Focus Groups Recap: What Nonprofits Are Saying About Talent Retention

Focus Groups Recap: What Nonprofits Are Saying About Talent Retention

Over 500 organizations weighed in on the 2021 Nonprofit Talent Retention Practices Survey and the data revealed that 70% of respondents expected their turnover rate to increase or remain the same from 2020 to 2021. Why is this? We set out to look beyond the numbers and hosted two focus groups on the topic of nonprofit talent retention. Our aim was to supplement our survey findings and hear directly from organizations across the sector, of varying missions and sizes, on their experience with retention as well as to share this information with the social impact community.

Specifically, our primary objective for hosting these focus groups was to better understand what steps organizations are taking to help retain talent. Our secondary objective focused on understanding the unique challenges and opportunities organizations have encountered in their endeavor and how they are planning to address them. The 2022 Nonprofit Talent Retention Practices Survey respondents were invited to participate in these focus groups. Each focus group held consisted of approximately 12-20 participants. Both sessions were led by Nonprofit HR’s CEO, Lisa Brown Alexander and Managing Director, Strategy & Advisory, Lori Kipnis.                                                                                                                                                                    

What Nonprofits Are Seeing 

We heard from our discussions that in most organizations, boards have become at least aware of the impact of talent retention. If this wasn’t initially the case, the Great Resignation has increasingly brought retention strategies to the forefront as a priority. Namely, organizations have begun to see and monitor how turnover is impacting their service delivery.                                               

What Nonprofits Are Doing

Some organizations have used this knowledge to take action to better support the needs of their employees by creating growth opportunities for staff. Ultimately, what organizations are most concerned with is attracting, retaining and developing their people, whether that be through management training or expanding their learning and development programs. This focus is fitting, as the survey data also showed that a lack of opportunity for upward mobility/career growth is the number one cause for voluntary turnover in nonprofits.

Many organizations shared their views and initiatives regarding retention and development opportunities, specifically as it pertains to creating intentional, strategic manager training and leadership development.

One focus group participant created a committee for retention in their organization because they saw the need to provide more supervisor training as a means of reducing turnover. These training programs ranged from basic skills through coaching and performance management to better build relationships with staff and create a caring work environment. Similarly, other responses from participant organizations included holding quarterly supervisor training sessions, equipping supervisors with the same tools as leadership and establishing organization-wide norms to ensure the employee experience remained aligned with the mission and consistent across the organization. 

Nonprofits are also seeing the connection between employee retention and empathy in leadership. For example, a participant from a small-sized organization shared that a contributing factor to greater employee retention was the CEO’s continuous communication with staff every week, discussing issues of race and empathy. Another participant shared that despite experiencing high turnover, they heard from staff that a primary driver for retention during the pandemic was good management.

On the Formal Retention Strategy

Several focus groups participants indicated that their individual organizations did not have a formal retention strategy and candidly shared their challenges and other considerations regarding retention. For instance, the greatest barriers to creating and implementing a formal strategy was a lack of knowledge, expertise and/or budget.

Our community also shared that people leaving their organizations continued to impact the HR workload, increasing the loss of organizational knowledge and pulling down morale. This is no secret, as our survey data shows that decreased morale was the most significant impact on turnover. And while it seems leadership has seen the financial impact of attrition on their organizations to a degree, based on the aforementioned obstacles, our participants shared that it can become a matter of “choosing your battles.” 

Alternate Retention Tactics: How Are You Keeping the People You Want to Keep?

Realigning Culture Around Values: Common retention methods included offering perks and incentives outside of an overall strategy, such as discounts on hotels, concert tickets, outdoor activities, etc. This is an effective way to communicate to your employees that you value their lives outside of work, especially if this sentiment is in alignment with your organization’s values. A separate response highlighted the importance of intentionally bringing values to the forefront, through an organization-wide retreat, for example, and keeping them ever present as a retention strategy. Actively looking for opportunities to bolster your organization’s values in a way that will enrich your workplace culture, allowing you to attract and retain employees who are in alignment with those values.

Transparency and Equity: Some participants also shared that creating equitable organizational policies with retention in mind from the beginning, and being transparent about that process was an effective method as well. For instance, one participant shared that their organization examined what is required to attract and retain employees when putting together a compensation package. Another organization implemented retention measures in conjunction with a DEI strategy, influenced in the various geographic regions in which they work. This particular organization focused on being equitable and transparent, creating a policy in each region and gathering data on the effectiveness of each. With a focus on flexibility, they prioritized creating HR policy that was equitable, fair and transparent by defining what those terms meant to the organization.

Listening and Communication: There are many ways organizations can foster listening, communication and further, an understanding of staff. Ensuring staff feel heard is a powerful tool which, from a retention perspective, can foster a healthy culture of feedback and enable employees to feel more connected and aligned not only with each other, but also with the mission.

One participant shared that a professional development program, previously created as a result of what staff requested, was sidelined due to the pandemic. The organization took the initiative to continue providing virtual learning opportunities, such as webinars, to continue staff skill development. In addition, they moved to a telecommuting policy to work only one day in-person each week and made a commitment to open lines of communication with staff to periodically evaluate the effect of that change. In this way, the organization focused on listening to staff on what they want and need and establishing touchpoints.

In the same vein, surveys and requesting feedback can be a very effective way to hear from staff regarding what they need, which can positively impact retention. In fact, 82% of organizations indicated the use of surveys as a qualitative retention tactic. Below are a few more examples of what our focus group participants shared around improving retention by actively listening to and gaining feedback from staff:

  • Implementing a yearly engagement survey and creating three to four objectives to prioritize based on the results: The organization then realigned based on those results, in addition to conducting pulse surveys in between to get feedback on if staff saw the changes implemented. 
  • Focusing on sharing feedback from exit surveys with managers to foster improvements and course correct. 
  • Meeting regularly with staff and asking for feedback in terms of what they needed to feel safe: This organization heard staff wanted to shift from fully remote work to a hybrid model, working in the office one to two days a week, with additional benefits. 
  • Creating a line item budget for professional development and presenting it to its boards: The budget was two-pronged, both organization-wide and team-based. This led to the development of internal seminars for senior management held seminars with lower management to host discussions on topics around managerial interactions and relationships.
  • Hosting 30-minute weekly sessions for staff for meditation or movement: Staff at this organization received it well, and the participant noted that it is important to look around at the unique people who make up your organization, determine who is missing and tailor strategies to reflect those goals.
  • Conducting a Did You Know? campaign as a means of providing information to staff, in which the organization reviewed facts about benefits and other offerings. 

Bridge the Information Gap: As previously noted, the information gap is a primary obstacle for organizations looking to create a formal retention strategy. Bridging this gap can feel like a large undertaking, especially for nonprofits that have a small HR function  or none at all. Additionally, a participant disclosed a barrier for their organization was not knowing what to do with retention data once it was collected. This is essential: If your organization is collecting feedback from staff, thinking through and being prepared to respond, whatever that feedback may be, is critical as it can greatly impact trust

Both transparency and communication play a large role in this process. If your organization is seeking resources to help guide decision making around retention practices and successful strategies, our annual Nonprofit Retention Practices Survey can help benchmark your nonprofit’s practices against those across the social sector.


Seeking HR support around talent retention? Contact our Strategy & Advisory practice to gain guidance around identifying, preparing and executing effective retention strategies for your unique workforce.

Seeking more social sector knowledge? Nonprofit HR is a widely recognized as a leader in gathering data and developing talent management resources for nonprofit leaders and human resources professionals. Visit nonprofithr.com/knowledge-insights to access our latest research.

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