Katie Lord
Vice President

Between technological advances, the rise of the “gig” economy and the transition to a majority millennial workforce, it should come as no surprise that change is happening across all sectors and it is happening faster than we are able to accommodate. This can be especially true when it comes to the nonprofit sector, where I consider our adaptability to change similar to turning the Titanic. While our industry may be a bit slower to adapt than most due to constraints of resources, the best and most sacred resources most of us have is our staff. Our staff has the ability to lead the charge for change within our organization.

We have all seen the classic business quote below of the fabled conversation between a nameless corporate CEO and the CFO:

CFO asks CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?”

CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

This is just as true for nonprofits, especially when it comes to development and volunteer management staff. Nonprofits are known to have one of the highest turnover rates in staff with an estimated 19% annually. According to The Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey by Nonprofit HR, 81% of nonprofits said that their nonprofit organization had no employee retention plan. That is astonishing, especially when you consider how much more cost effective it is to keep your high performing development staff than it is to replace them. How can you keep your top talent engaged and decrease your turnover rate? The answer is simple. Invest in your staff through personal and professional development.

Another finding of The Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey states, “Less than 1% of nonprofit funding has historically gone toward supporting nonprofit talent and only 0.03% ($450M) of the sector’s $1.5 trillion annual spending has been allocated to leadership development.” Let that sink in for a minute. The nonprofit sector accounts for 10% of the GDP and is the third largest employment sector behind retail and manufacturing, yet we don’t invest in our biggest asset of all, our workforce!

Investing in professional development for nonprofit staff is no longer a nicety. It is a necessity, especially when you factor in the traditionally lower salaries that sector employees make compared to their corporate counterparts.  According to a study by Execu-Search, 76% of millennial employees (who are the largest generation in the current workforce) think that professional development is one of the most important aspects of a company’s culture. Below are a few suggestion of how you can offer professional development to your high performing staff that won’t break the budget:

  • Choose a business or career development book and read as an office
  • Bring in a local speaker to talk with your employees about a relevant topic to your mission
  • Reimburse or pay for membership in a professional development association
  • Allow staff to take a webinar or attend a seminar once a quarter
  • Have staff select one conference every other year to attend (many provide financial assistance or scholarship opportunities)
  • Encourage your staff to volunteer to serve on boards (Believe me, it gives your staff member an invaluable perspective to be on the other side of the table) and allow flex time for your staff to do so
  • Hire a coach for first time managers or for those you see with leadership potential

It is important for us as a sector to not shy away from investing in our staff’s development. It is our staff who run our programs and who work tirelessly to fill the gaps in our society left by both the public and private sector.  By not providing employees with professional development, we risk continuing to be slow to adapt as a sector and thereby losing our most promising talent and future change makers to others who will allow them to grow.

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