Always A Vacancy

My wanderings across the digital landscape brought me to a study on the Compass Point website. (they provide services to the non-profit sector.) The study, Help Wanted: Turnover and Vacancy In Non-Profits, is about four years old, but it examines why it is so tough to keep a non-profit organization fully staffed. (There is a similar one studying the challenges of Executive Directors, too)

The study was performed in the San Francisco Bay area and encompasses all non-profits from arts to social services, but there are some very interesting lessons to be learned.

From the executive summary, we learn the following facts:

-8% of the paid staff positions at nonprofits are vacant.
-30% of these positions have been vacant for four months or more.
-24% of the vacancies are management positions.

Which employees are leaving and why
– A striking 47% of the people leaving nonprofits are non-program staff: administrative assistants, bookkeepers, CFOs, development directors, etc. Executive directors report that the three most common reasons for staff resignation are: a great job offer elsewhere, dissatisfaction with compensation, and the cost of living in the Bay Area.

So okay, the whole cost of living in Bay Area isn’t applicable elsewhere.

There were some interesting results about where people are going.

Where exiting employees go:
The most common destination of exiting nonprofit employees is other nonprofits; 34% move on to another nonprofit agency. Moving to the for-profit sector accounts for only 20% of nonprofit turnover.

This is a good news/bad news thing. While it is great that people are sticking to the non-profit sector and continuing to enhance the sector’s ability to serve the public as a whole, non-profits are not only competing with each other for funding and, in the arts, audiences, but now have to compete for personnel as well.

Other additional interesting facts-
Of those organizations surveyed, only 13% had a person dedicated to human resources. Most everyone else had the fuctions shared by one or more other people. 47% of the respondents indicated that the executive director was the sole person developing hiring, recruitment and retention strategies.

What I found most interesting because I had never stopped to think otherwise myself is that executive directors felt a 0% turnover rate was an ultimate goal. And really, I would have immediately agreed. The study also said that EDs didn’t have any expectations that some positions would turn over more frequently than others.

The truth of the matter is, the study showed “certain positions as having a normal turnover rate of 60% per year, while other positions may have a turnover rate of 15% per year.” The study notes that obviously high turnover in some positions (or dependent on the size of the organization, any position) can have a more adverse effect than turnover in others.

Different plans for retention and replacement need to be made with realistic projections about how swiftly a change is expected. According to the study, the reality of the day is that many people view being in the same job for over 5 years as letting their careers stagnate. People are going to move around despite best efforts at keeping salaries and benefits competitive.

Knowing this fact doesn’t make life as an executive director any easier though. Many EDs interviewed were reluctant to discuss the impact of this prevelant trend with their boards because they felt a high turnover rate would reflect badly on their management skills. Many people in the study admitted they held on to incompetent folks because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to find a replacement at all. The other problem with a tight labor market is that programs the non-profit planned on offering have to be limited or cancelled outright for want of staff people.

So an executive director, anxious that their board will learn about the high turnover rate keeps ineffectual workers, distributes the work of the vacant positions as well as a portion of the inefficient ones’ to the rest of the overworked staff. In order to relieve the pressure on them, the ED has to cancel other programs which brings the demoralizing realization that the organization isn’t as effective as it once was. (And lets face it, most non-profit workers are surviving on their idealism, not their pay.) It is any wonder the report on executive directors says that while EDs are just as likely to stay in the non-profit sector when they too move on, they don’t take executive director positions.

The end of the report offers strategies for avoiding turnover where it can be, accepting and planning for it where it can’t be and minimizing the impact when it does happen. These recommendations are across the board to boards of directors, non-profit organizations and funders/providers of technical assistance.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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