Over the past two years, Americans have quit their jobs in record numbers. According to the U.S. Labor Department, 47.4 million people have left their jobs since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In November 2021, 4.5 million people quit their jobs, representing the highest monthly rate for a month since the federal government started tracking the statistic in 2000 (https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2022/number-of-quits-at-all-time-high-in-november-2021.htm). Many not-for-profit leaders were confident, amid rapid closure of programs and administrative offices, that allowing staff to safely work from home would increase engagement and staff satisfaction. This has not proven to be the case. According to the consulting firm Korn Ferry, many business leaders and human resources are noting that the largest pool of employees quitting is those doing remote work (https://bit.ly/3r5Npin). In addition, employees are increasingly leaving jobs without having another job lined up.

Inadequate compensation is not causing the phenomenon that is now alternately referred to as “The Great Resignation,” “The Turnover Tsunami,” or “The Big Quit.” Studies confirm that staff are leaving due to a pandemic-fueled evaluation of what they want out of work, a toxic corporate culture, a greater focus on personal life and well-being, a desire for more work schedule flexibility, and a perceived lack of professional development and growth opportunities (“Keep Your People: How to Navigate The Great Resignation,” Everything DISC, https://www.discprofile.com/CMS/media/doc/ed/keepyourpeople.pdf; Research conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review: “Toxic Culture is Driving the Great Resignation,” Donald Sull, Charles Sull, and Ben Zweig, MIT Sloan Management Review; “95% of Workers Thinking of Quitting Their Jobs, According to a New Survey,” Anna Coobin, https://bit.ly/36F030t). In some cases, staff are leaving due to the fear that the organization is not resilient enough to survive or disappointment in the organization’s poor response to COVID-19. Finally, many employees are just looking for a fresh start.

The Not-for-Profit Sector

Not-for-profit leaders are concerned about the current level of turnover because talent is the most crucial factor in an organization’s success. In addition, mass turnover negatively impacts the morale of the talent that opts to stay with an organization, as they are often required to assume additional responsibilities. Turnover also adversely impacts operations and continuity, and it is expensive when factoring in the costs associated with searching, onboarding, and training new staff. A good rule of thumb is that the cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary.

Not-for-profit organizations should recognize that they may have a problem and measure the significance of employee turnover. Organizations should seek to understand why staff are resigning. Communication is essential; it is critical for employers to listen to their staff and continually gather feedback. Staff surveys should be performed often. Although exit interviews provide insight as to why staff are leaving an organization, stay interviews can also help organizations discern actions that can be taken to convince employees to remain with an entity.

Not-for-profit organizations should view this disruption in the workforce as an opportunity. Not-for-profits can have an advantage in an environment where people are rethinking their careers and want to partner with an organization that has a purpose. In this way, not-for-profit organizations have a recruiting advantage over the for-profit sector. Organizations should promote their caring culture and mission, invest in branding, and strive to be a “go-to” organization. How an organization is rated on sites such as Glassdoor really does matter. An organization’s ability to integrate diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) strategies into its culture is important to its ability to engage and retain staff.

Remote work is here to stay. A hybrid workforce model is essential to retaining and recruiting talent going forward. Employers should offer a hybrid work-force model—which is no longer a reward but rather the workforce model of the present and the future. The hybrid workforce model offers numerous benefits for both staff and organizations, including positive health benefits from reduced commuting time and an opportunity for employers to recruit skilled staff outside their traditional metropolitan area. Employers should not only offer flexibility as to where people work, but also when people work. Allowing employees to tailor their schedules can also help mitigate turnover. It is worth noting that many not-for-profit organizations operate in a “high-touch” environment that may present unique challenges to a remote workforce. A large percentage of not-for-profit jobs cannot be done at home; this is especially true for social service organizations that provide critical services to the people they support. This may cause tension between those employees whose jobs can be conducted anywhere and employees whose roles require human contact. Employers should recognize the equity challenge inherent in a hybrid workforce model and consider providing more paid time off and offering subsidies for such items as transportation, child care, or elder care to those employees who cannot work remotely.

Employers need to have a sharp focus on employee wellness. Burnout is prevalent in a hybrid work model, as staff struggle to establish boundaries between their personal and professional lives. Preventing burnout is necessary to reducing turnover. Many studies show that people are unhappy with the amount of time they devote to their personal lives. Not-for-profit leaders should encourage staff to disconnect, support the use of vacation time, and assure employees that it is okay to take a guilt-free break. Leaders should inquire with staff often about how they are feeling, recognizing that it is difficult to assess how staff are really doing during a Zoom meeting.

Showing genuine support for employee professional development is important. Growth opportunities can be in in the form of lateral job moves, promotions, or the opportunity to work on a special project. Investments in training, coaching, and mentorship are paramount. Forums to publicly recognize and acknowledge staff should be created. The power of the “thank you” should not be underestimated.

In the current environment, employers need to realize that turnover is inevitable and the competition for talent is intense. Employers should make every effort to retain their “rock stars.” Recruiting strategies that aren’t delivering should be reexamined. Raising pay may not be an option, but organizations should increase hire-in rates if possible. Long-term compensation strategies should be developed and implemented; for example, rather than offering a one-time signing bonus, why not try to increase the base salary of the open position? In addition, consider offering benefits such as child-care, increased paid time off, reimbursement for education expenses, and generous medical and dental benefits.

Expanding the candidate pool to alumni workers, retirees, and military veterans can be a recruiting tool. Referral programs are remarkably effective. Hiring practices should value curiosity and a willingness to learn, even over career history and experience. Another option is to drop traditional qualifications and remove probationary periods. Ensure that candidates have a positive interview experience; a candidate is unlikely to accept a job if they are treated poorly during the interview process. Emphasize workplace safety during the interview process.

A Challenging Time

Excessive staff turnover and the fierce competition for talent are tremendous challenges for many not-for-profit organizations. To overcome these challenges, not-for-profits should showcase their mission and brand, and embed DEIB and ESG into their corporate culture. In addition, not-for-profits should offer workplace flexibility, focus on employee wellness, invest in employee growth and professional development, and create and implement new recruitment strategies.

Amy West, CPA, CGMA is executive vice president and chief financial officer of AHRC NYC, New York, N.Y.