Why employees leave: Retention strategies for nonprofits

I recently heard a story about an employee who received a very enthusiastic call from a headhunter trying to recruit him for a job. The employee said he wasn’t looking to leave the organization, to which the headhunter replied, “You are on my list of employees to be downsized, so you will be leaving the organization.”

I hear stories like this on a regular basis. Many employers badly betray the loyalty of good employees, yet developing employee loyalty and holding onto good employees will be crucial for all employers in the next ten years. The number of people born between 1960 and 1980 who are in the workforce is half the size of those born between 1940 and 1960, as well as of those born between 1980 and 2000. This shift from having enough employees to too few will hit nonprofits especially hard, as they struggle to compete against the private sector that can pay more for the best employees.

The good news is that retaining employees isn’t expensive or complex. And, in the nonprofit sector, most employees work to support the vision and mission of the organization, not for extrinsic rewards. The main reason employees leave an organization is bad relationships. Employees will stay when the quality of their supervision is good, and they will leave when they feel mistreated by their immediate supervisor. Symptoms of a poor supervisor include high turnover in the supervisor’s area, complaints of mistreatment to Human Resources, or more absenteeism in that supervisor’s area. Supervisors are often promoted because they were good at their last job, not necessarily because they make good managers. If a supervisor isn’t strong, find other work for that person that takes advantage of his or her skills. Or, spend time developing the supervisor’s management skills.

Employees in all sectors report higher retention rates when their employer values and rewards them for who they are rather than for what they do. Employers can show that they value who an employee is by providing training, opportunity for advancement, work/life flexibility, feedback and communication. Does your organization set individual goals with employees and then provide the support and training needed to meet those goals? Once the employee begins to achieve those goals, is there opportunity for advancement? This can mean a promotion as well as the opportunity to take on other, more meaningful work—which is often rated as a high motivational factor for employees. These practices are neither revolutionary or expensive, but they are proven to hold onto employees. Here are a few suggestions for developing some of them:


Organizations can’t communicate too often. Employees want to feel that they are “in the loop.” An employee should never hear about a layoff from a headhunter or the local media. Instead, use whatever internal mechanisms you have—email, voice mail, the employee newsletter, bulletin boards and meetings—to tell employees what is happening. This doesn’t mean you divulge information that is sensitive. Determine what you can tell—and then tell, tell, tell.


Employees crave positive feedback, and most don’t get much. Studies report that for every four items of “corrective feedback” employees get, they only receive one pat on the back. While employees deserve to know when they are missing the mark, one rule of thumb is to turn those numbers around and praise an employee four times for every one piece of corrective feedback. You will be amazed at what a difference in morale this creates.


Be as flexible as you can. Can you have employees work a flex schedule, where some employees report to work early and others stay later? Can you have some employees work at home one day a week, or can you pay for one extra holiday a year? Employees report higher retention rates at organizations where employers help them balance their work and personal lives.

Quality relationships

Employees also report that the quality of their co-worker relationship is an important consideration for staying with an employer. There is often a correlation between high productivity and cohesive work groups. Make sure you have a well-established problem resolution process. If you see a work group floundering, consider using an internal or external facilitator to help the group move beyond what is keeping them stuck.

Retaining employees reduces turnover costs and allows you to hold on to the talent that makes your organization unique. Retention strategies don’t need to be expensive; they just need to be implemented and supported.

See also:

Winning with a Culture of Recognition

Nine Minutes on Monday: The Quick and Easy Way to Go from Manager to Leader

Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity

Leave a reply

Welcome! Please provide your log-in information below.
Forget your password?
Enter your email or user name and your log-in information will be sent to the email on file.