How to Recruit & Retain Staff in the Era of Disruption

How to Recruit & Retain Staff in the Era of Disruption

Do you remember when the #1 issue nonprofits faced was money for the mission? It was the reason things couldn’t happen. Well, there’s a new carnival in town. The post-pandemic era of increasing uncertainty, coupled with The Great Resignation ushered in a new problem, which is an urgent need for people who can and will do the work.


Nonprofits are currently experiencing an alarming absence of people to employ. Added to that, an increasing threat of once dedicated and formerly loyal staff are walking away from work they used to live and breathe. The desire for less is putting ambition on ice. If you are a small shop and this reality hasn’t hit your organization yet, it soon will. This is the first article in a series of three where I am tackling the present-day challenges of recruiting and retaining talent in a mission-driven environment. 


The issue you face is that it’s impossible to continue doing community work when people aren’t saying yes to the positions you need filled. This tsunami of “no one to employ and harder than ever to retain” is hitting the nonprofit sector triple hard. Looking in my own backyard, I’ve seen dozens of Boys & Girls Clubs near closing over the past 8 months because they are unable to recruit new talent, and they are unable to retain existing talent to continue doing the work. What is happening? What is causing this unprecedented shortage of workers?


The elephant in the room is nonprofits need staff to do the work – to fulfill the Mission and “make it happen”. In small and mid-size nonprofits, there is still a myth that work can be done by all volunteers, or by short term staff “if we get a grant“.   This thinking is not only incorrect, it’s poisonous.


Hardly a day goes by when I’m not having a conversation with an Executive Director who is about to walk into the Boardroom. More often than not, they are struggling to decide whether it’s worth risking their own job security to challenge a Board member who makes Human Resource decisions for the nonprofit in ways they would never do in their own profitable business. Frankly, it’s unjust for an Executive Director to be put in this position, yet it happens routinely.


The problem nonprofits are facing when it comes to hiring and retention is three layers deep. In today’s article, I’m addressing the very top layer which comprises four elements: compensation, benefits, working conditions, and opportunity.


Compensation: The first question to ask yourself is – how is your nonprofit holding up against the backdrop of disruption that is our world right now? How is fear and uncertainty showing up in staff when you’re not offering compensation worthy of the heart, soul and commitment they bring to the table? I call it “a wage with dignity”. If you want people to do the heavy lifting of work for a cause, you have to match it with dollars.


For the 30+ years I’ve been in the sector, there has been a perpetual justification for keeping staff locked into a low wage bracket. The underlying message is “You as an individual should not profit here”. And what it keeps nonprofits locked into, is a cycle of dysfunction. Instead of putting your eyes on the future, you’re avoiding the quick sand beneath your feet. In turn, it creates staff who are coming to work unconsciously distracted by their own financial circumstances. Ask yourself – what quality of work is being done in a condition like this? No wonder you aren’t reaching your numbers.


Benefits: We have over 2 million people working in Canada in the nonprofit sector, and over a million do not have a workplace retirement plan. I’m talking about people who have worked for years in the charitable sector. Passion and love for the cause has obviously been their fuel, because most lack even a basic benefit plan. Boards prefer to fund non-human expenses than provide the security of a health plan coupled with a registered savings plan. You know, so Staff don’t retire from a life of mission-driven work and fall off a cliff.


If you’re experiencing a problem with retention, I speculate that the disruption in the world has opened a new door for people who are employed in nonprofits. They are seeking but it doesn’t feel like there is a landscape of opportunity right now. The vibe is “I’ve done this for enough time now“. Where we are in society, coupled with what the job is like and what it offers (or doesn’t), equals “I’m getting out of this“. The door swung open, and the disruption has given them both the impetus and the courage to join the ranks of everyone who is deciding to move on. To where? They don’t even know.


Working conditions: Small to mid-size nonprofits are drowning with inefficiencies. Slow or no technology coupled with an analog mindset are repelling the people who want to give you money and time. The failure to invest in upgrading your ability to connect is grinding your message. 70% of nonprofits are still operating at the level of Technology 101. They have email, but they can’t scan documents. They have a database, but it’s in MS Excel.


Over and over, I hear Executive Directors say, “We went to the Board about getting a new system in place, and the answer is no”. In the event a nonprofit Board wisely elects to invest in new technology, they cross out the line item in the budget that was added for training. Ask yourself – how does new technology get implemented when staff have no clue how to use it? The churn you experience inside your organization will be fixed when staff have the tools the job requires and the training to use them.


Opportunity: Nonprofit work could be a calling for some very talented candidates looking for work right now. Unfortunately, they are largely not considering working in the nonprofit sector. The message in the sky is, “There’s no money there, you have to work really long hours, you never get training, the pay is terrible, there’s no opportunity for growth, and it’s kind of a dead end”. They’ve heard what goes on around here and think, “I’m not going there”.


In the rare instance when you see a nonprofit that has some really wicked work happening, with really good staff retention, I can tell you what it looks like on the inside. The compensation is livable or better, the benefits are solid, they have the technology they need, and the working conditions are good to great. Nonprofits like this are the exception to the rule. And great people who are looking for great work know it, so they don’t look in our direction.


I am well aware the conditions I’ve presented here look bleak. So how do you begin to address this top layer? Here we go…


Step 1: If you’re a small or mid-size shop, now is the time to confront the key elements that stand between you and the people you want to connect with who are destined to carry out your work – as well as what it’s going to take for you to fund those missing elements. Your silent aversion to success in order to justify a perpetual lack of money is not acceptable. “We can’t afford it because we’re a nonprofit” is the narrative to let go of this year.


Step 2: It’s high time to elevate the stature of your nonprofit such that your organization is viewed as a viable and competitive employer in your community. This requires leveling up how you think, the tools you use, and the package you offer.


Step 3: Know that as a nonprofit, you are a connector of humans in a world that is more disconnected than it has ever been. Nonprofits are positioned to do their best work because we understand humans and we possess soft skills. Nonprofits understand working with individuals and families, and we understand working for a cause that is greater than who and what we are individually.


The desire people have to connect with humans is where nonprofits shine. Prioritizing the humans in your organization who do that work is the top layer, and it is the first step toward attracting and retaining the kind of talent that powerfully fulfills your Mission.


Part 2 of this series will arrive next week.


Want help? I offer individualized coaching and consulting specifically tailored to meet you where you are, with the people and resources you have available to you, and with your goals in mind.


Reply to this message directly to set up a conversation. Even if we don’t end up doing work together, I promise our conversation will highlight a direction and solutions you haven’t yet considered.


Let’s start there.