Why do NPO employees quit?

Two recent publications from the American NPO, Unemployment Services Trust (UST), will undoubtedly ring true with the South African non-profit sector as well. The 2015 Nonprofit Employee Engagement and Retention Report, and the spinoff article, 6 Reasons Why your NonProfit Employees Quit, should be required reading for HR directors.

Both publications are available as free downloads from the UST website.

Why do NPO employees quit?

High staff turnover is a chronic problem in the non-profit sector. Many organisations resign themselves to this fate, lamenting perhaps that they simply can’t afford corporate pay scales necessary to retain staff. Consider however, that losing an employee costs money, and more, to the organisation. Not only does it cost money to recruit, hire and train new staff, the loss in productivity and institutional knowledge can be crippling to your ability to achieve your mission.

So, why do employees quit?  The study cites these reasons:


1.  Organisational Culture Isn’t Clearly Tied to the Mission

Culture, mission, and purpose are key drivers of satisfaction. Clearly articulating and communicating your organisation’s mission to your staff is crucial. Do you make sure that all staffers understand your mission? You might be surprised how many NPO employees cannot state, in simple terms, what their organisation actually does. If the organisational goal is not clear to its employees, how can they possibly gain a sense of satisfaction from their work?

And just in general, are employees treated in a way that is consistent with the organisation’s mission? For example, if an NPO claims represent the interests of the impoverished and unempowered, the fact that the cleaning staff are earning less than a living wage could send an unsavory message.

2. Hiring the Wrong People

While a candidate may look great on paper, it’s just as important to find someone who is a good fit for the organisation’s office culture.  The report makes clear that an employee’s passion must align with your organisation’s purpose.  That way you’ll find like-minded employees who want to come to work each day—and want to work with one another.

3. Compensation is Below a Living Wage

Most employees understand they sacrifice at least some earning potential to work in the sector, but paying a fair wage goes a long way towards higher job satisfaction. Sadly, some NPOs don’t even pay a decent living wage (particularly ironic given the mission and mandate of a typical NPO). Granted, you may not be able compete with corporate pay, but you can leverage other perks that contribute to a better quality of life, such as flexible hours, more leave, an enjoyable workplace, and a sense purpose.

4. Employees Are Stressed Out

"Burnout." Stress has a direct statistical correlation to higher rates of turnover.  Indeed, South Africa has its particular stresses. Perhaps this will sound familiar: Due to the competitive funding environment in this country of late, you were forced to scale back.  As staffers are retrenched or not replaced, the organisation heaps more job responsibilities on those who remain. By the time you finally decide to make a new hire, your job description is a composite of several jobs with little relation to each other, and quite likely for one low salary.

Considering all the collateral costs of staff turnover, at some point it becomes more cost-effective to hire more staff and reduce the stress-inducing workload.

5. Employees Don’t Receive Training

Good employees want to know they are making a contribution. Job training is not merely about employee development; it reinforces a sense of worth. Sure, training can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.  Good procedural documentation, peer training, and online training are low cost ways to keep training in house.

6. Leaders Aren’t Leading

The UST report shows that one of the strongest predictors for employee job satisfaction is quality of communication from supervisors. But that communication needs to go both ways. Employees want to be heard, and feel as though their feedback is respected. 

Job satisfaction is closely tied to feelings of personal and professional growth. It is important then, for good managers to invest time mentoring staff, either formally or informally.  Developing professional and leadership skills from within will ultimately help both the employee and the organisation alike.

So why do people work in the non-profit sector? Those surveyed cite the following:

     1. Strong affinity for the organisation’s mission or purpose

     2. Culture or workplace environment

     3. Flexibility/work-life balance

     4. Sense of purpose in their work

     5. Benefits and/or perks

For many, working for an NPO is as much about lifestyle as it is about pay.  Appropriately leveraging these lifestyle goals with your employees will go a long way toward keeping them happy and productive at your organisation.

UST is a California based non-profit whose purpose is to help nonprofit organizations manage and reduce their unemployment costs. The Nonprofit Employee Engagement and Retention Report is a survey of 1,300 nonprofit employees and their supervisors.