Employee engagement is critical for any not-for-profit (NFP) organization’s internal and external communications strategy. With this in mind, we spoke with Molly Thompson, vice president of PR and communications at the YMCA Greater Charlotte, for her perspective on how mobile engagement platforms can create open communication channels that enable any organization to reach their full potential.
Why are more NFPs starting to prioritize a new type of engagement strategy for their employees and volunteers?
MT: There are several reasons that more organizations are recognizing the need to make deep cultural changes in how they approach creating and delivering their employee and volunteer experience. At the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, we found that having the right mobile app platform in place can help with everything from fundraising and promotion to recruitment, retention, and helping the organization reach its business goals. A highly engaged workforce has also been shown to be linked to greater productivity—and the opposite is also true. When people are disengaged, they are less committed to your organization, which leads to them being less productive.
What initiated the YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s decision to try out a mobile app platform to improve engagement rather than standard tools like newsletters or surveys?
MT: We had previously relied on some of the usual suspects to gather feedback from our teams like email, employee surveys, and newsletters, but we didn’t find these tools to be powerful enough to increase engagement levels across our entire distributed organization. Like many organizations today, we have both desk and non-desk employees (NDEs). We had given staff surveys that indicated that our NDEs in particular often felt disconnected from the organization and uninformed about what was going on. Our old engagement tools weren’t adequately communicating to our teams about just how many diverse and useful programs we deliver across the Y throughout the year, and how we make a difference in the lives of people in our communities.
What are the engagement and communication challenges of having staff and volunteers who may or may not be stationed at a desk at any given time?
MT: Two of the organization’s greatest challenges have been in the areas of internal communication and staff engagement. Part of the reason this can be difficult is that staff are not centralized at a home base to receive communications or learn about each other and the organization; that’s for an important purpose though since they are deeply involved in the communities they serve, including children, seniors, and low-income and high-risk communities. Our staff and volunteers can be found all around our community, whether it’s teaching swimming lessons/drowning prevention, engaging kids at camp, helping seniors in health and wellness classes, or delivering fitness and literacy programs that strengthen individuals and the community.
Can you give me an example of some of these programs and what the specific challenges are related to communications and engagement?
MT: The diversity of our programs that are scheduled at different times throughout the year exemplifies why it’s so important for volunteers and employees alike to have an awareness of the complete range of the YMCA’s programs beyond the scope of each person’s own contribution. When staff understand the big picture as well as and how their programs fit into the organization’s overall objectives, they’re more likely to articulate that impact to volunteers and donors.
So for example, a program that employs mostly seasonal teams— like our “Y Readers” literacy program—requires extensive internal communication. About 300 volunteers help support the literacy program as reading buddies, so these volunteers need a way to stay connected and informed. The nationally recognized program hires certified teachers as seasonal employees across three school districts, so we have to find a way to engage these employees alongside our desk employees even when they are in very different locations performing different roles.
Another example is our “Safety Around Water” program that we piloted in 2016. This began by bringing swimming lessons to six low-income apartment complexes with swimming pools that have no lifeguard on duty—this is where the drowning risk is highest. The program has since expanded to 30 complexes, bringing swimming lessons and water safety instruction to 2,500 kids and their parents. So you can see that to staff this large program, our teams are not desk-bound but out in the community. We needed an easy way to keep them in the loop and engaged with what was happening back at headquarters and throughout the larger organization.
Did the YMCA of Greater Charlotte have specific goals to increase employee engagement levels?
MT: Yes, we proactively identified three main goals in relation to increasing engagement levels throughout our network of 4,700 employees and volunteers. These were:
Keeping our teams informed and engaged to drive loyalty, support, and retention Giving all employees—including our non-desk employees and volunteers—a voice by connecting them via an open communication channel Keeping employees informed about current organizational and fundraising goals
A peripheral goal is that we also wanted to partner with a provider that offered expertise in communications to guide us on our communication and content strategy.
How did your organization decide which engagement platform to use?
MT: Since our CEO at YMCA Greater Charlotte was very interested in social tools for internal communication and engagement, we first explored several possible technology solutions, including Yammer. But we found that mainstream social media platforms didn’t offer the control, security, and support we needed. Then we tried out a platform called StaffConnect, which is a new mobile-enabled technology that, through personalization and an engaging user experience, facilitates support among staff users. We found that this platform gave our teams the richer engagement experience that we’d hoped for, while also making it easier to connect with each other and do their jobs.
How long did it take to transition the organization to the new platform?
MT: We were up and running with just one month of training. After bringing the app on board in mid-December 2016, we already had over 65 percent of our staff using StaffConnect by January of this year. One key to gaining fast user adoption and interaction with the engagement platform was that StaffConnect combines its mobile technology with a program called “AppSuccess.” This gave us access to domain experts who helped us craft best-practice communication strategies that energized and connected our whole workforce. The training and support were also fantastic—we have limited internal resources like many NFPs, and the StaffConnect support team took the burden off of our organization by launching and managing the platform for us.
What benefits did the YMCA of Greater Charlotte experience after launching the platform?
MT: There were quite a few! One thing that surprised us is that the mobile app quickly became our employees’ go-to resource for both information about—and connection to—the organization and to colleagues. Another big advantage is that we now have true two-way communication throughout the wider organization. This means that management can easily share information with staff teams, and employees also have a voice through the platform that enables them to ask questions and make comments back to their managers at headquarters—as well as safely post personal and professional content to their co-workers. Another thing that our employees are enjoying now is the ability to quickly and easily recognize admirable teammate behavior and celebrate achievements together via the platform.
Is there a measurement capability as part of the app?
MT: Yes, and that’s another important benefit: the technology allowed us to begin measuring engagement through its “Management Console” tool. It’s basically a browser-based portal that provides analytics, while also allowing for user, content, and notification management. The analytics component gives us valuable insights into how the app is performing against our engagement goals. We have been able to use that data to improve the experience of our employees and volunteers by making cultural shifts when needed.
What are your next goals in relation to engagement?
MT: The organization’s next step is to have a StaffConnect Management Console at each of our YMCA locations to share news and events across all membership branches and camps. We have 19 membership branches and two overnight camps across five counties, so you can see how much the technology will help to unite us into one organization. Participants will be able to add their own content, communicate successes, and encourage their peers in the organization to engage as well. We are also currently reviewing opportunities to use StaffConnect to engage volunteer boards.
How would you sum up your experience of working with a mobile engagement platform?
MT: It really is just a lot more than simply a communications tool or even an engagement tool. I consider it to be a direct pathway to the culture we have always wanted—one in which our people want to live, work, and stay. And I’d say it’s working since user engagement is still continuing to grow, with some people generating up to 28 posts a week. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the mobile app platform has completely transformed how we communicate with and engage our employees by helping us build an emotional connection across the entire organization. When they engage using this tool, people feel proud to be part of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, which makes them naturally promote the positive qualities of our organization—qualities that have always been there but were previously difficult to communicate across our entire workforce.