Do You Think Retaining Employees Is Expensive? Churn Is Worse
As employees continue the wave some call “The Great Resignation,” nonprofit leaders are trying to figure out how to retain employees or at least retain the employees they want to keep.
Employee retention: An expense or an investment?
As many nonprofit leaders struggle to fill newly opened positions, professional development for their staff seems like a distraction. There is more work with fewer people. Who has the time to plan a staff training?
Without knowing it, many nonprofit leaders sound like the first part of the well-worn leadership anecdote. A chief financial officer might ask, “What if we train them and they leave?”
When staff is turning over and costs are rising, adding a new program can seem like an additional expense. But remember the second part of the anecdote, as a CEO might say, “But what if we don’t train them and they stay?”
The costs of not equipping the team can quickly outpace the expense of additional training. At a time when employees are feeling burned out, The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey," found a lack of “learning and development opportunities” is one of the top reasons people are leaving jobs.
Helping employees grow isn’t just helping them be better at their jobs. It’s helping nonprofits retain those leaders. And you can do it on a shoestring budget.
3 Professional Development Programs for Nonprofits on a Shoestring Budget
The good news is that keeping employees can be done with a few, easy-to-implement strategies. Here are three that nonprofit leaders have tried with promising results.
1. Create a Leadership Institute
While working at a hospital in rural Maine, I was able to be part of a team charged with expanding the professional development options for the entire hospital’s mid-level and senior leaders.
With a flush of enthusiasm, we sent a survey to the staff asking what employees would like to learn as we rolled out leadership institute training. We were sure that we'd see answers like “goal setting” and “strategic planning.”
The top request? Excel training. Excel. The spreadsheet.
We were shocked. Excel training was incredibly easy to find in our area. And not really expensive. Excel was more like a commodity than a customized training. So we were able to significantly address a key stress for our staff without having to invest much money.
What are the skills your team wants to learn? Do you know? If you ask them, I bet you too will be surprised.
2. Offer Money for Professional Development
Another strategy used by nonprofit leaders is almost the exact opposite of creating a leadership institute. Instead of centralizing learning, some are offering each staff member a specific amount of money for personal development. I’ve heard of $500 for some organizations; $1,000 per staff member for others.
Staff members are told they can get reimbursed for training up to the specified amount. This way the employee has the ability to find the resource they’re interested in. Some find a conference. Others opt for training on a web tool. Still others apply it to an advanced degree or certification.
Some enterprising nonprofits allow a very loose definition of “personal development.” The chief financial officer may take a small engine repair class or the chief fundraising officer might take a baking class — not activities that clearly have a direct link to their work. But the nonprofits know that their team is made up of whole human beings. So helping them grow in an area of interest will have spillover benefits on the job.
The odd thing? Just like employees not abusing unlimited vacation, many employees were not using the funds. They loved knowing the funds were available. But that was enough to help them feel great about where they worked.
3. Invite New Leaders Into Decision-Making Spaces
A few years ago, an executive director in Georgia did something extraordinary. He invited his second in command — and the second in the competition for his position — to all the meetings he attended. Typically, CEOs or executive directors are not that transparent. But this leader would ask for her opinions. And ask what she thought before making big decisions. And if his decision was different, he’d explain the thought process that led him to that conclusion.
He was actively training this leader to think like an executive director.
No one could have anticipated the amazing benefits that would bring to the organization. Not only did they retain a top employee despite her not getting the top post. Eighteen months after the new executive director started, he unexpectedly died from a massive heart attack. Because of his transparency and her willingness to be part of the process, the organization didn’t miss a beat in terms of serving its mission. The second in charge was completely up to speed on all the decisions and strategic conversations. So the team had space to grieve while still serving their clients.
The nonprofit sector is experiencing tremendous churn and most nonprofits seem to have job openings. Retaining your employees can help you be more effective at serving your mission. You keep institutional knowledge. And you don’t have to bring people up to speed.
Fortunately, a few low-cost, easy-to-implement strategies, like in-house trainings, professional development grants and opening meetings to include an additional staff member, can help you reduce costs and maintain organizational stability by retaining your employees.
Related story: How to Best Hire Your Next Nonprofit CEO