Easing the Ache of Staff Turnover

Philip Manzano • Sep 09, 2016

Losing and retraining staff is an inevitable but time consuming part of running a nonprofit. We asked some experts how they cope and continue to move forward when faced with ongoing turnover.

According to Nonprofit HR, Nonprofits faced a staff turnover rate of 19% in 2014 . This is 3% higher than the rates seen for nonprofits in 2013. Further, it’s 4% higher than what expert Bernadette Kenny reports as a healthy turnover rate

Why all the turnover?

Here is a list of retention challenges reported in the 2015 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey Results released by Nonprofit HR. This data was collected from 362 nonprofit organizations across Canada and the US.

  1. Inability to pay competitively (27%)
  2. Inability to promote (20%)
  3. Excessive workloads / insufficient staff resources (19%)
  4. Inability to retain certain position levels (13%)
  5. Poor morale (6%)
  6. Ineffective leadership (5%)
  7. Lack of training / professional development (5%)
  8. Other (6%)

Many of these are systemic problems. They are made worse by the fact that, as Johnson puts it in her article Straight Talk About Nonprofit Turnover , “many nonprofit leaders don’t see the value of building a strong business foundation.” The top two reasons for turnover listed above – competitive wages and internal promotions  – are ingrained in the inability of nonprofits to take on a formal business model in their organization. Hiring your management from other nonprofits, avoiding to have a clear promotion funnel and not paying your staff wages that stand up against industry averages are all factors that will undoubtedly increase turnover rates.

But we’re nonprofits — not businesses. We’re different. We play by different rules. Right?

Whatever you believe about how a nonprofit should be run, we can all recognize one thing together. Something is not working.

Small to medium nonprofit organizations are often stricken with a huge divide between the tasks they are committed to accomplish and the resources they have to accomplish them. Constantly sucked dry. Whether you’re limited by financial, human or time resources, there is a pretty good chance that this is affecting the turnover rate of your organization.

We recognize that turnover is going to happen. Even if you did everything perfectly, your organization still has to cope with good turnover, which sits around 15%. 

So this article isn’t about fixing your turnover rates systemically, it’s about coping with the inevitable.

I approached two development professionals to gain insight on what strategies have been working to cope with turnover in the nonprofit sector. Allan Calma and Ai Morita have collectively spent almost 20 years working in Pakistan with international NGOs. When I asked them what strategies have worked best to make staff turnover as painless as possible their responses were unsurprisingly similar. 

So, here they are. The five coping mechanisms we’ve found to be greatly effective in easing the pain of staff turnover. Tried and tested in nonprofits across the globe. 

1. Plan for Turnover

Since turnover is going to happen it’s great to have a plan. Calma noted that, from an HR perspective, it is always good to have a roster of candidates ready to fill different positions in the case of turnover. This argument was mimicked by Nonprofit HR, saying that you should already have staff or board members identified that could fill the place of key personnel in the case of unexpected turnover. Starting from square one in the hiring process is time consuming and projects usually can’t wait for you to find the perfect candidate — they need to keep going. So you can speed that process up by being ready with pre-vetted candidates to fill the shoes of your staff members.

Whether it’s hiring someone new, or knowing exactly who in your organization can take over a particular set of tasks in the case of turnover, you need to have these things planned out. Nonprofit HR referred to it like preparing a will, while a touch morbid, they’re right. You need to know exactly how things will be handled if you were to lost any particular staff member. Make those plans and document them.

2. Documentation

Proper documentation can save so much time and headache when it comes to staff turnover. Both Calma and Morita put forth that documentation is key. Keep records of everything.  You need to know exactly how your team is getting from point A to point B on different tasks. No guessing.

Calma also stated the importance of good reporting. A report can give insight to the details of how your projects are being implemented, donor relations are being handled and logistics carried out. Making sure lessons learned are always incorporated can ensure that a new staff member doesn’t repeat something your team has already learned to be less effective. Keep detailed appendices so all documents for one reporting period of a project are all together. 

Now that you have great documents it’s important to also make sure that you have a great filing system. Keep your filing systems clean, up to date and accessible. When you bring in a new team member you don’t want to spend a day searching through messy files of outdated documents. Keep important, final copies of everything all together in a master folder. Have your new staff training documents easily accessible and ready to go. 

3. Team Work

If your team works strictly independently from one another, you are going to face a lot more pain in the case of turnover. But, as recommended by Calma, by making sure all tasks are team based you can ensure that someone else can take over if a team member was to leave. Keep more than one person in the loop on all tasks so others feel comfortable jumping in. 

Morita stated the importance of drawing expertise not just from within her own team, but from other departments across the organization when she is understaffed. By bringing in managers from other teams you are providing a learning opportunity for cross departmental exposure, while adding a highly competent person to your project. Further, you are building trust across the organization. This helps teams better understand how each leg of your organization functions. Lend your team members out when others need them and you may get some help in return.

4. Leverage Technology

Know what’s out there and find what works best for your team. You can easily be storing files, tracking emails and automatically updating your contact database in a way that keeps everyone in your team up to date. Gone are the days where we needed our IT staff to scour through thousands of emails in your ex-employees files just to find a receipt or conversation. A great CRM software can do all this for you.

TechSoup provides some insight into how good CRM Implementation can propel your nonprofit.

5. Stay Positive

With high levels of turnover we can so easily fall into the pit of organizational depression. You replace staff that were unsatisfied, maybe overburdened with work or feeling underpaid. You start to assume the same fate will soon reach your new hire. You don’t bother to get to know them. This was the situation presented as a case study in the book Why Nonprofits Fail by Stephen R. Block (2013). A depressed leader makes a depressed organization. It is your job to stay positive, be transparent and encourage new staff in a way that breeds productivity. 

Yeah, losing a valuable team member absolutely sucks. But you’ve got a new team member that is full of potential that is eager to fill their shoes. Give them the benefit of the doubt and make their first days, weeks and months with your nonprofit a great learning experience. 

If you put the first four strategies into place your ability to remain positive (and maybe even less stressed!) while transitioning to new staff should become easier and easier. 

I’m coping now what?

So now you have the tools to cope. But of course we also want you to tackle those systemic issues as well, so here’s a couple quick tips from the experts:

  1. Create a formal recruitment strategy . According to Nonprofit HR, 85% of nonprofits do not have a formal recruitment strategy. The Harvard Business Review states that 80% of turnover can be traced back to bad hiring decisions. To get started, you can also check out this quick infographic with 6 tips on how to hire the right person from Hubspot which emphasizes the importance of culture fit. When it comes to hiring, take your time and do it right. Rushed decisions lead to turnover.
  2. Fire the managers that keep losing staff. Calma noted the importance of stepping back and reflecting on the cause of your staff turnover. Can be it be traced back to a particular manager or a particular project? Reflect and identify root causes so you can reduce turnover in the future.
  3. Understand changing expectations in the job market. Know your pool of candidates and keep up to date with what your employees expect from their employer. For example, Nonprofit HR shares the importance of creating a telecommuting strategy to keep up with changing work environments. Only 56% of nonprofits currently have one , but this is becoming a norm for work environments everywhere.

If you’re still looking for more, check out how employee job satisfaction has proven to reduce turnover. There are endless tips on reducing turnover in your organization, but just like technology, you’ve just got to take the time and find what motivates your team best.

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