The headlines in the United States related to employee resignations and turnover can seem abstract, one more wave of difficult news among many. But for nonprofit leaders, the issue is a day-to-day reality that has left them wondering: “how do we keep and attract the talented people we need?” Even though many employers are thinking about this, doing this is especially hard for nonprofits, where the pandemic has made the work harder and where compensation has historically been low.
To understand more about the impact of the Great Resignation on nonprofits, we have spoken with dozens of nonprofit CEOs through our cohort-based program, Leading for Impact®. CEOs have shared the challenges they’re facing and have offered some steps they’re taking around compensation, wellness, and culture to make their organizations places people want to come to—and stay.
Often under-resourced and constrained by restrictive grants, many nonprofits find that they lack the ability to pay sustainable wages even as their work has become more difficult. While these challenges can’t be fixed overnight, the leaders we heard from are seeking “quick” ways to increase compensation and are leveraging this moment to push for more permanent and systemic changes. Some have found pockets of money to provide bonuses and stipends for extra work to avoid having employees take on projects for free. Many are leveraging the current global talent crisis to push their boards and funders to think fundamentally different about compensation: they’re using compensation studies to identify gaps in pay equity and competitiveness, defining compensation values and principles to align the organization on compensation goals, and having frank conversations about the true cost of programs, and what constitutes fair and equitable pay.
Stressful during normal times, nonprofit work can be doubly so during time of crises. Whether it’s the weight of the work or the world’s compounding social issues, or both, the mental well-being of employees is top of mind for nonprofit CEOs. To address their emotional needs, nonprofits are providing more mental health resources and normalizing the use of them. To avoid burnout, leaders are encouraging more time off, by increasing paid time off or making it unlimited. Some are encouraging staff to take a certain number of vacation days: one CEO shared that their managers make taking vacation time part of professional development discussions. To address more immediate needs, organizations are expanding bereavement, sick, and parental leave policies, providing one mental health day a month, setting no-meetings blocks each week, and instituting regular shutdowns, whether its half-day Fridays or full office closures for a week.
It’s not surprising that the events of the last couple of years have inspired many to ask more of their work environments. People are seeking respect for and fulfillment from their work. They want to be part of organizations that are intentional in their efforts to be more inclusive and equitable. And they want to better understand their opportunities for advancement.1 In response, the nonprofit CEOs we spoke with are taking several steps to make their nonprofit cultures more supportive to existing employees and attractive to new ones. Transparency and communication around decision-making came up more than once in the CEO discussion, as well as did efforts that help humanize the work environment and recognize each other as people, not just employees. Some organizations are proactively engaging their employees to better understand what it will take to retain them. Even more noted the importance of training and professional development and building new opportunities for staff to take on leadership roles as retention efforts.
It’s clear that nonprofit CEOs can’t afford to take a “wait-and-see” attitude toward the Great Resignation. They’re being proactive and entrepreneurial to use this moment to interrogate their compensation practices, center mental health, build advancement opportunities and more to retain and attract talent.