Social Service Organizations-Turn Staff Turnover on its Head


by Pete Kimbis

The reality we must accept, and not bemoan, is that social service nonprofits cannot compete with for-profit corporate salaries and benefit packages. Social service employers would like to pay employees what they are worth. They would if they could. There is a public assumption that those who work for the common good should be paid less than their private sector counterparts. Why is this?

According to the Foundation Center’s latest published statistics, giving from U.S. foundations for the year 2015 was $62,793,608,844; yet, salaries remain low. Dan Pallotta poses some interesting and controversial questions regarding how charities should operate in his TED Talk, “The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong.”

“We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people… you want to make $50 million selling violent video games to kids, go for it… we’ll put you on the cover of Wired Magazine… but you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you are considered a parasite yourself.”
– Dan Pallotta

Our natural go to question is, “How can we prevent turnover in the nonprofit social service sector?” Maybe that is not the right question for the problem.

We do not operate by private sector rules, so why should we compete with private sector measurements? Let’s flip the script. Do not try to solve the problem of employee turnover. Turnover assumes negativity. Focusing on negativity will yield negative results. Focus on the positive. Focus on graduating your talent.

Do you remember the common goal of almost every nonprofit? The ideal outcome is to have zero clients to serve because there is no more need. This same thinking applies to those focused on solving these same social needs.

Consider hiring and managing staff members with the intention to provide them a fantastic experience while training and equipping them to outgrow your organization.

Create a culture where it is understood that talented professionals have a future above and beyond your organization.

We cultivate relationships with those who take an interest in our dreams and build us up, not those who tie us down.

Develop your talented professionals to lose them. If they leave, that’s OK. If they stay, that’s OK, too.

Why on earth would anyone volunteer for the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or Teach for America?

According to GlassDoor, people who volunteer for the Peace Corps make an average of $4,500 per year. Peace Corps volunteers travel to work in remote and impoverished places.

AmeriCorps members work long hard hours in areas of great need, yet they cannot exceed $12,000 a year in income. School districts most in need do not pay top dollar to first-year teachers. According to Sandra Y. L. Korn, an editor at The Harvard Crimson, Teach for America “has quickly become one of the most popular destinations for Harvard seniors after graduation.”  The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Teach for America are opportunities that have prestige. They are time-limited, exclusive and impressive. They all:

* Offer talented people the chance to be part of something greater than themselves.

* Provide the experience of working with like-minded, bright and dedicated people.

* Promise to be experiences of a lifetime.

We live in a world of experiences, not things. How do you make a member of your organization’s experience the best it can be? Here are some things you can offer that many private sector companies do not:

  1. Understanding
  2. Acceptance
  3. Recognition
  4. Respect
  5. Access to experiences beyond the ordinary
  6. Education
  7. Training

Help your team work towards getting new jobs based on the experiences and opportunities you provide.

Understand what gives satisfaction to staff members. Help them grow out of your organization, and make room so someone new can experience what you have to offer.

Do this with kindness, good intention and transform your company culture. Even if you fail, you will win. You will have started the valuable process of cultural evaluation.

Turn turnover on its head where it belongs. Get creative. Transform your team experience, and create a desirable culture. It will not happen overnight, but does anything of lasting substantial value happen overnight?

Let me rephrase this in a language we all understand: will you commit today to improve the lives of hard-working people within your community?

They need your help. They cannot do it without you.