High employee turnover is a serious problem that has serious consequences. It costs money. It diminishes productivity, effectiveness, and morale. It negatively impacts stakeholder confidence and external relationships. In the nonprofit sector, this can have significant implications for fundraising. And those consequences are often magnified because the highest turnover in the nonprofit sector occurs within fundraising departments.
With the Olympic Games taking place in Beijing over these few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the eight years that I spent working for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). I’ve been thinking about some of the positive, productive, and even innovative ways in which the IOC has approached some critical issues. One such issue is the problem of turnover. The strategy it settled on offers some noteworthy lessons for nonprofits that could have a profound positive impact on fundraising.
The turnover problem
Turnover is a long-running problem within fundraising. The data bears that out. Consider:
- The average stays in a job for 16 months.
- 50% of development chiefs have spent less than two years in their current position.
- 40% of all fundraisers are looking for a different job right now.
- 40% of all fundraisers are contemplating leaving the field entirely.
It’s worth noting that the data shows that not all of that turnover is the fundraisers’ own choice:
- 50% of development chiefs don’t expect to last another year in their current roles, either by their own choice or someone else’s.
- 25% of nonprofit leaders reported that they fired their last development chief.
Most efforts to mitigate this problem can be called by a single name: employee retention. But accessing the effectiveness of those efforts requires significant nuance for at least two reasons:
- You actually don’t want to retain every employee. But terminating employees that you no longer want or need still contributes to the turnover problem.
- Your perspective is always limited as to what motivates an employee to stay or leave a job as there are any number of reasons that people make career changes that are unrelated to the employer. While that has always been true, it is likely to be even more pronounced as the pandemic subsides and people reevaluate every aspect of their lives including where they live and work.
An exercise in total turnover
Imagine an institution with a turnover problem so extreme that many of its most important jobs are always in the hands of people who have never done them before. Now imagine that the conventional solutions to addressing that problem are not an option for this institution. Now imagine that this institution is, by many standards, highly successful and continuously growing.
That’s the Olympics. It’s the world’s largest event. It’s humanity’s most enduring tradition. And it’s an exercise in total turnover.
The organizing committee, which is responsible for most aspects of staging the Olympics, has more than 3,000 staff members on the ground right now making it happen. Nearly every job is being done by someone who has never done it before and will never do it again. Since the Games will move to another part of the world years from now, the one thing that seems to be the universally accepted and recommended solution for turnover—employee retention programs—cannot even be tried.
How can this enterprise succeed from one edition to the next? The answer is that the Olympic movement has found an unconventional solution to the problem of turnover. It’s a solution grounded in basic communications.
The Olympic solution
From 1998 through 2006, I worked for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the relatively small organization in Switzerland that oversees the ongoing Olympic movement. It happened to be one of the most successful eras in Olympic history. Each edition of the Games brought notable growth: more countries participating, more sports on the program, larger broadcast audiences, a doubling of broadcast revenue, and a threefold increase in sponsorship revenue.
While the IOC guides the worldwide Olympic movement over time, it’s the organizing committee in the host city that is responsible for doing most of the work to stage an Olympic Games. As noted earlier, that committee has thousands of staffers who have never done the job before and will never do it again. Since employee retention from one Games to the next would not be possible or even desirable, the IOC takes an unconventional step to overcome the built-in problem of turnover.
The solution? Don’t retain people. Retain knowledge.
The IOC created a project to capture and transfer knowledge from one Games to the next. The project amounted to writing stuff down, and that’s why I was involved. At the time, I was the communications specialist in the IOC’s revenue-generating arm. Our group was responsible for things like branding, marketing, and sponsorships. We were the functional equivalent of an advancement office.
I was charged with researching and writing a collection of documents—manuals, guides, handbooks—on a range of issues including sponsor communications, brand protection, and media partnerships. This was the IOC’s way of providing a road map of knowledge and best practices to the novice organizers in a new host city. If one organizing committee created a new best practice, we’d update the road map.
It was a simple concept, requiring only a modest investment to ensure the value of the Olympic brand and the quality of the Olympic experience for key stakeholders, general audiences, and the world.
Advice for retaining knowledge
There are a number of ways that nonprofit institutions can capture knowledge. Of course, one approach is to leverage an effective database. However, in some cases, a simple set of documents might be better suited for preserving certain kinds of knowledge.
One such kind of knowledge focuses on processes. Maybe it’s the process for organizing a tour for your performing arts company. Maybe it’s the process for staging your annual gala. Maybe it’s the process for launching a new season, a new exhibition, or a new president. For any process, I recommend including some variation of the following 10 components:
- Goals: What’s the point of this process?
- Importance: What is the relationship between this process and the mission?
- Stakeholders: Who is involved in and who is affected by key decisions related to this?
- Considerations: What factors need to be considered during planning and implementation?
- Resources: What assets are drawn on during planning and implementation?
- Responsibilities: Who has responsibilities and deliverables related to this project?
- Protocol: Are there any official procedures or systems to which you must adhere?
- Standards: Are there any minimum requirements that must be met?
- Recommendations: Are there any anecdotal notes on what is key to effectiveness?
- Timelines: What’s the schedule of steps in the process, leading up to the deadline?
Another kind of knowledge focuses on programs. This information is often captured somewhere within the organization, such as marketing collateral, grant narratives, or other resources. But, for the purposes of transferring knowledge, I believe that a simple and clear document on each program that includes the elements listed below can be more helpful:
- Description: What actually happens in this program?
- Goals: What’s the intended outcome of the program?
- Importance: What is the relationship between this program and the mission?
- Constituencies: Who and how many are served by the program itself?
- Need: What is the demonstrated need for this program’s existence?
- Stakeholders: Who else has an interest in the program’s success and impact?
- Distinction: In what way is your organization distinctly suited to deliver this program?
- Providers: Who delivers this program, and what makes them special?
- Value: What are some clear points about the value of delivering this kind of program or service?
- Impact: What are some clear points about the impact on the constituents and the community?
Projects like these can help any organization capture and retain knowledge in a high-turnover world.
How can this help with fundraising?
There are at least three ways that this approach can immediately help with fundraising:
- Getting new fundraisers up and running: I’ve heard leaders in many institutions say that it will probably take a new development chief or a gift officer a year to really get up and running. That’s not good considering that the average fundraiser will be gone in 16 months. Having a set of documents about your programs and other key issues will ensure that all new staffers in your fundraising office get up and running quickly. Those resources will prepare them to represent your institution to donors, to advocate for your mission and vision, and to cite facts about the impact that your organization has on the world.
- Preventing the mistakes that make donors go away: Studies show that donors often stop giving to an institution because the institution made a mistake or dropped the ball somehow. With a revolving door of turnover in fundraising departments, the likelihood of mistakes is extremely high. However, if new staff have a manual that details how to execute important basic processes related to donor servicing, they will be better able to meet donor expectations despite turnover.
- Providing a basis of development communications: A well-written overview of each program that details who it serves and what it accomplishes can become the basis for gift proposals, grant narratives, and other fundraising communications. Your gift officers already spend too much time writing and not enough time with donors. Give them tools that make the writing easy and quick, with comprehensive content and consistent messaging.
At the Olympic Games, where the world is watching and the stakes are high, this method has resulted in continual improvement for decades.
Turnover in nonprofit institutions is inevitable and sometimes desirable. People are going to leave. Try to make sure that their knowledge doesn’t leave with them.
If you need assistance developing solutions to your communications issues, reach out to Chris Redgate at firstname.lastname@example.org.