Dear Nonprofiteer, Easy come, easy go?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I’m sitting in my office composing a job description for our program director position–for the third time in as many years.  No matter how I tweak the description, I seem to bring in people who won’t stay around long enough to be useful.  Our work can be exhausting–we serve people with disabilities in residential and non-residential settings–but don’t you think people who aspire to direct programs at a disabilities agency would expect that?  And before you ask, I don’t yell and scream at my staff.  So why can’t I keep them? 

Signed, Seduced and Abandoned

Dear Seduced:

There’s nothing the matter with the job description–it’s working fine, or you wouldn’t have been able to attract three program directors in three years.  The thing to investigate is the job itself.

You don’t say what your errant program directors go on to do, or what they tell you about why they’re leaving.  (Are you doing exit interviews?  If not, you should start–it’s the easiest way to diagnose persistent employment problems.)  Here are a few possibilities, though:

If they’re leaving to take Executive Director positions at other agencies, mazel tov–you’re hiring good staff and developing them brilliantly.  The "problem" may simply be that you’re so well-established yourself: capable people who want a road to the top have to find it outside your door.  To combat this, probe your new Program Director’s ambitions and share with her your own career plans.  If you can give her some reasonable hope of succeeding you before she’s too old to care, you can certainly keep her; if not, you can offer to serve as her mentor as she tries to develop Executive Director skills.  This sounds altruistic but isn’t, really: people feel loyalty to mentors and are reluctant to leave them.  More important, the more people know about what it means to be an Executive Director, the more hesitant they are to take that leap.  Give your ambitious new Program Director a real taste of fundraising, Board management, government compliance and other administrative issues, and see how readily she returns to the trenches!

But if they’re making lateral moves, you need to do an unflinching comparison of labor conditions at your shop with those at your peer agencies. 

  • First, are you paying market rate?  If not, go to your Board and explain the costs of constant turnover: direct (advertising dollars and your time) and indirect (tasks not getting done).  Boards often find it hard to grasp that low salaries are a false economy because of the turnover they promote.  Start re-educating your Board now, before you hire another person who’s going to feel undervalued as soon as her first cable bill arrives.
  • Are you offering competitive benefits?  These don’t all have to cost cash–release time for professional development, for instance, is both cheap and highly valued by educated employees– but if you’re not paying health insurance and your competitors are, you’re going to lose senior staff.  Only the very young (a/k/a immortal) will go without health insurance for long.
  • What are the Program Director’s working conditions like?  The two greatest enemies of nonprofit job satisfaction are isolation and a sense of being out of control; so address them.  Isolation: (a) If your Program Director works a non-standard schedule, have you figured out a way to connect her regularly to the rest of the senior staff so she knows she’s not out there alone?  (b) Does she have access to a peer group–program directors at other
    agencies, say–for regular reality checks and venting?  Lack of control:  Are the Program Director’s hours utterly unpredictable, or does she feel/know/believe that she’s managing her time instead of its managing her?  Remember that any field dominated by women, like nursing or social services, must take into account their disproportionate family obligations; and as the hospitals have learned that means negotiated and predictable scheduling.  You may not be in a position to provide other family-friendly benefits such as child care, but you can at least offer advice about child care options.  Sometimes just recognizing an issue will defuse it in the employee’s mind.
  • Is there a problem employee in the Program Department, or is there something in the arrangement of program employees that makes them particularly hard to manage?  If every program employee has a primary loyalty to his residential facility or his supervisor, your Program Director will feel (and be) disempowered and her experience of management will be discouraging.  Make sure you haven’t set up mini-empires for her to deal with: the Program Director needs to be king, not ambassador.
  • Finally, make sure you’re not the one who’s seducing and abandoning.  Are you providing feedback on a regular basis to these here-today, gone-tomorrow Program Directors?  (Annual evaluations aren’t nearly enough–especially in nonprofits where it’s common to ask people to complete their own evaluations while making the size of their raise dependent on its contents.)  A common mistake by overwhelmed Executive Directors when they hire competent people is to say "Deal with it" and go back to their own worries.  Schedule a weekly meeting with your new Program Director (and every other one of your direct reports), and spend that hour every week reviewing what they’re doing, what they want to do, what they’re worried about and how you can help.  You’ll find that loyalty grows and turnover declines.  If such meetings feel like an interruption to your real job, then you haven’t yet grasped the essential difference between being part of the senior staff and being the chief executive. 

Good luck. 

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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Easy come, easy go?”

  1. Sam Davidson Says:

    This is great advice. Thanks for being so detailed.

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