How Not to Lose a Critical Asset: Retaining Your Staff

Just last week, two people I know landed new jobs in the not-for-profit field. I also received several job postings for fundraising positions in my region. It doesn’t always seem like it, but hiring is alive and well in the nonprofit community, and some of your staff may be looking at options — or even be approached first about a tempting new opportunity.

The lament of nonprofit managers frequently is, “We can’t pay enough to be competitive.” Yet many people I know switch jobs for the same or less pay, or at most, for only a small increase. For some, certainly more money is a motivator. But if we don’t look past our pay scale to other factors, we are missing possible ways to retain valuable staff.

Gathering information at exit interviews is not always a reliable way to determine why a person is leaving, either. Many departing staffers figure they shouldn’t burn any bridges, so they tell you what is expected but not why they are really leaving.

Following are reasons (beyond money) why people I know have left one nonprofit for another or left the nonprofit space altogether for work in the for-profit sector. Evaluating your organization by these measures may help you make small changes that can increase tenures of valuable team members.

No discernible career path
Too often, we’re consumed with the urgent in nonprofits. We need to raise money now or respond to a crisis that impacts our target population. Things like annual reviews, career pathing and training on new skills get pushed back — sometimes never to resurface again.

Personally, in 30 years of work for nonprofits, I had fewer than 10 annual reviews, and less than half of those were more than perfunctory meetings saying in essence, “You’re doing fine; now go do more of it.”

Employees (for the most part) want to grow. Ask them at their annual reviews, “Where would you like to be at this company in five years?” Some may have never thought about it and will be startled by the question! Work individually with them to create a plan to get them to that place (or to a reasonable place if their expectations are unrealistic), and revisit this at least annually to make sure they are being given opportunities to achieve those goals if they still desire them.

Lack of appreciation
Money is not the only way to show appreciation. But neither is the annual company picnic and holiday party. How often in a staff meeting have the virtues of a new hire, totally unproven in your company, been extolled — without any mention of the long-term employee who has performed well consistently for months or even years?

The Bible includes a verse that says, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown.” That’s too often true with our employees, as well. We take them for granted, and to get the recognition they deserve, they have to leave and go work elsewhere. And with them go valuable training, knowledge and experience.

Have you thanked your star performers lately for specific things they have accomplished? Are you making sure credit goes to those who generate great ideas, regardless of where they fall on the organizational chart?

Little connection with your mission
Sometimes people take jobs for the wrong reasons. In a nonprofit, if an employee doesn’t love your mission, he or she may not have the fortitude to stick around when things get rough (or other opportunities beckon). Talk about your mission in the interview process, and ask candidates to explain what it is about your mission that resonates with them. Watch out for great phrases that are actually just quotes from your website; you want a genuine “heart” connection, not just “head” knowledge. Remember, you can teach most skills, but you can’t teach passion.

Poor management
Employees can’t be fooled. For most, no résumé or vita will make up for bad leadership skills. Or, you or your board may have chosen a new key manager for all the right reasons, but employees may perceive only another executive who has no idea what really goes on and doesn’t seem to care either. You may not be in a position to influence your nonprofit’s leadership, but you can model good management in your area of control. Employees often have most of their contact with their day-to-day managers, so make sure that wherever you can influence it, good management is the norm.

Of course, you can do all these things right and still lose a star performer. And sometimes it will be about money. But wringing your hands and thinking you can’t do anything because your budget is too tight won’t change a thing. Instead, come in every day determined to be the manager for whom people want to work — and you may find you’re spending less time recruiting and interviewing, and more time mentoring and watching your team exceed expectations.


Originally publishes in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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