Issue 2 – Fall 2013: Tips for taming turnover

Within the next four years, more than half of Canada’s nonprofit executive directors say they will leave their current position. (HR Council, Staffing Trends in Canadian Charities, 2012, June 2013) Yikes! With numbers like that, it’s no wonder we need to be talking more about taming turnover and staffing in the sector.

Taming-turnover-100x100WHATS DRIVING TURNOVER?

While some turnover can be attributed to the demographic shifts of Boomers leaving the workforce, much of it is still the result of perpetual sector struggles: unstable and restrictive funding that leads to temporary positions and increased workloads among core staff; comparatively lower compensation than other sectors; common organization sizes that limit advancement opportunities within a single organization.

2/3 of employers cite “low salary” as an impediment to recruiting success in their organization.

According to Imagine Canada’s most recent Sector Monitor report, approximately one-third of charity leaders predict that the relative capacity of their organization will decrease over both the near- and medium-terms because of growth in demands and decreasing or leveled off staffing. (Vol. 3, No. 2, 2013) Almost half of the respondents to the same survey agreed or strongly agreed that their ability to provide competitive wages and benefits was a barrier to employee retention.

Likewise, two-thirds of employers cite “low salary” as an impediment to recruiting success in their organization. (HR Council, Labour Force Study, 2008 p. 17) Particularly with early career workers, nonprofit employees are hungry for development and advancement opportunities (HR Council, Growing younger, 2010, p. 15). With so many small organizations in the sector, internal advancement opportunities are limited, and professional development budgets are often the first line items cut in times of restraint.


We need sector-wide strategies to address the systemic issues that challenge our ability to retain great people. Umbrella organizations are adding valuable research, tools and resources to the conversation: nationally, like Imagine Canada or the HR Council (now housed within Community Foundations of Canada); and regionally, like The tHRive Project in British Columbia, the new Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia, and many others.

“ Employers aren’t fools. They look for both range and depth. It’s very hard to prove your ability within 16 months. Employers want to see willingness to invest in an organization.”
— Sherri Freedman

That said, as leaders in individual organizations, we can all take small steps to increase employee retention day-to-day:

Clarify expectations. Revisit job descriptions to make sure that you are being honest and realistic about what the position entails. The quickest way to sap new hires’ enthusiasm and send them running for the door is by placing them in a role that wasn’t clearly defined in the first place. Check out the HR Council’s toolkit resources about job descriptions.

Understand aspirations. Without professional HR staff in many organizations, orientation often falls to the line manager who hired someone, or even to the new hire’s peers in similar roles. Many people don’t make the time to understand the career and growth goals of new staff. Again, the HR Council toolkit has some helpful hints for managing onboarding.

Recognize the power of recognition. We know that people don’t join the sector to get rich; they join it because they want to have a positive impact on the world through their work. Beyond a simple “Thanks. You helped us achieve our goals,” do you make sure that every employee understands how their individual contribution ties into the organization’s annual goals and supports the mission? Vantage Point in Vancouver has some terrific resources to help connect the dots between individual activity and mission success.

Get serious about compensation. Sector employees are mission-driven, we know. We also know that financial stresses are a common reason why people leave the sector. Make time to benchmark your organization’s salaries against sector norms to ensure that you’re in the right ballpark. Large salary bumps may be difficult in any organization, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get creative with compensation in other forms, such as non-cash benefits, flex time, or other meaningful perks that won’t break the bank. Consult position-specific salary data developed by related professional associations, or check out the national perspective in the 2013 Canadian Nonprofit Sector Salary and Benefits Study.

Get more creative about enrichment opportunities. Look for ways to provide more growth opportunities for employees: training, stretch assignments or formal mentoring programs. You can keep it simple too: try lunch-and-learns, plan do-it-yourself professional development days, or ask for a seat in the training session of a corporate partner. Resources to help with professional development: online trainingDIY professional development days, professional development events from coast to coast, professional associations.

Get your board on board. Boards can play an important role in getting and keeping great staff. They can also be powerful advocates who help address some of the broader systemic issues that lead to chronic turnover problems. Get them engaged in the process if you haven’t already. The HR Council toolkit has some tips. Imagine Canada’s Standards Program also offers a good checklist of staff management standards.

Remember, we’re all in this together. If we want to ensure the sector thrives in the long run, we each have to work on both the macro and micro changes needed to help attract and retain terrific people. Our work is too important and our goals are too large to keep setting these conversations aside.

“Even for your first job, target something you’re passionate about and do your due diligence. How long has senior management been there? If not long, is that really where you want to work?”
— Paul Alofs