This year marked my twenty-first year in the nonprofit sector. Over the past two-plus decades, I’ve had the privilege of calling hundreds of passionate, talented individuals my colleagues. (And many ended up dear friends.)
Like me, most of those folks entered the field to make a meaningful impact on causes they care about. They committed their weekdays—and frequently their evenings and weekends—to moving the needle on creating positive change for their communities and the broader world.
But many of my colleagues have struggled in their positions, at their organizations, and sometimes in the sector altogether. I’ve heard over and over again from these well-meaning individuals that they haven’t come close to having the impact they hoped for when they excitedly accepted that first role at that first nonprofit.
Those in my circle describe numerous challenges to staying motivated in their jobs. Many mention feeling overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. More specifically, my colleagues and friends often talk about things such as lack of investment in technology, which means more manual processes, duplicative work, and cross-checking (and often resolving discrepancies in) data in multiple systems. They very obviously feel siloed from others that they should more effectively collaborate with.
It turns out that my colleagues aren’t alone. Research conducted on nonprofit employee turnover describes others in the sector as having the same complaints. A Tech Impact report summarized 15 reasons why nonprofit staff members leave their jobs. Key among them: low salaries, excessive workloads, and a lack of professional development and growth opportunities.
Actively addressing such issues can be a big undertaking. Each nonprofit faces its own unique combination of retention challenges, and making inroads on them requires intent and follow through.
But with thoughtful consideration of employees’ experiences as well as the willingness to preemptively invest the time, energy, and (sometimes) financial resources into preventing turnover, organizations can save big in the long run.
Just how big? An Employee Benefit News article states:
“The Work Institute’s 2017 Retention Report estimates that turnover costs as much as 33% of a worker’s annual salary. When the formula is applied to the median salary of $45,000, the average cost of turnover per employee comes out to $15,000.”
Based on my experience, $15,000 represents a very significant amount for most organizations—a dollar figure that few organizations would want to waste on turnover, if they could help it.
Rejecting a “Make Do and Do Without” Culture
When it comes to proactively preventing nonprofit staff turnover, and saving up to one-third of a departing staff member’s salary in turnover costs, organizational leaders can often remedy key issues. Some changes, however, may be easier to make than others.
For example, increasing workers’ salaries or overhauling organizational culture takes significant resources, time, and energy. Not only that, but either one of those efforts involves not just the organizational staff, but other stakeholders such as board members and donors.
Other fixes are easier to make. In particular, improving efficiencies and effectiveness can go far in reducing employees’ feelings of being overwhelmed and limiting burnout.
A Bridgespan report highlighted what a big deal administrative shifts can make. The report described nonprofit employees working in a “make do and do without” culture. This referred to both capital resources as well as technological ones. As a Bridgespan interviewee remarked:
“Our systems are a patchwork job...we are always looking for the lowest-cost solution.”
This statement aligns with the experiences my colleagues and I have had at many nonprofit organizations. Frequently, the lowest-cost solution starts with the use of one software system; as needs change, that morphs into a constellation of systems. Such a patchwork often costs much more than a simpler, streamlined core solution: Not only are organizations paying costs associated with each individual system, but they’re paying for staff to do perform duplicate entry, rely on manual efforts instead of automated actions, develop and muddle through inefficient workarounds, and more. Sound familiar to you too?
Empowering Employees with Technology Solutions
For organizations struggling with stressed and overworked employees, administrative and operational troubleshooting may be the easiest way to ensure greater staff retention. One approach: Invest in streamlined technology solutions to reduce or eliminate existing complexities and bottlenecks created by current systems and workflows.
In recent months, I’ve written a great deal about how the right technology can create huge change for nonprofits. Today’s products go far to reduce inefficiencies and increase organizational effectiveness.
As I share in Nonprofit Software Solutions: 9 Reasons to Focus on Your Core and Nonprofit Software: Determining the Return on Investment (ROI) for Core Solutions, a solution that enables organizations to manage their core activities, such as accounting, constituent relationship management (CRM), and fundraising, can result in significant efficiencies. With software that’s well-designed to meet their needs, nonprofit staff save time and energy by:
- Streamlining workflows
- Developing and maintaining proficiency in fewer solutions
- Eliminating duplicative tasks, such as data entry into multiple solutions
- Increasing automation
- Maintaining a reliable system of record
- Easily accessing relevant and real-time information from other departments in a shared solution
Any one of these improvements can improve staff morale! The right technology solutions can impact staff retention in numerous ways.
Those efficiencies (and more) free up time, energy, and financial resources for work aligned with an organization’s mission, vision, and values. Employees are able to be more effective in their roles, and at the organization in general, because they can place greater emphasis on achieving goals, objectives, and outcomes.
Increasing efficiencies can further help a nonprofit to make the leap from one poised for high turnover to one that’s much more high-functioning by enabling:
- “Right-sized” workloads more appropriate to staff capacity and skill sets
- Increased development opportunities, including chances to “stretch”
- Improved morale, and likely improved organizational culture
A core technology solution that simplifies, streamlines, and connects staff and departments can also help facilitate:
- Improved leadership, with well-integrated roles, teams, and business lines
- Improved organizational vision, with real-time views of organizational health and short- and long-term plans
- Increased and improved internal communication
Furthermore, a nonprofit with a modern core technology solution can create an organizational culture in which employees thrive and grow. Not only does the software keep up with their needs and wants, but it can push them to be even more successful in their roles and careers. A development officer, for example, can leverage a core solution to plan, implement, and track an exciting new campaign. In addition to generating revenue for the organization, such a project allows that person to learn and advance professionally.
And, last but certainly not least, a core solution comes with a dedicated technology partner committed to the organization’s success. The vendor team works closely with the nonprofit to swiftly onboard staff and develop their competency in the software. Employees feel confident, proficient, and engaged in their and their team’s immediate and ongoing efforts.
4 Steps to Determine if Technology Can Help Prevent Turnover at Your Organization
An investment in a core solution requires careful consideration. But if your organization is threatened by employee dissatisfaction and turnover, the costs may warrant exploration of new technology.
Not sure if this applies to your organization? Below I suggest four steps that leadership can take to determine if a software solution might move the dial on retention at your organization.
Step 1: Assess the situation.
First things first: Determine if inefficient, ineffective technology is contributing to discontent. You can do so in numerous ways. Conduct a simple survey of your current employees, or request feedback be shared with you or another point person, such as a board or committee member (anonymously or otherwise). You might also review notes from past employees’ exit interviews or jot down comments you’ve heard from your staff over the years.
In soliciting feedback, you can ask open-ended questions such as, “How does our technology affect your productivity? Your happiness in your position?” You can also create simple quantitative assessments, such as, “On a scale of 1-5, how well does our technology promote efficient task completion? How well does it promote happiness in your position?” You might consider a combination of the two so that you can collect and report on satisfaction with the current systems and specific challenges.
Step 2: Get specific about the issues.
As part of your assessment, gather data on particular pain points. Consider asking questions such as:
- Which solutions work and which don’t?
- Where can systems be improved?
- How can work be simplified or streamlined?
- Specific to the technology needed for your role and responsibilities, what does the best-case scenario look like?
- What ideas do you have for advancements?”
Step 3: Determine your organization’s capacity to make changes.
If you and your team agree that your technology needs an upgrade, you’ll want to create a realistic plan for making that happen. First, determine what your organization can contribute to the selection and purchase of one or more new software solutions. Consider the financial resources you can allocate, as well as the time and talents your team has available. You may find that you can invest in a core solution immediately; you might also discover that you need a year or two to generate resources or create the necessary bandwidth. Remember to explore what opportunities technology vendors can offer to help with training and the implementation process. A top-notch vendor will support you throughout your transition, ensuring that you and your staff are set up for success.
Step 4: Outline and implement a plan.
Once you have a sense of what resources your organization can commit, make an organized effort to determine which technology can have the greatest impact on your staff, mission, and outcomes. Make it easy on yourself by using Evaluating Nonprofit Software: A Guided Workbook for Your Project, which includes project management templates, surveys, and checklists to help you plan your selection process. All of the tools can be used as-is or customized to your organization’s specific requirements.
Technology can play a big role in improving nonprofit staff retention. A core solution can create numerous efficiencies for employees, from streamlining workflows, to eliminating duplicative data entry, to automating tasks. Such efficiencies then allow staff more time, energy, and financial resources to commit to mission-focused activities…which is why most of them work in the field in the first place!
So before worrying about possible staff departures, or budgeting for the exorbitant costs related to turnover, first consider your team’s needs and whether a core solution might be an important investment for your organization. It could keep your most valuable assets excited and engaged, both today and in the long run.
This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.