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Nonprofit Leadership in Turbulent Times

  • Post published:June 25, 2024
  • Post category:Blogs

If you are a nonprofit leader, I’m here to validate you – you are not crazy.  The times are turbulent and chaotic.

Nonprofit leaders are used to volatility.  We know how to tackle huge challenges with relatively no money.   But this is another level.  I believe we are navigating an evolutionary moment – or revolutionary depending on your perspective – about HOW we do the work we are called to do.

I believe this point in time is directly related to the aftermath of COVID and its impact on the workforce.  We lost, just in this nation, more than one million souls.  But the unique nature of the pandemic, and our own isolation, made that number feel almost surreal.

My son – who just graduated from college this month, and who missed his own senior graduation – literally laughs at me when I mention COVID.  Mom, he says, it’s over.  Not everything is COVID’s fault!

But trauma always comes out, and I believe it is coming out now, loudly, in the workforce.  And that turbulence is being compounded by the economy, politics and the continuing structural challenges inherent in our nonprofit sector.

Let’s take a closer look at all three.

THE WORKFORCE IS LEAVING

In 20+ years of managing employees, I have never seen this much turnover – EVEN in the nonprofit sector where we struggle to compete for talent.

Originally, workers fled jobs during COVID because of fear, or caregiving pressures.

Then, workers started to leave their jobs as people re-evaluated their work-life balance needs.

Then, workers started to leave their jobs because companies were starting to say, hey, it’s time to come back to the office.

And then workers started to leave jobs because working in the office no longer felt right.

The obvious question here is not – why are staff leaving and moving around?  But how are we supposed to manage our business on top of a migrating and shifting workforce?

Not all the movement is bad – from a macro level – it’s good for the worker!  Increased mobility keeps organizations on their toes, and salaries high.  One way or the other, we are going to figure out how to work remotely without losing productivity.   However – the speed and volume with which staff are migrating is occurring is hard to absorb, and the almost manic nature of the movement makes me think people are leaving to leave…not necessarily with strategic intention.

The turnover is also making recruitment and retention almost impossible in the nonprofit sector, with all its accompanying costs and decreased productivity.  Competition for talent is getting fiercer; nonprofits literally cannot compete as an industry against for-profit or government recruitment. And those that are left behind, those that choose to stay, are more eroded.

And there is more.

THE WORKFORCE IS DISENGAGED

This is not going to be a popular thing to say, but I’m saying it anyway.  People think they are working harder, and more hours a week.  But they are not.

The stress and burnout are real – but that burnout is not necessarily being driven by too much work, but rather the perception that there is too much work, and the reality that our workforce has been eroded in a variety of new ways.

In the recently released 2024 State of the Global Workplace report from the Gallup World Poll, only 23% of the workforce was engaged, with a whopping 62% not engaged and 15% actively disengaged.  The report found that younger workers were struggling in the workplace, with only 31% thriving; almost 40% of managers’ report feeling angry, sad and worried…and are more likely than non-managers to be looking for new work.

The firewall between the personal and the professional has fallen. Remote work requires new management strategies to hold fidelity to the mission, and both staff and managers are pinging between the isolation of remote work and the frenzy of fewer onsite office days.

All these issues are taking a huge emotional and physical toll on nonprofit leaders…and the staff themselves.

THE ECONOMY IS WEIRD

Low unemployment, great stock market, millions in open public contracts, rebounding post-COVID economy.

Skyrocketing costs, state deficits and shrinkage, decreasing access to philanthropy, year over year salary benchmarks shifting dramatically, lots of job openings followed by lots of movement.

Anyone know what to do with that?  The same economic indicators are hitting for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike.

Personally, I’ve never seen so many new opportunities coming down the path for nonprofits, but neither have I ever been so uncertain about my ability to staff them adequately and manage the cash needs.  The post-COVID economy just seems weird. 

THE SECTOR REMAINS UNDER CAPITALIZED

If any of you have seen Dan Pallota’s documentary Uncharitable, or worked in the industry for decades, you will understand the structural hurdles built into nonprofit operations.  Every day, nonprofit leaders must contend with restrictions, limited access to credit, and volatility.  Running a business on thin or negative margins means there is no room for error, and little opportunity for strategic investment.

In addition to this volatility and restriction, philanthropy continues to shift its focus.  Of course, this makes sense – it’s an election year and a battle for reproductive and other civil rights is on the horizon.  But it is increasingly hard for nonprofit leaders to find and engage aligned investors.

Finally, leadership retirements are increasing.  Executives are leaving the field to consult and to heal, and at least anecdotally, there are not huge number of professionals who seem to want to take on the responsibilities of leadership.

I don’t think these structural issues are due to COVID or the ECONOMY. 

These are business realities built into the very foundation of our industry, and based upon the continuing assumptions of HOW nonprofit business should be run and capitalized…which is to say, not very well.

It’s no wonder everyone is leaving.  And that may be the greatest threat of all to our work.

EVOLUTION

The silver lining of all this turbulence and change is creativity.  Nonprofit leaders are a very determined group of professionals, and when the going gets turbulent, they get innovative, and some of the trends I am seeing on the horizon are exciting.  Nonprofit leaders are:

  • working hard to find new ways to Access Capital – through loan funds, philanthropic guarantees, social enterprises, and multi-entity structures
  • seeking out creative collaborations, sharing leadership roles and expanding partnerships to staff back-office services and expand programs
  • redefining capacity, work environments, and success measures, even if it means doing things differently

If you are a nonprofit leader right now, hang in there.  Your staff may be running out the door, but you are not alone, and the storm will pass. And it’s a good time to ask yourself some hard questions:

  • Who gets to define the work environment – YOU…or your staff?
  • If you can’t retain the staff you think you need…can you do things differently?
  • What are you holding on to that doesn’t work anymore?
  • Can you see the opportunity in the chaos?
  • Are you going to be a casualty of the aftermath of COVID…or the next innovator in the field?

If you take anything away from this short blog, I hope it is this:

Put everything you think you know about managing a nonprofit on the table….and reconsider whether it belongs in this new world.

Respectfully,




Anne Olin
Charitable Ventures, President & CEO