Nonprofits have faced years of struggle to hold on to staff members and hire new ones. Low pay, burnout, and employees’ desire for work-life balance have been stubborn problems for leaders to solve. The hiring crunch is likely to persist — though perhaps it isn’t as dire as it was at the height of the Great Resignation. Meanwhile, leaders are working hard to encourage current staff members to stay and tamp down the constant churn of employees.
Staff retention has been a problem for the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, says CEO Brian Maness. His response: Creating a positive workplace culture as a way to hold on to employees.
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Nonprofits have faced years of struggle to hold on to staff members and hire new ones. Low pay, burnout, and employees’ desire for work-life balance have been stubborn problems. The hiring crunch is likely to persist — though perhaps it won’t be as dire as it was at the height of the Great Resignation. Meanwhile, leaders are working hard to tamp down the constant churn of employees.
Shorter workweeks, time off, and DEI training are helping groups hold on to workers.
Staff retention has been a problem for the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, says CEO Brian Maness. His response: create a positive workplace culture to hold on to employees.
Compensation and benefits are part of the equation. The organization, which provides adoption services, trains foster parents, and supports caregivers, matches retirement contributions up to 6 percent of an employee’s salary for its roughly 325 workers. In the summer, it gave all employees a bonus.
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But Maness’s primary concern is creating a supportive work environment where staff members have good relationships with their supervisors and peers. Workers whose jobs allow it can work remotely up to three days a week. The group has team-based and regional meetings where employees can provide feedback about the work environment, and it surveys staff members each year. Executives have toured the group’s operations and meet with staff to hear their concerns.
“They work for an organization that they know is working hard to understand their needs and to support them in their professional lives,” he says. “That would be the thing they say about why they’re here and why they stay.”
Nonprofits of all causes have faced personnel challenges up and down the organizational chart. CEOs at museums, social-service groups, nonprofits of all kinds are leaving their posts, and boards are scrambling to find qualified replacements. For-profit companies are poaching direct-service staff. Everyone is burned out, underpaid, and seeking a better life beyond the nonprofit grind that their predecessors once embraced.
More than 70 percent of the groups that responded to a 2023 survey by the National Council of Nonprofits reported job vacancies — half say it’s worse now than before the pandemic. In some places, it’s even more severe. In Connecticut, 91 percent of nonprofits reported that it was difficult to recruit employees.
Nonprofits can’t compete for employees based on pay, says David Thompson, vice president of public policy of the council. “We’re being priced out of the market,” he says. “Stress and burnout are huge factors leading to people leaving.”
Museums, which closed temporarily during the pandemic and have faced financial uncertainty as they’ve tried to bring back visitors, have struggled, too. According to an American Alliance of Museums survey, 60 percent of institutions that are trying to fill job openings are having trouble hiring — particularly positions in guest services, retail, and security.
Social-service organizations like food banks are also struggling to fill empty positions, says Steve Houtz, CEO of the Metropolitan Alliance of Connected Communities in Minneapolis. “It’s hard to find people to do that work up and down the organization,” he says. “It’s really challenging work. It’s a real grind. It’s not that lucrative.”
Roughly one-third of the alliance’s 60 member organizations have had a CEO leave in the last two years, in addition to attrition in other positions. Human-service organizations simply have a hard time paying competitive or even living wages. “The real root cause here is how poverty-related work is getting paid for by society,” he says. “It’s racism, and it’s a value judgment of government and philanthropy.”
Without enough staff, nonprofits have struggled to meet their missions. Many nature centers, for example, laid people off during the pandemic and haven’t been able to pay enough to draw workers back, says Jen Levy, executive director of the Association of Nature Center Administrators. Only now is that starting to change at some organizations thanks to bolstered wages and benefits as well as increased diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
“It was heartbreaking because the outdoors was the safe place to be, and people wanted to put their kids in camps and have schools to come out and do programs,” she says. “Often they couldn’t because they didn’t have staff.”
Stress and Burnout
No one has a crystal ball, but many nonprofit executives have experienced enough pain in recent years that they assume that the challenging hiring market will continue. Some are pushing for policy solutions that could help large numbers of nonprofits.
Many of the financial woes that social-service groups face are because of chronic underpayment and late payments by government agencies, says Thompson of the National Council of Nonprofits. The group is pushing the federal government for change. It wants the Office of Management and Budget to adopt new rules to require agencies to pay nonprofits closer to the actual cost of delivering services. The council is also pushing for simpler applications and reporting mechanisms for federal grants so groups that have traditionally been left out of these programs — small groups run by people of color and those in rural communities — have a better chance of getting these grants.
Nonprofits’ personnel challenges have been so daunting that grant makers are taking notice.
The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has seen the toll that stress and burnout have taken on grantees, so much that it has made holistic well-being one of the core elements of its mission. Employees at short-staffed groups are often overwhelmed by the needs in their community, says Gloria Perez, the foundation’s CEO. “The service providers were feeling more stress and anxiety and feeling like they needed more mental-health or support systems.”
In September, the foundation decided to give 40 female leaders of color $10,000 grants to spend any way they wanted. The goal was to help overworked and underpaid leaders take a break, regroup, and rejuvenate in the hope that it will drive down the high rates of CEO turnover at these organizations.
“We need to understand that they are saying, ‘My personal well-being is too important to sacrifice for this mission or this organization. I’m going to prioritize myself and vote with my feet by leaving the work force or join the gig economy, where I get to control when and where I work on my terms,’” Perez says.
She hopes the grant program will draw attention to chronic overwork and underpay. “As a statewide community foundation, my hope is that we can inspire donors to give generously so that we can continue to invest in the issues that we care about.”
Time Off and Flexibility
Few nonprofits have figured out surefire ways to attract new employees. A growing number, however, are looking to make their organizations better places to work and offer workers greater flexibility. The goal is to curb turnover and, over time, reduce the number of empty positions they have to fill.
A year ago, the Utah Nonprofits Association switched from a 40-hour workweek to a 32-hour one with the same pay. The group had its best year in terms of the number of projects it undertook and revenue it brought in, says CEO Jill Bennett. While it had some employee turnover, it also attracted a record number of applicants who were drawn to the group’s commitment to provide staff with a balanced life. The National LGBTQ Task Force, an activist organization, faced such concerns about burnout that it gave staff three weeks off in February in recognition of years of urgent and overwhelming work. Other groups are shutting down for a week every six months, and another gave staff the week off before Labor Day, says David La Piana, a nonprofit consultant.
About 40 percent of the organizations surveyed by the National Council of Nonprofits reported that they tried to retain staff by implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion training — about the same share of groups that had increased benefits or offered bonuses. “I’m excited because that means [DEI] has been mainstreamed just like health care benefits or retirement benefits to attract and retain employees,” the National Council’s Thompson says. “Our data shows that it’s here to stay.”
Some leaders are working hard to shatter age-old damaging stereotypes about nonprofit work. Trilby Cox, co-executive director of Bike Utah, is sick of hearing that it’s O.K. to underpay nonprofit employees.
“We do not need to be overworked and underpaid in the nonprofit sector. We can be competitive like the private sector,” she says. “I’m going to work really hard in my little, tiny section of the world to start doing that.”
Bike Utah burned through CEOs every few years because of overwhelming job expectations, Cox says. Now she shares the role with someone else. They have complementary skills, which keeps the workload and expectations manageable. The number of employees has fallen from a dozen to six, in part because she wants to be more thoughtful about the work the organization does and the people it hires.
She says that in the past, the group’s work was often determined by the available funding. It then hired employees for specific projects, only to discover they weren’t necessarily loyal to the organization and its mission — which boosted turnover. Now she wants to do a better job of outlining the work she’d like the group to pursue and then finding ways to fund that work. In turn, she can recruit staff who are a good fit for both the immediate effort and the organization as a whole. She wants to take a team approach so employees are invested in the whole organization and its mission. As it staffs up in the future, she wants to make sure that the workload is sustainable and staff is paid appropriately.
“Burnout should not be a badge of honor,” she says. “We’re working hard to shift that culture in our organization. Happy employees will stay when they feel like they’re doing good work but they have that really good work-life balance.”