Why Nonprofits Must Make Peace with Turnover

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By Shaby T. Rosales

Turnover is often seen as evidence of a problematic organizational culture. If letters of resignation are swirling about, the assumption is something must be broken. The leadership must be doing something wrong. It’s time for a retreat, a consultant, a policy change, or some other intervention to fix the culture.

Turnover is usually regarded as a problem to be fixed, and the conventional response to a high turnover rate is a retention strategy. It makes sense — up to a point. Just as nonprofits should strive to retain supporters rather than going in search of new ones, doing what we can to keep high-performing team members engaged and satisfied is always a worthwhile investment.

In that replacing a staff member can be expensive, the conventional thinking is correct, but there’s a bigger picture to consider. Organizations that become proficient at adapting to change will always come out on top. Turnover will always be a factor, and it may be a growing aspect of the new normal, due to circumstances beyond our control. Here are five observations about turnover to consider before you implement that retention strategy.

Viewing Turnover as a Problem Is a Symptom of a Scarcity Mindset

There’s no need to panic about the occasional, inevitable disruption of your roster. No matter how well you pay or how valued you make your team feel — nothing lasts forever. Someone will move away for law school or to volunteer abroad. Someone else might change careers or simply take time off work.

Making peace with turnover allows organizations to remain alert to a world of possibilities. Talent surrounds us. Look around, and you just might find a valuable new teammate with critical skills learned at another organization or a professional network you weren’t previously plugged into

Not Everybody You Hire Is Going to Work Out

Candidates with excellent credentials and interview skills may not always make great colleagues. They may not be sufficiently invested in the mission, or they might turn out to be complete jerks. Honest critiques of their behavior might work — or not. Coaching or counseling might make them aware of their shortcomings — or not.

You can pour your blood, sweat and tears into keeping them around — or you can cut bait and let the rest of your team breathe a sigh of relief. Replacing staff costs money; keeping a toxic team member around can be devastating.

Retention Is on the Board as well as the Executive Leadership

The CEO or executive director bears the ultimate responsibility for hiring and keeping the right team, but the board is a critical part of your organizational culture. It can play a pivotal role in advocating for staff to get the pay and benefits that keeps them around. (It’s not always about cost-cutting.)

When new hires see that the board is fully invested in their success, they feel part of something that’s bigger than themselves. Showing up for more than just the annual event can make a difference. Little things, like holiday cards and appreciative emails, make staff — veterans and newcomers alike — feel appreciated.

Turnover Presents a Chance for Thoughtful Reorganization

Without a doubt, losing a longtime staff member can mean losing valuable institutional knowledge and connections. Board, staff and donors might all have become professionally and personally attached, and by all means you should celebrate their accomplishments with a spectacular farewell party.

Now what? Do you go in search of someone with comparable talent and experience? Or, do you take this opportunity to review your capabilities and assets and to rethink — or even reinvent — the way you conduct the business of philanthropy? Adaptability means taking the time for reflection or discussion with a trusted adviser before reposting a decades-old job description.

Turnover Can Heal Your Culture

The present moment, with decisions still being made about the return to office, offers a chance to build a resilient organizational culture that works for everyone.

“Remote work can build a more gender-equal culture that makes it easier for women to succeed in work,” wrote Emma Zang, assistant professor of sociology and biostatistics at Yale University, adding, “This may also be a great opportunity for women leaders and employees to take advantage of the momentum reinvigorated by remote work and steer the culture in their own way.”

In other words, culture isn’t something you build once. It’s a process that should factor in external changes as well as internal ones.

Even if the team you have today is complete, functioning like a well-oiled machine, turnover is probably just over the horizon. And that’s something you should make peace with — even if you don’t always look forward to it.

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