What is a small non-profit to do when the big guys keep stealing their awesome, well-trained staff members? Many smaller non-profits recruit younger staff with lots of enthusiasm, but little, practical work experience. It seems as if they no sooner get these young people trained and working independently when the brightest of them are lured away by larger organization with a bigger staffing budget.
The turnover of staff is disruptive and creates public relations and moral issues. Recruitment, interviewing and training new staff, costs time and money. Sometimes staff vacancies require other workers to fill in, creating overtime costs. They may even result in a temporary program shut down. Many non-profits simply view this as ‘business as usual;’ is it? Some agencies believe that larger compensation budgets may be the answer; are they?
Non-profit careers are enticing to idealistic, caring young people. Often the opportunities that present themselves at non-profits are exciting, they offer great learning opportunities and more autonomy and creativity than a new graduate might expect in the corporate world. New grads and people changing careers apply for these positions, happy to earn slightly more than minimum wage and jump in with both feet.
Then, reality hits. Smaller agencies typically offer few opportunities for promotion. Sometimes, there is little or no training and many times the incumbent is asked to create their own job description. Staff who are getting accolades for the exciting work that they are doing, become disenchanted when they learn that salary increases are small or non-existent. Once they are proficient at their position, it becomes less exciting and they quickly learn that if they want more money and more opportunity they will have to leave and find work in a bigger institution.
There are no easy answers to the question of what to do and most organizations manage the situation as well as they can; capitalizing on the enthusiasm of new workers and being appreciative of the longer serving employees who stick around because they are passionate about the work.
For organizations that are struggling with turnover here are some strategies to consider:
- Make staff wages an agency priority if they have been frozen for a prolonged period of time or if they are significantly less than other comparable non-profits. Do this, even if it requires more fund raising or cuts to service delivery. It is unethical to resolve an agency’s financial problems on the backs of its workers. Low staff wages often lead to less quality service delivery as it becomes impossible to recruit qualified staff; more downtime due to position vacancies and poor public relations as the agency is identified as unreliable.
- Recognize the position for what it is; an entry level, starting point to get young workers launched. Make this manageable by finding ways to make recruiting, hiring and training easier, such as:
- creating detailed job descriptions, succession plans and recruitment and onboarding checklists;
- asking employees to assist with creating succession plans including detailed information about training and getting started in the role;
- developing a reputation for helping new staff to identify longer term career goals and supporting their career development activities;
- Establishing a relationship with a local university or college to get their referrals for entry level positions.
- Offer non-monetary incentives that make lower salaries more palatable. Many employees are willing to exchange compensation for more time off or greater flexibility in their schedule. Working from home may be an incentive for employees and may also reduce their commuting or daycare costs. Training, job autonomy, opportunities to be involved in special projects, and being publicly recognized for expertise and knowledge are perks for many employees. However, before implementing any of these ideas, it is critical to get employee input into what is most important to them.
A word of caution. Increasing salaries, especially if they are fair to begin with, will rarely lead to sustained improvements in staff moral and, in some cases, may actually reduce moral. Some employees work in this sector because they want to make a difference. If their salary rises significantly, they may experience feelings of guilt, vulnerability or entitlement that detract from the good feelings they previously experienced. Higher pay also makes it difficult for employees who do not like the work to leave. Sometimes these ‘stuck’ employees create a workplace culture of dissatisfaction that impacts everyone.
Smaller non-profits have a great deal to offer employees who want to experience personal satisfaction, job autonomy and meaning. It is critical that these non-profits avoid allowing salary levels to erode below the industry standard. Sustainable agencies, offering high quality services, ensure their salary levels keep pace with inflation and with the salaries of other similar organizations, even if services must be cut to do so. However, agencies should be cautious about increasing salaries beyond the industry standard and must never view salaries as the sole answer to recruitment and retention issues.
The resilient non-profit understands what it has to offer employees and how it will manage any turnover it experiences.
I’d love to hear from people who have worked for a smaller non-profit? Were you compensated fairly? What kept you there and what lured you away?
Sandra Dunham is the sole-proprietor of Streamline New Perspective Solutions
Streamline New Perspective Solutions offers management consulting services for non-profit organizations. Please visit www.streamlinenps.ca