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Innovation@Work: Referral Rewards Yield Big Results

For nonprofits with frequent recruitment needs, an employee referral program can be a valuable source of qualified candidates. What can organizations do to encourage their staff to tap into their personal networks and make referrals? It’s simple: underscore the importance of recruiting for new positions, and then reward staff efforts in helping to fill those positions.

According to Carol Lee, Recruitment Manager for KIPP NYC, a formal employee referral program has greatly increased the organization’s success at filling positions quickly and with qualified candidates. Operating as a network of 7 schools that serve over 2,400 students and alumni, KIPP NYC typically has around 100 searches per year; about two-thirds of which are for teachers, and many have been filled through referrals.

KIPP NYC’s referral program is pretty straightforward: staff receive $1,000 for anyone they refer who gets hired. Employees provide a name, contact and background information, and then the recruitment team follows up on every referral. Staff are asked to make referrals for all types of positions, including teachers, principals, office managers, social workers, alumni services, human resources and technology roles.

To roll out the referral program, the recruitment team made a general announcement at a KIPP NYC-wide staff meeting, and then they followed up with staff in individual meetings. “We knew that our people had great networks, even more than they sometimes realized. By sitting down with individual staff for 15 minutes, we could help them identify who they knew who might be good for an open position, as well as their contacts who might know other outstanding candidates,” said Carol.

The program has been really successful. Last year, KIPP NYC staff referred 280 teacher candidates. Out of 63 teacher hires, 33 (52%) were referrals. Carol expects to top these results for the 65 teacher and 30 non-teacher roles that the organization plans to hire for next school year.

“We always knew our staff had great networks,” said Carol. “The referral program has allowed us to tap into those networks, as well as reward staff for sharing their contacts.”

In addition to receiving a cash reward through the referral program, staff gain a sense that they are contributing to growing the organization. “Each staff member feels empowered to serve as a recruiter and ambassador for KIPP NYC,” said Carol. “This contributes to the overall culture of KIPP NYC and creates a sense that we are all a part of growing our organization.”

For organizations interested in rolling out a referral program, Carol shared the following advice:

  • 1-to-1 touches are really important. Keep recruitment top-of-mind with employees by building relationships with staff members, spending time at program sites and scheduling individual conversations to talk about general contacts, not just direct referrals.
  • Start with smaller rewards if necessary. The first year that KIPP NYC offered a referral reward, it was a $100 AMEX gift card per successful hire, as well as $100 to the staff member who referred the most people. Offer a reward that is enticing to employees, but also one that the organization can easily fulfill.  If budget constraints are an issue, another idea could be awarding a raffle ticket for each referral, with a raffle for a few prizes held 1-2 times per year, with the prizes paid for by the organization’s credit card points.
  • Don’t limit referral programs just to employees. Include board members, volunteers and other constituents in appeals for referrals. Make it fun and compelling for internal and external partners to be involved.




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