What Nonprofits Can Do to Retain Talent: How Professional Development Works

Written by: Marc Schultz
Published on: Dec 5, 2023

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(Image: SDI Productions)

Staff turnover is an issue for any organization, but especially for those in the nonprofit sector, where the all-too-typical resource crunch means that talent retention strategies are few and far between.

According to research from Nonprofit HR, the top two reasons for voluntary employee turnover – “better opportunities elsewhere” and “invisible career paths” – both come down to a lack of career growth. Disengagement with the culture came in third, followed by benefits and pay.

Fortunately, all of these motives can be addressed with one cost-effective strategy: a commitment to professional development.

Establishing a culture of professional development takes effort, thought, and commitment, but what it doesn’t require is much money. Nonprofit University, a nationally leading provider of virtual training for nonprofits from Work for Good's parent company, offers affordable courses in all areas of nonprofit management, from fundraising and marketing to leadership, finance, human resources, and more.

Getting your talent development process underway

Here are the four steps we recommend to get this process going and keep it on track:

  • Identify the competencies needed for your organization’s future success. Think skills, capabilities, and experiences that enable staff to achieve their goals and to get better every year. These include:
    • job-related competencies, both universal (like teamwork) and role-specific (like donor management); and
    • leadership competencies your organization values (both today and in the future).
       
  • Assess individuals against both goals and competencies. The Bridgespan Group’s Performance-Leadership Matrix is a helpful tool for examining each individual’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of job and leadership competencies, as well as where they – and the organization – can develop.
     
  • Co-create development plans. Craft a plan with each employee to pursue two or three competencies. Start by educating all staff about the 70/20/10 approach, a research-based formula for how adults learn best: 70 percent through experience, 20 percent through mentoring, and 10 percent through formal training. Experience means “stretch assignments” that expose workers to new skills – just be sure they are perceived as a way to advance, rather than “just more work,” by:
    • crafting assignments that will develop a specific skill or knowledge area,
    • identifying current assignments that can be deprioritized to make space for “stretching,” and
    • looking for common needs and find ways to address multiple people at once.
       
  • Track progress, learn, and improve. Start simple by focusing on activities: Making sure all your people have plans in place, meeting with individuals regularly to see how they are progressing, and checking to see what is working and what isn’t. Learn and improve from there.

Making growth a continuous practice

Committing to a talent development strategy requires a significant culture shift. The promise of this approach can only be realized, for staffers and the organization, if you refer to development plans often and prioritize the work in them. Meeting for an hour each month or quarter is a good starting point – just be careful not to make these meetings a kind of performance review.

Stretch assignments are commonplace in nonprofits – there is often too much to do and not enough resources – but matching each person to the right stretch assignment takes practice. You may not know the right assignments when you first start development planning, but with the plan in mind, opportunities that match particular staffer needs will often arise in the course of broader organizational planning. 

To find mentors and coaches, think outside the box and cast a wide net. When appealing to potential mentors, don’t forget to play up the benefits in terms of delegating tasks (so long as they fit specific development goals), as well as making new connections, adding to a sense of purpose, and bettering your organization’s capacity to deliver on the mission now and in the future.

Work for Good is here to help

Nonprofit University, housed by Work for Good's parent organization, provides affordable training in every area of nonprofit management, all held virtually, with options for those at every level of their career. Check out our schedule of upcoming educational events and reach out to us anytime with your questions.

Marc Schultz is communications editor for Work for Good.

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