It’s no secret that nonprofit organizations have traditionally had high turnover rates. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, many nonprofit and for-profit organizations had to close their doors (completely or partially), which resulted in job losses in great numbers. 

Some of the more fortunate employees who were offered the opportunity to work (fully or partially) on a remote basis were lucky enough to maintain their positions. Eventually, as life regained some semblance of normalcy and COVID rates dropped, many organizations left standing reopened with the expectation of a fully returning workforce. It’s unlikely that anyone, save Texas A&M University Associate Professor of Management Anthony Klotz, and perhaps a few others, saw The Great Resignation that was to come. Klotz, after all, coined that phrase. 

About two years ago, Klotz used the phrase “the Great Resignation” to describe a wave of mass resignations he predicted would occur as a result of four noticeable trends.

  • Many workers delayed leaving their jobs during the pandemic due to uncertainty 
  • Widespread burnout was reported among the workforce at large 
  • Workers were re-evaluating priorities and values 
  • Some workers were reluctant to give up remote work 

Not long after Klotz’s forecast, America’s employment sector saw firsthand the power behind his words and prediction. In November 2021 alone 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs with a yearlong total of 68.7 million, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. 

A year later the numbers haven’t changed much – with 4.2 million quitting their jobs in June 2022. These numbers look at the workforce as a whole but what’s important to note here is that the nonprofit arena is part of those statistics and certainly not immune to frightening labor statistics that impact us all. 

For a deeper understanding of the staffing challenges faced by nonprofit organizations, Qnotes spoke with Brian Collier, Executive Vice President for Foundation For The Carolinas (FFTC). The organization, founded in 1958, serves as a catalyst for philanthropic activity in a 13-county region and is a driver for major civic efforts. They offer innovative solutions that help individuals, nonprofits and companies achieve their charitable goals.  

Brian Collier, Executive Vice President for Foundation For The Carolinas. PHOTO CREDIT : Facebook

Part of Collier’s job at FFTC is ensuring that the foundation’s grants are effective while doing whatever needs to be done to make sure that nonprofit organizations have the capacity to carry out their work. Needless to say, staffing is a big part of that. 

Collier shared some disturbing observations gleaned from about six months of speaking and meeting with nonprofit organization leaders on staffing challenges. During the conversation he explained how people view the impact of what he called “Market Forces” (inflation, cost of goods, supply chain availability, salaries, benefits, rent and more) on for-profit businesses, but don’t understand how that impacts nonprofits. 

During a thorough synopsis of the situation, Collier explained, “For some reason many people think nonprofits are immune to some of the challenges other businesses face. The problem is a for-profit business can raise product or service prices or lay people off to compensate for market forces. A nonprofit organization can’t do that.”  

With many nonprofits falling into the category of human services providers, raising costs and layoffs aren’t a realistic option for them as they offer programs and facilities for meeting basic health and welfare needs for poor, sick, elderly or underserved communities. 

So why not just do some fundraising by soliciting donors?  According to Collier, donors don’t always understand the complexity of the issue. They have a hard time understanding how things like wage inflation impact a nonprofit’s bottom line. 

“In other words, it’s costing more to hire people, it’s costing more to retain people. In many cases, the nonprofit can’t compete with the benefits package a for-profit organization might be offering. 

“When you think about the opportunity that is being presented to some people in the nonprofit sector where they can work fewer hours, for better benefits, for better pay and can work in an office or even remotely, when you contrast that with longer hours, lower pay, fewer benefits and a job that usually requires them to listen to and work with people who are experiencing great challenges in their lives [such as high degrees of trauma and despair], it becomes very difficult for people to remain in the nonprofit sector, and I can’t fault them for making that decision even though our community is poor with the loss of these great people.”

He continued: “When a donor looks at the financials for a nonprofit, they immediately look at the salary lines and are critical of that, when they need to realize programs are run by people. Overhead and administrative fees are not bad words. They are essential to the effective running of a nonprofit. No [well run] business would function without a marketing department, but somehow, we’re always critical of a nonprofit when it comes to these things.”

What can be done? Are there any solutions?  Of course, there are. Though there aren’t any quick fixes, Collier did offer some guidance on how to stave off mass resignations and retain nonprofit employees. 

“First and foremost, awareness of the situation is paramount right now. I think a lot of people in the donor community, or the [for-profit] business community are unaware of the situation impacting nonprofit organizations. They’re aware of what’s happening in their own companies but sometimes don’t think of nonprofits as a business subjected to the same forces.”  

As one who is closely connected to grant funding, he encouraged a more creative approach to the solicitation and use of those funds, “…think about things like more unrestricted dollars, like grants that aren’t restricted to specific programs”

Collier’s final suggestion was one he called “not tangible” as it was directly connected to treating nonprofit leaders with respect. His how-to was simple, “Have them at the table when decisions are made, send the message that you value what they do. They just want to be treated with a level of respect for what they do. Our country has made the decision that nonprofits should provide a number of essential services for people, like housing and serving the homeless, but they don’t compensate those organizations at a level that is commensurate with that expectation. They’re forced to function day by day even though we have this expectation that they are the first line of defense in providing these services.”  

To those often unappreciated and overworked nonprofit leaders struggling to maintain staff while continuing to offer valuable services, Collier offered a gentle reminder, “The draw to nonprofit is always mission. If you’re drawn by mission and impact, a nonprofit has to figure out what is the best compensation package that can be put together. But I think we’ve created a scarcity mindset, wherein they’re almost afraid to suggest that their employees get certain benefits or they’re apologizing for offering their employees decent benefits and decent pay. 

“That mentality has to go away. Much of this responsibility rests with an organization’s board of directors. They should be encouraging the nonprofit leaders to put together compensation packages for their employees to ensure they can attract … the best of the best.”  

As staffing becomes more of an issue for nonprofits, so does the burnout suffered by leaders and remaining staff. That said, it’s important to note that benefits come in many non-monetary forms as well. Being encouraged and offered incentives that include self-care and a better work life balance are benefits many employees seek. In the end all suggestions combined offer great hope for retaining staff who are healthier, happier and more productive in serving those who need it most. 

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