It’s time funders take nonprofit leadership turnover seriously

[Image description: A blue frog with black spots all over, looking to the left, while standing on some sort of mossy branch or something. They look serious. Very serious.]

Hi everyone. I have almost exactly one month left before the sun sets on my time as an executive director. (If you want to sound majestic and full of gravitas, just add “the sun sets on [someone]’s time” to anything; for instance, “We have ten minutes before the sun sets on our time together at this dive bar.” Thanks, Lion King.) I explained why I and a whole lot of other leaders, especially leaders of color, are leaving here.

Last week, I got an email from a colleague, a woman of color ED, asking me to call her back. There was no context. I knew what this meant. It meant she was leaving her position and wanted to give me a courtesy notice before the announcement came out. I was right. “I’m tired,” she said; I could hear the weariness in her voice. We were silent for a moment. I didn’t know what to say that didn’t seem trite or patronizing. “I’m sorry,” I said.  

Quietly, nonprofit leaders are leaving their posts. And most of us ED/CEOs swear off ever doing it again. And younger folks, it seems, are increasingly reluctant to take up the mantle. Who the hell can blame them? The ED’s job has always been like Sisyphus pushing the fundraising boulder up a hill, but while the eagle of program impact is pecking out his liver; the Cerberus of board, staff, and community expectations is chasing after him; and he’s trying to avoid looking at the Medusa of cash flow projections.

So many nonprofit professionals, across all levels, are burning out and leaving. This is a serious problem in our sector. And as usual, with a few exceptions, the response from funders has been “meh.” I am sure a few funders are getting concerned about this. But “concern” is not enough. It’s like we are in the horrible boiled frog experiment, where they put frogs in water that was either already hot, or else gradually heated up. The frogs dropped in the hot water jumped out right away. The frogs in the water that was gradually heated up, however, stayed there, getting more and more adjusted to the water, until they all died.

The results of the experiment have been disproven (frogs do jump out as the water heats up). However, the metaphor remains a useful one. When it comes to the problem of staff leaving, and younger professionals not wanting ED-level positions, it seems it is so gradual that funders just don’t have a reason to be all that worried. And so they haven’t been.

But we need to be worried. Funders all need to be freaking out. I don’t want to point out the sad statistics again. Great organizations like Fund The People and Building Movement Project have been doing that for years. Statistics like the fact that 2/3 of EDs plan to step down or retire in the next five years, or that 49% of EDs/CEOs of color indicate a lack of funding relationship vs. 33% white EDs/CEOs as a reason they’re stressed and burning out.

If we need to focus on a stat, the one we should rally around is the fact that despite all these challenges and endless data points and personal stories, philanthropy continues to invest only a measly 1% of its funds in staff development.

This is pathetic. It’s been like this since forever. The water temperature is heating up now to the point that threatens us all. The lack of investment in this area over the past few decades is catching up to us. It renders our field less and less effective in a time when we need to be at our most effective and efficient to fight the ever-growing level of injustice.

There are great foundations who focus on funding leadership and talent. But there are not enough funders doing this. We need to sound the alarm now before things reach a point where serious harm is being done to our community because of all the challenges that come from burnout, leadership exodus, the loss of energy and time spent on managing endless transitions, cascading effects to other staff, racial and gender gaps, lack of training and support around everything, and sector-wide morale issues.  

Yes, this is an area that all of us must work together to address. We each have a role to play. But let’s be honest, a lot of these problems are caused by foundations, and thus they can be solved by funders. The stress and burnout we feel directly result from many of the practices funders inflict on nonprofits. Here are a few things funders all need to consider and do:

  • Significantly increase your funding for nonprofit talent. I don’t care if this isn’t your “area” or “strategy” or whatever. Stop treating talent development like a separate strategy. It is fundamental to the success of every single mission. No matter what your foundation is focused on, its effectiveness will rely on people. And you have been underinvesting in people.
  • Understand that your decisions have real consequences. We lose good people every day because of funders’ shifting whims. We on the ground have to look our team members in the eye and tell them that even though they are one of the most effective staff we have, we have to let them go because a funder decided to suddenly move from a three-year grant to a one-year grant, or changed their priorities from direct service to advocacy, or advocacy to data, or funding only new programs or whatever.
  • Provide general operating funds. We need them to provide our staff decent wages, benefits, and professional development. We cannot keep chronically underpaying the professionals in this sector and expect that they will stay. Having more flexible funds would solve a lot of problems, including the fact that we have poor HR systems and many boards have little to no experience in hiring EDs/CEOs.
  • Cut the BS and let us focus on the work: My team and I just spent ten hours doing a grant finance report that asks me to translate our chart of account into a funder’s template and then figure out how much this funder’s support went into each line item. It’s 2019. Thousands of kids remain in cages or missing and democracy is in jeopardy, and THIS is what you want us to focus our time on? Having to put up with this and other kinds of BS is also why we leave.
  • Provide multi-year funds. I don’t mean three years. I mean at least five, preferably ten or more. You scoff at this, but this is how conservative funders have been so effective. A major reason we lose good talent is that we have no stability. The stress of never knowing if we’ll be able to pay our staff two years out is preventing nonprofits from being able to plan and strategize effectively.
  • Fund fellowship programs and learning cohorts: We need a lot more of these programs, across all levels. Fund programs for program staff, EDs, development professionals, operations professionals, data wonks, advocacy folks. Fund ones specific to women, people of color, LGBTQIA, people with disabilities, retiring workers, entry-level folks, etc. These programs are expensive, and have been proven to be effective.
  • Fund sabbaticals: Thanks to the Durfee Foundation for focusing on this. Sabbaticals have been proven to increase people’s productivity and effectiveness, and yet there’s barely any funding for this. Sabbaticals should not just be for EDs/CEOs, though, but for all nonprofit professionals.
  • Fund retirement programs: As I mentioned last week, this is a serious problem preventing people from staying in the field, or else blocking the talent pipelines because aging leaders have nothing to retire on.  
  • Fund transitions and organizations during transitions: This is when organizations are the most vulnerable, and many funders have this “wait and see” approach to see if the organization will be OK before funding it. That’s ludicrous. It’s like watching someone struggling in the water and waiting to see if they don’t drown before throwing them a lifeline.
  • Fund leadershipfocused organizations. Organizations like Fund the People, Baltimore Corps, and the Building Movement Project do important work. I am biased, but I would count my organization RVC among them. Because our missions are not as heart-stringy as other missions, we continue to struggle for funding.
  • Increase your payout rate. 5% is not enough. To ensure we have a strong bench of talent, philanthropy will need to increase the rate it’s giving out each year so that it can spend more than the sad 1% (of the 5%) in talent development.

Today, I video-called another nonprofit leader. He has been going through a tough year due to funders’ shifting priorities. “We had to lay off [names of 2 staff].” The laying off of brilliant and hardworking team members kills your soul a bit each time. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he told me then and there that the sun would too be setting on his time.

Luckily, he didn’t. “I’ve been taking notes on some strategies I’m thinking of,” he said, raising up a piece of paper. The quest for funding continues. Despite everything we face, many of us will continue the fight. We know there is a lot at stake.

But, funders, you need to help us out.

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