Nonprofit Development Staff Turnover: Is It a Crisis or an Old Paradigm We Need to Change?
For as long as I can remember, people have been concerned with the high rate of employee turnover in the nonprofit industry. This is especially troublesome when it comes to our development staff as we tend to send them out to create relationships with key donors on behalf of our organizations.
I remember early on in my career, we considered three to five years to be the right length of time for an employee to stay in one position. If you had a history of leaving jobs before the three-year mark, you were considered flakey. If you stayed in the same position for more than five years, you were deemed stale, like old bread you’d expect to purchase for half price.
Today it’s generally agreed upon that the average length of time on the job for a development staff person is 18 months. However, there is some debate among nonprofit leaders as to whether employee turnover is indeed a crisis or just some old paradigm our industry has clung to for decades. It’s interesting to note that my colleague, Tracy Vanderneck, wrote an article for NonProfit PRO almost five years ago on this very subject titled, “Does the Nonprofit Industry Have an Employment Problem?” In it, she made some excellent observations and offered sound advice. Tracy presented evidence that nonprofit employee turnover rates at that time were not out of line with other industry averages. Tracy also correctly pointed out that nonprofits experiencing “churn and burn” (every town’s got one, right?) and replacing staff members every six months give us all a bad rap.
Then she went on to describe what I think the real problem is for so many nonprofit organizations; we tend to “run on tired.” That really hits the nail on the head.
“They may have too few staff members doing too many jobs and always feel like they are behind. Because of this, the organizations’ leadership spends their time putting out fires instead of proactively putting a solid plan in place for recruitment, training and continual stewarding of employees.” Tracy explained.
She then offered a course of action to fix this problem:
“It is up to nonprofit leadership to decide to change organizational culture — to stop just trying everything, assuming one of the actions will work. Don’t just hire and hope. Train, evaluate and give continual feedback. Solicit input. But above all: Genuinely value your staff and let them know it.”
That seems like sound advice. But how do nonprofits fare now, five years after this article was written?
In my opinion, we failed. In fact, some experts claim that the average length of time on the job for a development professional is now down to 16 months. The reason: Too many executive directors wear the martyr badge with honor. They proudly exclaim how they are under-paid, over-worked and not properly recognized for their achievements. They’ve created a “culture of tired” and treat their employees as if that’s the industry norm.
I’m sorry, but this is unacceptable. If we are indeed serious about developing a culture of philanthropy versus a culture of charity in our nonprofit organizations, we need to start with our employees. Some of us actually need to put our own oxygen mask on first as we can’t effectively help others if we don’t practice self-care. It’s time for all of us to make a pledge that we will put an end to this “culture of tired” paradigm our industry suffers from. It is my hope that five years from now, someone will write an article about how nonprofits are leading the world with a new culture of abundance!
Rob Webb is the chief inspiration officer of Nonprofit Campaigns LLC, which he founded in August 2020 to offer expert online training courses to nonprofit professionals at an affordable cost. Rob is passionate about board development and helping nonprofits create volunteer-led, staff-managed community support campaigns that engage board members giving them ownership of the fundraising process.
Rob has more than 40 years of experience guiding volunteers and staff to create high-impact fundraising campaigns. His journey began in 1981 as aquatic director for the YMCA of Greater Long Beach where he learned all staff play a key role in the annual sustaining campaign (as they called it back then).
Rob left the YMCA in 1995 to form R.M. Webb & Associates, a multi-discipline management consulting firm specializing in nonprofit fundraising solutions. His first client was the American Red Cross, Greater Long Beach Chapter where he worked to create its inaugural support campaign.
Rob is a former city councilman in Long Beach, California, former Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), and past president of his local Kiwanis Club and Chamber of Commerce. Rob is a graduate of Leadership Long Beach, has served as a consultant/trainer for The Nonprofit Partnership and is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Los Angeles Chapter. Rob moved to Maui, Hawaii, in 2016 to pursue his life-long dream. He is an avid waterman and his hobbies include standup paddle boarding, sailing, bodysurfing, spearfishing and open water swimming. Rob is a long-time speaker for nonprofit special events and is active in his island community.