Nonprofit HR recently hosted its #RetentionMatters Roundtable event where HR leaders and practitioners from across the Washington, D.C. region discussed highlights from our most recent Nonprofit Talent Retention Practices Survey. Central to the discussion was how important it is to invest in staff and the need to design a solid retention strategy built on frequent employee engagement. Based on the survey findings, more than 80% of nonprofits do not have a formal retention strategy in place and this trend is consistent with the hurdles shared by Roundtable attendees. Most attendees shared common challenges that their organizations face in the absence of a formal retention strategy. Also discussed was the role of the CEO and how poor leadership contributes to low retention.

As questions were abuzz regarding how to improve retention, attendees were prompted to consider retention in the broader context of talent management: 

  • Attraction: How are you currently attracting talent? 
  • Development: How can you provide learning/growth opportunities to help develop and engage people in their current roles? 
  • Retention: What is contributing to your success in retaining or not retaining this talent? 

Gathering data through various methods emerged as the primary way to get answers to the above questions. Qualitative and quantitative data collected via stay interviews, engagement surveys, and pulse surveys were highlighted as a means to gather information needed for decision-making and strategy development. Other pointers offered included gathering data as frequently as necessary and making sure to identify people who represent a healthy sampling of the workforce (that is samples that include high and low performers and those who represent the full diversity of your staff). 

The stay interview was underscored as a cost effective method to gather rich data and insights needed to better understand the work environment and factors impacting its people. Other data collection tactics highlighted include integration interviews, such as 30, 60 and 90-day check-ins, as well as regular climate/culture surveys that monitor how employees are connecting with the team, office culture, and their performance. 

The “Skip-level Interview” was another retention tactic shared by a participant that received high interest. This data collection method is essentially establishing meetings that create a direct line of feedback and communication between lower-level staff and leadership. For example, allotting time for the CEO to meet with a group of employees at least one level, if not two or three levels below to talk about their issues and ideas. The participant, a human resources leader, shared that this type of engagement immediately affected the comfort of staff in their workplace. He also shared that it even affected the way members of staff interacted with one another. 

The benefits of these kinds of evaluative tactics provide valuable insights into the data collected from quantitative methods. Plus the benefits are two-fold. They allow leadership to gain a pulse of the workplace culture and help them understand the dynamics of the organization  — before people leave. They also help to reassure employees that they are being heard and that their voices matter. 

Since universal themes often emerge from data, practitioners were advised to focus in on the areas where action is actually proven necessary. That is, use data to pinpoint up to four areas to focus on and prioritize. For example, one of the highest drivers for voluntary turnover uncovered in Nonprofit HR’s retention survey is poor career quality. Open conversations with employees about upward mobility; their passion for the mission and their current and future roles in achieving it were offered as supporting tactics to keep staff engaged in the quality of the culture, their work, and their relationships. 

While quality data was a recurring theme throughout the conversation, it was also highlighted that it is not merely enough to collect information, but also that data should drive action from leadership. Some attendees shared concerns about helping CEOs and leadership teams understand the business case for creating a retention strategy and they were advised to focus on the data. Emphasis was placed on the importance of presenting the effects associated with poor retention such as financial and reputational threats. Turnover being costly and employees needing to be treated as assets, not collateral, were also points discussed. 

The event concluded with a conversation on reputation damage and how its can put an organization’s credibility and its ability to advance its mission at risk. In short, an investment in talent proves return and increases mission-impact. Correcting reputation damage can take all of a CEO’s time and a Board’s, too. These direct and indirect costs can be avoided through a sound retention strategy based on solid data. Using the tools discussed at the event, nonprofits are better positioned to assess, adjust and act.

To learn more about leadership’s role on nonprofit retention, see the Leadership Self-Assessment for Talent Retention: Eight Questions and Answers for the Mission-Driven Executive.

Lindsey Otto
Marketing & Communications Intern
Nonprofit HR