?
    • What is your workspace setup so you can focus and get things done during the day? Do you need anything else to help you work?
    • How is your communication with the rest of the team?
    • How can I better support you?

    And once you ask a question, be sure to actually listen to the response. Engage in active listening by briefly restating your employee’s concerns back to them and seeing what you can do to address them.

    This is how you build your team. Rapport is what will help you work through problems. When you have rapport, your employees will feel they can come to you with things important to them. Rapport does not come from doing and talking about work. Rapport comes from getting to know your employees as a complete person.

    Additionally, it’s much easier to get to know someone personally when you’re sitting next to them in an office. In an office, we spend hours together and interact in a variety of contexts. We get to know other people, what motivates them and drives them, and what are their challenges and weaknesses. 

    When teams are working remotely, this is still important albeit harder to achieve. This is why it’s important to make it a priority to get to know other team members on a bit more personal level.

    Are you ready to start effectively managing your nonprofit team?

    Remote work and varen’t going away, even after the worst of the pandemic is over. This is why you need to prepare to consider remote work as a part of how your nonprofit moves forward, at least in some capacity.

    Remember that remote working boasts plenty of benefits. Your employees get the option of flexible work arrangements. This can boost productivity, save employees travel time, optimize your culture, and potentially help close the gender gap and reduce your nonprofit’s carbon footprint.

    Yet, for that to happen, it needs to be done in the right way.

    Use these tips to effectively manage your nonprofit’s remote team, and don’t forget that clarity and flexibility will be your best friend in this process. Be clear about your needs, expectations, processes, and stay nimble.

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