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Changes at the Top

The challenge of finding and keeping top talent is being felt by many in our community.

Like many issues that face our economy, the 2023 “great resignation” and the hiring crisis in America is hitting nonprofits especially hard. It has always been a challenge to attract and retain younger talent in the social sector, typically offering less competitive wages and professional development opportunities. Now with many staff feeling burned out, reevaluating their career paths, and facing economic pain, recent articles such as in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and Forbes have given voice to nonprofit leaders wondering how to retain their people and pivot to offer the kind of flexibility and compensation that frontline workers are demanding. But what about the turnover at the top? 

Exit signs

Executive Director and Director of Development/Advancement roles have also been notoriously hard to keep filled with top talent. It is often cited that the national average for a Development Director tenure hovers between 15-18 months. Though this trend is nothing new, we have noticed an uptick in top positions vacating our local client community lately. We have walked alongside many through their transitions as either interim leadership or as hiring advisors. Here are a few observations and encouragements we would like to share: 

  • Pay attention to the pressure points. Leadership is a shared responsibility, and whether as a board chair, an E.D. or a function/team Director, it is important to maintain trust and unity at the top and act in accordance with your core values. Under-mining, over-reaching and under-resourcing are common pitfalls that just might nudge a critical leader past their tipping point. 

  • Remember, people matter. If facing a leadership vacancy, take the time to honor and celebrate one’s contributions, and offer reinforcement to those left to manage through the disruption. Create a healthy transition, attend to frayed nerves, formalize and compensate for any interim ‘stretch’ assignments, and contract outside help to relieve the pressure. Your people, and your reputation as a fair employer, will thank you. 

  • Stick to your principles. Don’t let urgency lead to hasty solutions, but also don’t delay the inevitable. Ensure you follow equitable hiring practices, prioritize strong leadership competencies and track records among your candidates, and allow yourself to go back to the well if the right hire does not materialize at first. 

  • Seize the opportunity to engage leadership. This may be the moment when a committee chair, a leadership team, or a community ambassador decide to show-up to support the team and rally others around your shared goals of organizational stability and fundraising success. It is also the time to diversify your team’s donor relationship connections through sharing in stewardship calls and visits. 

As seasoned leaders know, change is scary but is often for the better. If a key staff person is leaning out the door, a people-first approach with a vision for the future can help everyone feel valued and remain invested in your organization’s success, whatever may come. Contact Ostara if you foresee a possible leadership transition in your future, and would value some perspective and a skilled partner to come alongside you. 


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