Innovation Comes When You’re Not Tethered to What Was

  • Published November 2, 2022
  • / By Joset Grenon

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.6 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. By July 2022, a year later, the number and rate at which people quit their jobs changed very little at 4.2 million. It is no surprise that nonprofit leaders are paying attention to this trend. Loss of staff can impact philanthropy and advancement office culture. As we prepare to close out 2022, it is important to take a close look at the resignation challenges that many nonprofits have encountered during the pandemic—and learn how we can use them as opportunities to make changes that benefit the institution.

Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “The Great Resignation.” Over the last two years, discussion about the impact of mass resignations has evolved into what some have dubbed, “The Great Negotiation,” “The Great Talent Crisis” and even “The Anti-Work.” Whatever you choose to call it, evidence has shown the lasting effect of the pandemic will be felt for years to come in terms of work-life balance expectations in most organizations including nonprofits.

Marts&Lundy has worked with many nonprofits who have lost advancement staff during the pandemic. Those who handled the challenge strategically and thoughtfully were able to overcome the impact more quickly—with many emerging stronger than before. I recently had an opportunity to speak with Emilie Henry, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at The Westminster Schools, one of the largest private day schools in the U.S. with over 1900 students. She leads a 30-person advancement/communications team, and I wanted to learn more about the challenges and opportunities she encountered. Emilie explained that the School’s advancement team experienced a 50% turnover in an eight-month period of time. A third of the staff left for positions in different industries, a third left for leadership positions, and a third took positions that offered what they perceived to be greater flexibility. Left with a smaller, yet high-performing team, she felt it was the perfect time to reassess, reevaluate the staff experience and lean into potential changes.

One of the changes implemented was an aggressive retainment bonus to remaining team members that was paid out in equal installments each quarter of the school year. This was an investment on the part of Westminster that sent a message—in a very genuine way—about the value of their advancement staff in the life of the School and the critical role that they play in advancing Westminster’s mission. It was also a way to give the team recognition during a time of transition, when everyone was taking on additional responsibilities. Ultimately, this incentive helped stem the tide of resignations and gave the team a chance to catch its collective breath and rebuild the connective tissue that can suffer disruptive damage during a large staffing shift. 

Emilie also made sure the School took a deep dive into what the staff experience really looked like. This included researching potential flexible work-from-home arrangements and completing a comprehensive salary survey—while also assessing how the School could remain competitive in attracting and retaining talent while also benefitting as a whole. Like most nonprofits, independent schools are highly people-centric and their advancement offices place a high value on face-to-face interaction. What Westminster learned from this deep dive is that they had to change and evolve the way they worked. Further, they needed to change the way they looked at the work-from-home flexible schedule.

After implementing this work-from-home shift, Westminster learned that productivity does not necessarily go down, but the onus or weight shifts to leadership in terms of finding the right people, exploring new ways (especially virtual methods) to collaborate and evaluating how goals are met.  Westminster also reassessed how they engaged with their communities (virtually or in-person) for cultivation purposes and carefully evaluated what the tradeoffs might be. They found that virtual meetings and events, while not ideal in every situation, were effective, particularly when delivering information. While providing an experience is still best done in person, Emilie shared that members of the Westminster community did attend virtual events and were amenable to meeting virtually. Many of those meetings included solicitations that were successfully closed.

Ultimately, annual giving increased at Westminster, major donors stepped up, and the advancement team navigated a difficult moment by seeing opportunity in the midst of challenge.

Like many disruptive moments in time, the “Great Resignation” presents nonprofits with an opportunity to reimagine every single thing they do, from the way they structure the work environment and enhance their culture to how they engage their communities. Like The Westminster Schools, we all have an opportunity to name the moment for what it is, learn and grow, balance the pieces, and reassess the future of work.

At times like these, we have the chance to be extraordinarily creative. Innovation can come if we allow ourselves to not be tethered to what was—if we have the courage to do so.