Staff Turnover: A Hidden Challenge for Nonprofit Technology Effectiveness

 In Capacity, Change Management, Knowledge Management

There are many reasons why nonprofit technology efforts succeed or fail. At Build, one of our goals is to draw attention to hidden factors that can debilitate nonprofit organizations, such as the unrecognized consequences of staff turnover.

As we provide strategic technology guidance, we often witness two different situations where turnover has had an out-sized impact: the sudden departure of key personnel, and/or an ongoing instability of process ownership and responsibility caused by rotating staff.

Staff turnover, much like erosion, is a slow-developing threat that has dramatic and sudden consequences if not managed correctly. Erosion is slow and steady, developing over years without causing great alarm. To avoid disasters, actions such as monitoring, maintenance, and ongoing responsiveness over time can prevent a sudden calamity. We believe the same principles should be applied at nonprofit organizations to help prevent the hidden risks associated with staff turnover.

What technology challenges does staff turnover create?

While the analogy with erosion is not perfect, there are similarities to the kind of data or IT crises that we see in our work with nonprofit organizations. Ongoing staff turnover has long-term negative effects that often lurk below the surface, accumulate over time, and too often are not acknowledged until they cause significant problems. Sudden departures can be quite catastrophic, much like a landslide.

The immediate damage that turnover causes is centered in the specific business unit of the departed employee, since their responsibilities must be shifted to others.  There is also often a panicked scramble to “download” the subject matter expertise contained in the mind of a departing employee before they leave.  Moreover, extra administrative tasks fall to other departments like HR, Finance, and IT as they manage the offboarding process of the exiting employee and the onboarding and training of a new employee.

Despite recognizing the immediate pain, the long-term negative effects of turnover are often underappreciated, as not enough attention is paid to how staff turnover impacts data governance, workflow efficiencies, and long-term institutional knowledge. While business-critical data and transactions continue to be processed, unmanaged turnover raises the risk that the associated data will become increasingly inaccurate. This can result in poor outcomes and incorrect decisions being made, which generally leads to a loss of confidence in the data.

The good news is that your organization can guard against the data challenges caused by staff turnover with simple proactive steps, such as creating a technology roadmap and an information strategy that address staffing and data responsibilities.

How can the effects of staff turnover be addressed?

The systems

One undervalued strategy to fight against turnover is implementing effective, flexible, and robust information systems that integrate with business intelligence tools. Systems that let you create workflows and add custom data entry validation checks serve to institutionalize processes into the systems themselves. Combined with dashboards that contain Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and reporting that is automatically generated, it takes less staff energy to maintain clean data and ensure procedures are being followed.  Applications will never run themselves without good human governance, but if designed well, they can significantly enhance productivity while blunting the effects of staff turnover.

Conversely, poor systems can directly contribute to staff departing, because employees will seek more impactful work that involves less tedious workarounds or manual reconciliations.  In a sector where employees are mission-driven and are willing to earn less because they want to change the world, the last thing they want is clunky IT or data systems that make their job difficult. We recently wrote about platform-centric nonprofits and the transformative effects of intentionally focusing on integrated systems across your organization.

The people

In addition to investing in first-class systems, it is a best practice to have an information systems steering committee (or data governance team) that ensures every system has an administrator and enough “power users.”  Those staff are then assigned the tasks of keeping Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) updated, training new staff, and developing strong dashboards. It is also important to hire employees to these roles with the right skills and experience and to provide fair compensation. These duties are too important to be charged to unqualified or untrained people.

The processes

Over time, without periodic review of business processes effectiveness, data tends to become increasingly inaccurate and difficult to trust, especially as turnover takes its toll.  When staff lose confidence in their data, or when replacement staff haven’t been sufficiently trained, they tend to develop workarounds which compound the problems. If accountability measures don’t exist, staff may stop entering complete data or grow increasingly careless.

Consequently, there should be a team in place that regularly reviews the processes in SOPs and the underlying data managed through the processes.

In addition, a new breed of training platforms such as WalkMe can offer an affordable way for nonprofits to improve training, particularly on processes that the employee does infrequently. Better training on important tasks will decrease errors and increase confidence in the data, results, and outcomes.

Planning for staff turnover is a key task for leadership

The primary responsibility to take proactive steps to mitigate both the immediate and long-term effects of staff turnover falls to leadership.  A good first step is to document your technology roadmap, as this helps the leadership team take ownership of ensuring accurate data despite the inevitable staff turnover that will occur.

In addition, it is a best practice to ensure a data governance team is in place that is managing the system lifecycles and communicating across departments. This will help ensure that data management policies are in effect and are being reviewed periodically.

We are confident that if these steps are taken, your nonprofit organization will be able to maintain the health of its data and greatly lower the chances of adverse consequences from either sudden or gradual staff turnover.

Your nonprofit is not unique in this struggle 

After spending thousands of hours working in and with nonprofit organizations over the past 20 years, we have seen staff turnover at most nonprofit organizations. Some organizations have chronic problems with staffing, others experience disruptions with normal levels of staff turnover.

The bottom line for technology efforts and staff turnover

Like so many things pertaining to project success, organizational factors like leadership and operational maturity are essential to establishing staffing continuity during technology projects. Document your technology project, create a technology roadmap, create a data governance team, and get commitments from your executive leadership to manage staff turnover with transparent accountability.

Be sure to contact us if you have any questions about this article! We want your technology project to be successful and look forward to engaging with you. 

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