Three Keys to Managing Higher Turnover in the Not-for Profit Sector

Hint: Leaving doesn’t have to mean ‘Goodbye’


It’s not an easy life in the not-for-profit (NFP) world these days.  There is increasing pressure on revenues as a result of a sputtering economy combined with ever increasing donor fatigue as we concentrate more and more efforts on those who continue to give. Members are more demanding than ever for their associations to show true value, and unless legislated, no longer feel that membership is essential for their careers.


NFPs are reacting through a whole host of measures, including restructuring (read: layoffs), technological change, and change management. As a result, many not-for-profit employees are not only hit with job insecurity, they are seeing their world turned upside down with private sector management concepts and approaches in an attempt to contain administration costs.  Throughout all of this, employees are feeling less and less connected with the reason they work there in the first place: their commitment to “the cause”. The end result: more good people are leaving.


While in some cases, the doom and gloom I describe is not so stark, it is clear that most, if not all, of TalentMap’s clients in this space are experiencing very challenging times.


By the time an employee announces that they have decided to leave, we often think it’s too late. “Nothing we can do now except move on” is a refrain I often hear. But I’m here to tell you that nothing can be further from the truth. There’s lots we can still do to learn and improve our organizations, and hopefully, get that attrition under control. Here are three things every not-for-profit (and everyone else, for that matter) should be doing to manage those departures.


  1. Stay Interviews before they leave

photo-1-exit-survey-blogEvery organization has individuals which you’ve identified as “keepers”.  These are the ones whose departures will hurt the most. After all, if we’re restructuring, these employees are the ones we want to stay. Trouble is: they are very adversely affected by the challenges referred to above.  AND, they are also the most employable. Other organizations would love to have their commitment, dedication, and engagement.


Too often I’ve seen these employees taken for granted while we focus our energies on those who are leaving (essentially, covering our legal butts to make sure we don’t get sued). Important, yes, but so is ensuring we keep the good ones.


We need to understand what about the organization motivates our best employees, and we also need to identify any risks as soon as possible.


Stay interviews should be conducted by someone aside from the chain of command (HR, other department, or 3rd party consultant). Here are some key questions you can ask in that stay interview.

a) When you travel to work each day, what things do you look forward to?

b) What are you learning here?

c) Why do you stay here?

d) When was the last time you thought about leaving the organization? What prompted it?

e) What can we do to make your work experience better?


For more info see our previous blog



Stay interviews demonstrate to the employees that you value them and you are listening; which in and of themselves, are often reasons given for leaving.


  1. The Exit Survey


You’re probably reading this because too many good people have already left.   For them, it’s too late for the stay interview.  However, there are two key things you need to do to maximize any benefit from the individual’s departure, both for them and for the organization. Having them complete an exit survey is one of the first things you should be thinking about. First of all, notice that I use the term “survey” instead of “interview”.  There are a number of reasons that our experience shows that the seemingly impersonal survey is actually superior to an exit interview. Surveys are done in writing and anonymously, and so will be more objective. There are no biases in the interpretation of the survey findings. Even if the individual is very candid in an exit interview (usually with HR), the interviewer will unconsciously project their own biases in the interpretation of the findings: placing more emphasis on those issues where the interviewer agrees, and downplaying areas of disagreement.


Finally, the exit survey helps take some of the highly charged emotion out of the departure. While it may not “feel as good” if the employee doesn’t have the opportunity to finally getting everything off his/her chest – we have found this is actually good, since the highly emotional exit interview  usually gets discounted as “axe grinding”, and the learnings are lost.


In larger organizations, exit survey results also are much easier to compile and aggregate in order to provide reports and statistics to better understand attrition.


One final point about exit surveys: many organizations complain that few departing employees take the time to complete the surveys. True.  Here’s why: those same organizations don’t get the survey to the individual until after they have left – by which time they feel much less obligation to contribute their time. More importantly – they have mentally moved on. Fact: the response rate for exit surveys administered after departure: 25%. Before departure 57%. Ensure your departure process makes this a priority!


  1. After that? Welcome to the Organization’s Alumni Network!


So, your star employee has announced they wish to leave. What do you do? First, try and change his or her mind, of course. (A digression: by now it’s usually too late, as the employee has often wrestled with this for a long time before coming to their conclusion – they’re not about to be shaken. For those employees who say they are leaving for a promotion/money – in most cases “matching the offer” becomes a costly and very temporary solution that doesn’t address the real issues – more on that in another blog).


If you can’t change their mind (and the probability is high that you can’t) make sure they have ready access to that exit survey before they leave. Then, welcome them to your organization’s alumni network!  Although we use employee retention (or its corollary, attrition or turnover) as an indicator of success, this is increasingly unrealistic. [1] Instead, we need to view our relationships with good employees as a life-long affiliation.  In today’s world, there is no reason to have to say ‘good-bye’ to that person, and the experience and expertise lodged forever in their brain. Setting up an organization alumni network is easy, it’s cheap, and it’s beneficial for both organization and employee. The large majority of departing employees and alumni really like being part of an alumni network. They get to keep tabs and continue friendships (and don’t have to be clandestine about it). They can count on references and it strengthens their own personal brand and reputation. From your point of view in management or HR, alumni networks provide a corporate memory bank (“just message her on the LinkedIn page….she knows where the file is”), and did you know that exit surveys show that as many as 80% of departing employees would consider returning to your organization in the future: what a great recruiting tool!


So turnover is a reality. Life-long affiliation is the Goal, not retention. That being said, use stay interviews to pre-empt premature departures, use exit surveys to continually learn and improve, and set up that alumni network so you never have to say Good-Bye!




Norm Baillie-David, MBA, CMRP is Senior Vice President, Engagement at TalentMap, a North American leader in employee engagement for non-profits.

Interested in learning more about actions you can take in your organization?

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