Seven Strategies for Winning the War for Talent at Non-Profits

The other day I had a phone conversation with a man I have known for many years. He is a local behavioral health executive. We were talking about the difficulty of hiring and retaining entry level staff. He bemoaned, as do many others, the problem of staff turnover. I responded that based on my observation that a lot of these entry level workers left within six months, my conclusion was that a number of them were probably mistakes or miscalculations of the hiring process. His opinion varied somewhat; he thought that the pool of persons he had to choose from was increasingly sub-par and that losing a good share of these hires was inevitable. This is a problem which is likely to continue as the economy slowly improves. That is, those that were willing to accept a $10 per hour job at a non-profit during more difficult times are now being offered $15-$20 in the traditional business community. He has a point but I would still argue that regardless of the economy and the size and characteristics of the applicant pool it is still possible to pick the best of the pool and that is our responsibility as organizational leaders to find ways to figure out who they are.

At any rate, my friend went on to make a very interesting observation: “Community services are expanding as government continues to privatize services and phase out institutional programs. The non-profits running these new programs are all paying about the same for direct care staff; offering about the same benefits. ” “The only difference, he said, was in the quality of the work environment being offered.”

This started me thinking about what were those work environment variables that applicants as well as current staff found attractive? What features were attractive to new staff and which ones did current staff find valuable enough to keep them working for the organization as opposed to looking for opportunities elsewhere. So, if we truly regard staff not as an economic drain on the organization, but as the organization’s “most important asset” then it would be smart for us to pursue clear objectives with regard to the characteristics of the work environment that we should be pursuing in order that we are able to attract and hold on to the brightest and the best. Two factors will pose barriers to our success: the retirement of baby boomers and increased job opportunities closely following the growth of the economy. An ABC news report last week indicated that currently the ratio between companies planning to add jobs in 2011 and those planning to eliminate jobs was the most favorable it has been at any time during the last twelve years. The war for talent is about to heat up folks and you better be ready for the fight.

Here are some work environment features you should look at in order to evaluate your ability to win the war on talent.
1. Make sure your physical facilities are clean, safe, attractive and functional. For too long social service employees have had to put up with facilities that were totally inadequate. That must end.
2. Salaries and benefits need to be competitive, that is within 80% of what is being offered for each job category in your region of the country. If you are within that 80% number, you can compete; below that you will be left with the people that no one else wants.
3. Train, train, train. Make a commitment to the ongoing personal growth and on-the-job success of every employee. Part of your agency’s culture should emphasize learning for everyone from the CEO to the janitor. Staff training always increases staff retention.
4. Encourage appropriate social interactions amongst staff, on the job and off. Positive social relationships keep staff engaged and motivated, even when things aren’t going so well. Workers often spend more time with other workers than they do with their own families; these relationships can be appropriate and at the same time rewarding.
5. Make work fun. Even the most menial of tasks can become fun if we are creative enough in our approach. If you want to see what I mean, do a Google search on the Pike Street Fish Market and see how fisherman make their job fun.
6. Provide a way for staff to have input into operational issues that effect them. Chances are, when there is an operational challenge, those working closest to the area of concern will have some good ideas about what to do about it; you’ll never know if you don’t ask them.
7. Over communicate about the organization. Make sure everyone sees how their job is related to each and impacts the culture of the organization, its mission and its current challenges. It’s always a shame when I see organizations withhold important information from employees. Chances are this information is the subject of a well-oiled rumor mill anyway; better to have the truth out there and in a way so that whatever the challenge is, employees can influence the outcome to be more positive.

So there you have it, seven strategies to win the war for talent at your organization. Make sure you have objectives that you are pursuing in each strategic area. If you want to look at how other organizations are poised for this war, I would suggest reading Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness, A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose. Yes, Tony runs a company that sells shoes on-line and that’s a different business than we are talking about. Nonetheless, I think his strategies will stimulate your own thinking and you will get a bank account of very creative ideas to draw from.