NonProfit Opinion Center
Taming Turnover: Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Nonprofit Employees
Post by Lee Mizell on Thursday, 23 May 2013
People make organizations work. The right people make them work well. Nonprofit organizations often rely on their employees' commitment to a common good for their success and sustainability. But supporting, nurturing, and sustaining that commitment in a sector where burnout and high turnover rates are all too common can be a challenge for even the best-performing organization. What's a nonprofit to do? While there is no single approach that guarantees success, the following strategies should be in the toolkit of any nonprofit that aims to effectively recruit and retain employees.
Strategy #1: Recruit the Right People
The first step to developing a high-performing staff is to recruit the right people to your organization. Easier said than done, you say? Yes, but there are steps you can take to put, and keep, your recruiting efforts on track.
- Pitch your mission. Sixty percent of nonprofit employees surveyed by the Brookings Institution said they took their jobs to "help the public, not for the job security" — as opposed to 32 percent of those employed by the federal government and 20 percent of private-sector employees. A higher percentage of nonprofit employees also described their organization as helpful, fair, and trusted, and were more likely to report satisfaction with the public's perception of their work. Findings like these underscore the importance of pitching your organization's mission, values, and goals when recruiting. Emphasize the opportunities candidates will have to make a difference.
- Provide training. At many nonprofits, those responsible for hiring decisions often lack professional training. If you can't hire a professional to manage your HR processes, be sure to provide training to those involved with the recruiting, hiring, and firing of staff. Looking for a low-cost training solution? The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) offers free and low-cost mentoring and workshops to nonprofits that need help with human resource management.
- Recruit creatively. Traditional recruiting strategies such as newspaper classifieds, Web site placements, and word-of-mouth work well but may not be enough to attract the best talent to your door. To increase your chances of attracting that talent, consider joining or creating a local nonprofit consortium to promote your organization at college recruitment fairs. Tap into your volunteer, alumni, and professional networks for good candidates. Post notices of job openings in places where your ideal candidates are likely to congregate, from PTAs to the local health club. Consider using a specialized recruiting firm for executive openings. Offer an incentive bonus to staff members who refer candidates who are ultimately hired. Think outside the box.
- Look for qualifications and potential. Research suggests that organizations should seek out individuals with both objective qualifications (e.g., education, previous experience, knowledge) and the potential to be hired or promoted. Perhaps your organization values a willingness to learn new skills, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and/or teamwork skills. When recruiting, look for the qualities that matter most to you and your colleagues.
- Research the going rate. Nonprofit salaries can vary substantially between sectors, among positions, and from one area of the country to the next. Take time to research the going rate for the job you're trying to fill, and set your compensation accordingly. With research under your belt, it may be easier to convince funders to subsidize the costs. Research is especially important when setting executive compensation, which must comply with IRS regulations.
- Go the extra mile. Will your first-choice candidate have to relocate? Will she have to find a new school for her kids, a new home, a new health club? Might his spouse have questions or concerns that you, as someone familiar with the community, can address? Don't pry into the personal lives of candidates, but if they raise issues or have specific needs or concerns, be responsive. Take an interest in supporting your candidates, and they are likely to take an interest in you.
Strategy #2: Put the Needs of Your Employees First
Once you've found, and hired, the right people, you have to figure out how to keep them. Typically, organizations increase compensation, provide career and training opportunities, and offer job flexibility to their best employees. These are all excellent strategies that nonprofits should use on a regular basis. But don't stop there.
- Monitor job satisfaction. Check-in with your employees from time to time to find out whether they enjoy their work and feel supported. (This should include board monitoring of executives.) Consider periodic surveys and conversations designed to elicit information about issues related to job satisfaction. Don't lead folks to believe you can fix everything; instead, identify one or two issues — and do something about them. Demonstrating responsiveness to staff concerns can go a long way toward improving retention.
- Weed out poor performers; reward the good ones. Sometimes fear of turnover can keep nonprofits from addressing problematic performance head on. Failure to do so, on the other hand, can adversely affect the entire organization and encourage good folks to leave. Recognizing — and rewarding — a job well done sends the message that performance matters and establishes a standard for others in the organization. Design and use an effective personnel evaluation system that promotes the type of performance your organization values. This should include using probation periods effectively.
- Focus staff on tasks that add value. Seventy percent of nonprofit employees surveyed by the Brookings Institution strongly or somewhat agreed that they always have too much work to do, and that burnout was a problem in their job. With that in mind, ask yourself whether a new project/task will further your organization's mission before you assign it to staff. If the answer is yes, then ask how it can be achieved in the least burdensome manner. Can volunteers be recruited to help? Is there money in the budget to pay a consultant?
Keeping workloads manageable also means providing the resources to get the job done. Adequate funding, appropriate training, good systems, and a pleasant work environment all contribute to making staff feel they are part of an effective, functioning machine. Research shows that employees who feel their organization offers little in the way of support are more likely to report that they are overworked than those who feel supported.
- Promote a healthy work/life balance. Good employers understand that life is about more than work and will do any number of things to help staff achieve a healthy work/life balance. This can include adopting flex-time, telecommuting, and/or job-sharing policies; providing on-site childcare or childcare subsidies; offering adequate maternity- and paternity-leave time; providing healthy, wholesome foods in vending machines and cafeterias; encouraging carpooling or offering public transportation subsidies; and subsidizing health club memberships (great for battling burnout!). Again, research suggests that satisfaction with one's life can positively impact job satisfaction, which in turn affects performance. Supporting your employees at work and beyond is just good business sense.
- Provide promotion opportunities. Individuals who have mastered a position often look for opportunities to move up — or they move on. You can reduce the likelihood of that happening by making the promotion of qualified internal candidates a priority. If opportunities for promotion in your organization are limited, consider offering star performers the chance to lead a special project, get them more involved in decision-making, and/or support their career development by sponsoring their application for a seat on a local board or commission.
- Maintain competitive pay scales. In the study Help Wanted: Turnover and Vacancy in Nonprofits, San Francisco-based CompassPoint Nonprofit Services found that nonprofit employees in the Bay Area cited money as a major reason for leaving their jobs. This shouldn't come as a surprise. The biggest increases in base salary usually occur when an individual moves to another organization. Nonprofits often find it difficult to compete in this regard, but a little creativity can go a long way. Bonuses and non-cash rewards, used judiciously, are one way to boost compensation without incurring a permanent budgetary obligation. Benchmarking your salaries and working with funders to keep them competitive is another.
Strategy #3: Plan for Turnover
Okay, you've tried everything...and one of your star performers has announced that she is leaving. Now what do you do? Unfortunately, turnover is a fact of life, so when it does occur your best strategy is to be prepared. Here are a few things you can do to be ready on that day when the inevitable happens:
- Think ahead. Develop good relationships with consultants, temporary placement agencies, and volunteers who can fill gaps while you're looking to replace a departed employee. Be sure to build the cost of processing hires and departures, advertising vacancies, and hiring temporary staff into your annual budget. If clients will be adversely affected by the departure of a key staff member, work to identify strategies in advance for maintaining continuity of service. Plan today for turnover tomorrow.
- Preserve institutional memory. Be sure to have a process in place for managing departures, from conducting exit interviews, to handing off projects and files, to dealing with your soon-to-be former employee's important contacts. Called "succession planning," this approach to managing vacancies ensures that when individuals leave, their knowledge doesn't walk out the door with them.
- Involve stakeholders. If staff are leaving because you lack the resources to pay competitive salaries, cannot fund a decent benefits package, or are unable to provide adequate training and/or career development opportunities, let your board members and funders know. Organizations and individuals who support nonprofits want them to succeed. If their investment in your organization, and your success, are being jeopardized for fiscal reasons, they may be able to help.
- Use turnover to your advantage. Small organizations on tight budgets regularly lose good people to organizations with deeper pockets. Your goal, of course, is to keep star performers as long as you can. But if they finally decide to move on and do so successfully, take it as a compliment. Position your organization as a stepping stone for talented individuals and sell it to qualified newcomers that way.
- Review policies and strategies. What works today may or may not work tomorrow. Be sure to examine your HR policies, your recruiting and retention strategies, and any other related procedures on a regular basis. Policies, procedures, and strategies should be ethical and up-to-date, should reflect best practice, and must be compliant with state and federal laws and regulations.
Effective recruitment and retention is critical to the sustainability of nonprofit organizations. As researchers Fred Luthans and Carolyn Youssef write, "There is growing evidence that human resources are crucial to organizational success, and may offer the best return on investment for sustainable competitive advantage."
The tips and strategies outlined above are intended to be a jumping-off point for further reflection on what your organization can do to effectively recruit and retain employees. Ask yourself: Are we really doing all we can? Are we practicing what we know? Are we staying abreast of best practice? Set aside time to consider ideas and suggestions presented in this article. Seek professional advice for your particular situation.
Finally, if you do nothing else, remember that most people who work in the nonprofit sector do so to make a difference. Take the time to remind your employees what they are working so hard to achieve and thank them, on a regular basis, for their contributions to realizing that goal. You'll be glad you did.
Dr. Lee Mizell works as a research and management consultant to public, private, and nonprofit organizations. She combines hands-on experience developing and managing social service programs with research expertise. In addition, she has spent time as a nonprofit board member, the chair of a social services commission, and as adjunct faculty.