If you want a heartwarming movie to watch in these final days of summer, I highly recommend “The 33,” which is a real-life account of a mining disaster in Chile in 2010. Stories above and below ground intertwine to make the movie compelling and relatable. Ultimately, all 33 miners were saved after 69 days underground in difficult conditions. They went down miners and came up brothers after sharing this ordeal together.

While rarely as harrowing as the conditions these miners endured, our work in the social sector is often conducted in less-than-ideal conditions, many of which are outside of our control and can lead to secondary trauma. Yet, people join us because they have a heart for the work and believe that they will strike gold once in a while and make a real difference. In the early days of coal mining, miners would take canaries into mine tunnels with them. If dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide, were present, the gas would kill the canary, warning the miners to exit the tunnel. This practice gave rise to the saying, “canary in the coal mine.”

Lately, I have noticed that our metaphorical canary is looking rather ill. We have more people entering the social sector but exiting just as quickly. Some of this can be attributed to COVID and economic conditions, but we own this challenge and need to resolve it together. Some turnover is healthy. However, based on our combined years in the industry, my good friend, John Troy of WorkMonger, and I believe that our collective turnover rate as an industry is reaching dangerous levels and wanted to address it. We are not attracting or retaining the talent to deliver on the social change we need to make, which could lead to suffocating results. This deficit is particularly challenging for the social sector where, as we have documented, the single biggest driver of success is talent.

The cause of these rapid departures is two-fold. First, our collective turnover rate is increasing steadily every year.  A recent report by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that nonprofits experienced an all-time high of 19 percent turnover in 2022. This is higher than the industry average of 12 percent. The rate was even higher in nonprofits with annual operating budgets of less than $2 million – 25 percent. It also varied by issue area. Arts and culture organizations have the highest turnover rate – 35 percent. And domestic violence agencies are reporting turnover rates ranging from 27 to 36%. Because of this, more than 50% of nonprofit CEOs reported turnover as a serious problem for their organization.

Second, turnover is becoming more prevalent based on societal trends. We know that millennials will have more employers than their parents. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median tenure of baby boomers is 10 years, while it is only three years for millennials.

Although we can certainly hire replacements to fill open positions, we should still be concerned. Every departure results in at least temporarily diminished capacity and productivity. The organization also incurs expenses to rehire and retrain each position. One report suggests that this cost could be as much as $30,000, depending on the position, when all hard and soft costs are analyzed. To calculate the costs of turnover, the Aspen Institute has developed a handy tool with detailed instructions.

To address this pressing issue, we are calling on the social sector to add turnover rates to their strategic plan metrics and organizational dashboard, and to make an intentional effort to analyze and correct issues. We also suggest digging deeper and examining underlying rates – desirable and undesirable turnover. It is not always about how many, but sometimes about who leaves your organization. Desirable turnover is healthy – it is impossible to hire perfectly. You will occasionally make a bad hire, and it is important to take action when this happens. Not only does it free up a spot for a better performer, it can also help create a performance-oriented culture that is more supportive, challenging and engaging for the rest of the team. Alternately, undesirable turnover is not as healthy – it happens when people you would have kept, if given the opportunity, leave the organization. It includes reasons that are avoidable (e.g., better pay, cultural fit, leadership issues) and unavoidable (e.g., retirement, moving). You want to target, systematically avoid and mitigate these kinds of turnover – by hiring right the first time and retaining star employees by addressing their needs proactively. We have put together a visual to help you calculate your annual turnover rates.

At a healthy level, each of the rates should be 5-10 percent. In our next blog, we will address how to manage these rates and keep them in this healthy range. If we can collectively find, develop and retain talent in our organizations and collectively as a sector, we will have the resources to do the hard work and strike gold, creating breakthrough results for those we serve. We’d love for you to share your thoughts on nonprofit turnover and steps your organization is taking to help target and reduce undesirable turnover.


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