NFPN survey reveals employees’ perceptions about how they’re coping during a crisis — and why some are thinking about leaving their jobs

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

Second in a series of articles based on a “How Are You Doing?” survey conducted by Charitable Advisors

As reported in a previous Charitable Advisors’ Not-for-profit News (NFPN) article, a survey revealed that nearly 54 percent of Central Indiana nonprofit employees are thinking about leaving their jobs within the next 12 months. Of the 461 employees who responded to the survey, 40 percent said that timeline would apply to a 90-day timeframe.

With high employee turnover impacting everything from productivity to overall employee morale, numerous survey respondents gave further insights on why they left their job, why they’re thinking about leaving their job and, in some cases, why their employers are getting it right and, consequently, why they’ve decided to stay.

One survey respondent, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the pressures of shut-down orders, downsizing, lack of direction from leadership, an increased workload, and, later, a demand to return to the office amid rising COVID-19 cases led her to resign from her previous position.

The employee, who agreed to a telephone interview, said that she always has been drawn to the nonprofit sector because it’s rewarding to support the Indianapolis community she grew up in. “I have been working with nonprofits for 10 years,” said the employee, who furthered her education by graduating from the Lilly School of Philanthropy in 2018. “I worked briefly in for-profit, in sales, and I really didn’t feel like it was fulfilling for me as an individual.

However, she recently faced the challenging decision of leaving a nonprofit job before securing another. “Going through the pandemic was a time of great uncertainty. It was difficult,” she recalled. “Our organization didn’t have good leadership. While everyone was reacting in the moment, employees’ fears and concerns were not addressed until it was past time to address them. People’s concerns seemed to be dismissed. There’s something to be said for leading with empathy and acknowledging the unknowns, while at the same time accomplishing your goals and getting things done.’

The employee said that she experienced bouts of high anxiety during the pandemic, especially when the outbreak was first reported in Indiana in March 2020. “Uncertainty is a difficult spot for me,” she said. “I was concerned about my own health conditions, and I raised concerns with HR. When I did get answers, the response was, “Hold tight.” She also faced similar challenges in connecting with her direct supervisor. “They were very dismissive of our concerns,” she said.

When employees were asked to come into the office — before the city’s “stay-at-home” order was lifted. “I flatly rejected,” she said. To her, that request reflected “tone deafness” to employees’ fears and concerns.

Searching for job satisfaction

After quitting her job, the employee said she devoted time to self-care and volunteering for other organizations. “My first step was to reflect and to give myself breathing room to deal with the trauma and the incredible unknowns that were happening,” she said.

For her next job, she decided to be more selective about choosing her next employer. “I was looking for culture first and foremost, and compassionate leadership,” she said. “I also was looking at organizations that addressed some of the inequities that were being highlighted. Fair compensation also was on the list. Given my level of education and expertise, I was so burned out (with my last job) that it wasn’t worth it to continue with that compensation. I was looking for something more established.”

As part of the culture, the employee said, a flexible work schedule was essential. “Having gone through collective trauma, we now better understand that burnout is an issue that we should take seriously,” she added. “I don’t think a lot of organizations put time and resources to truly combat it. They don’t put time, effort and research to ensure it results in real action.”

In many cases, she said, you must show up for work — no matter what. If people call in sick, we don’t take them seriously. We now have a better understanding of how deeply connected we are. We need to make health a priority — both mentally and physically. We learned we can trust our coworkers, more and we can still accomplish things even if they’re not sitting there next to us. Understanding work-life balance is a huge issue.”

Getting it right

Although a significant number of employees indicated that they were poised to go after another job, others were positive about their jobs and employers. Of those surveyed, 36 percent said they “gained new respect for our leadership and our mission over the past year.”

Ashley Ross, development coordinator at Visually Impaired Preschool Services (VIPS), said she committed to the nonprofit sector because of the rewarding work. Her organization always has been supportive of understanding employees’ need for work-life balance, Ross said. “Before the pandemic began, my organization was already pretty understanding of remote work/flexible schedules. I worked in the office every day, but if I ever needed to be at home because of an appointment, there wasn’t push back; in fact, we are encouraged to make our work-life fit around our personal life,” she said.

While the flexible work schedule was a “nice-to-have” option for Ross, she now considers it a priority for any employment. “Since the pandemic started, I have now been working entirely from home for about a year and a half.,” she said. “I truly love working from home. Before the pandemic, I would only work remotely if I needed to be home for a specific reason. I would not have told my boss, ‘Hey, I don’t feel like getting out of my pajamas, so I will be working from home today.’ But now, knowing how much I can get done from the comforts of my home, I don’t feel the guilt I felt before by saying, ‘I would prefer to work from home today.’”

Ross said she also recognizes the benefits of collaborating with co-workers in the office. “My organization is in a very unique position because we are now finishing up our capital campaign to build a whole new facility for the families we serve and to also have a larger office space,” Ross said. “I am excited to get moved into our new space, have my own office, and engage with my co-workers again. However, I still intend to work at least a couple of days a week from home once we do move, and the organization is very understanding of that. The pandemic has shown employers that if you have trust in your employees, they can do their job well no matter their location. Having that freedom to choose where I work has been a huge reason why I plan on sticking around at my organization long term.”

Mark Koopman, executive director at Hoosier Burn Camp, Inc., shared the benefits of working for a smaller organization during a pandemic. “When you’re working for a smaller nonprofit, you can be more nimble because most folks are already wearing multiple hats. There wasn’t a paralysis,” Koopman said in a telephone interview. “We were able to come together and, say, ‘Let’s figure this out. How can we still serve our population in a way they deserve and need to be served?’ but, at the same time, realizing that business as usual needs to change.”

Because of the trust that already had been established within the organization, Koopman said that there was an ability to collaborate and move quickly as a team to come up with new ideas to reach constituents. “That’s part of our secret sauce,” he said. “Going through a challenge like that together, there’s an appreciation for the struggle. We were working in sync as a team. When you get through it, it’s not just an individual level of satisfaction. It was a collective satisfaction. There’s a sense of belonging. We felt like we got sucker punched as we made alterations to our programming, but we got smarter and better at it. In hindsight, we did a lot of things pretty well.”

Koopman also said that it was important to expect others’ opinions and stances during that time, whether based on religion, politics or COVID. “It’s important to meet people where they need to be met and respect where they’re at, whether it’s based on religion, politics or COVID,” he said.

Coping with burnout while focused on the mission

Patricia Cortellini, director of agency relations for Second Helpings, said the critical mission of the nonprofit organization was significantly heightened in the wake of the pandemic throughout 2020. Second Helpings distributed 1.8 million meals — up 75 percent from the 1.1 million distributed in the previous year.

“Our work became more important personally to each one of us,” Cortellini said. “Food is such a basic need. We all believed in the mission but the pandemic brought it home. We hear from a lot of people who were saying things like, ‘We didn’t get COVID because of your meals,’ ‘I’m home with COVID, so I can’t get out,’ or ‘We couldn’t leave the building because we’re immunocompromised.’”

Throughout 2020, the team at Second Helpings navigated numerous challenges, including implementing a hybrid work schedule and changing the model of how they delivered food. “Everything changed,” Cortellini said. “This year is harder than last year when our model included having the national guard here to get us in a rhythm.”

While the mission makes it all worthwhile, the day-to-day challenges can take a toll on employees on the frontlines, especially with the Delta variant resulting in another surge in COVID rates throughout Central Indiana, Cortellini said.

“People are getting burned out,” she said. “We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It isn’t over yet.”

Some of that stress has been alleviated with hybrid work schedules, with employees alternating working from home and in the office. “Being able to work from home two days can give you a break from the day-to-day stress. and focus on projects without all the interruptions. We found staff can be very effective at home.”

However, she said, the clear advantages of meeting in person can’t be underestimated. “When we are able to meet face to face, so much more information gets relayed. You can read people’s expressions. It’s also hard to jump into a conversation during a Zoom meeting. I believe the hybrid model of working will stay with us.”

Developing a strategic retention/recruitment plan

Deirdre Byrd, director of HR consulting for VonLehman CPA & Advisory Firm, said nonprofit employers can gain a significant number of insights about what it takes to attract and retain employees as a result of the pandemic.

“COVID highlighted for employees and employers that much of the work that takes place can be done remotely,” Byrd said. A flexible schedule also allows for more work-life balance, she noted. “Instead of starting the day with a commute to the office, an employee could start earlier and take a break during lunch time to help kids with assignments,” Byrd said. “It’s not surprising that, on the side of it, we’re not going back to the way things were.”

As part of Byrd’s work, she’s hearing from many prospective employees who are prioritizing remote work, hybrid work or flexible schedules when vetting employers.

Nonprofit employers will need to move forward by being realistic about what they can and cannot offer current employees and new hires, Byrd said. “Value doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of straight compensation,” she said. “It can be non-monetary, such as development … the opportunity to grow with the organization. It may not mean vertical growth; it may be lateral growth, with opportunities to further build skills.”

Byrd said leadership teams need to outline five key areas to have an impact on retention and recruitment, including making sure that each employee has the right skills for the position to increase alignment; identifying what sets you apart as an organization; connecting goals and expectations to the organization’s mission and performance; offering employee development plans and providing attractive compensation, including non-monetary benefits such as hybrid work/remote work, flexible work schedules, childcare or elder care and similar benefits to assist with employees’ personal lives.

Developing clear ways to address burn out also is critical, Byrd said. Throughout the organization, there should be efforts to ensure relationships are constructive, with schedules including one-to-one employee meetings and regular team meetings.

“It’s important to talk to employees, not only about work but get to know them as people,” she said. “Create an environment of trust, which is foundational to a safe environment where employees are supporting one another and can be their authentic selves. They should feel safe to experiment and try something new.”

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