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Slowing the Revolving Door

November 22, 2011

By Oscar Wolters-Duran

When we think about the myriad challenges faced by organizations serving homeless youth, what comes to mind? A lack of funding? A terrible economy that is making it virtually impossible for young people to get a job? Skyrocketing tuition that is making higher education less accessible than ever for youth?

Yes, these are all very serious. However, I would argue that one of the biggest challenges facing organizations serving homeless is youth is far less dramatic, but considerably more damaging: staff turnover.

Staff turnover creates challenges at many different levels. Organizations lose institutional knowledge, and have to reallocate time and money into recruiting, hiring, and training new staff instead of spending those resources on service delivery. Most troublingly, the disruption extends to the youth served by the organization. Turnover is most prevalent at the entry levels of an organization, among staff that often have the closest contact with youth. We know that one of the key needs of the youth we serve is to develop trusting relationships with caring adults. My colleague Simone Tureck, who spent many years in direct service programs, saw firsthand the damage that ongoing staff turnover caused when trusting relationships were disrupted between youth and line staff.

How big of a problem is staff turnover? A 2006 national study of child welfare organizations by Cornerstone for Kids found that the turnover rate was between 20% and 40%. In a 2010 study, online job site Opportunity Knocks found that human service and youth development nonprofits had among the highest rates of turnover in the sector, between 30% and 40%.  A positive sign is that rates at housing and shelter organizations are among the lowest, at 6%. Turnover is higher in smaller organizations, and among line staff.

What are the causes of turnover in our field?  While not all staff turnover is preventable – health and family issues arise, people relocate or go back to school, positions need to be cut and disciplinary action needs to be taken – there are several actions that organizations can take to better retain staff. Opportunity Knocks found that about 32% of staff turnover in the nonprofit sector falls in the “preventable” category: staff that accept offers at competing organizations, who are dissatisfied with working conditions, pay or the lack of opportunities for advancement.

What can be done to better retain staff? The Cornerstone study found that the highest functioning group of organizations with the lowest staff turnover, spent significantly more time in training new staff. Almost three times as much (48 days vs. 14 days of training for new staff). These organizations also paid their staff more, and had the highest compliance with performance standards.  Clearly, the better trained a staff person is, and the higher their ability to meet performance standards, the more likely they are to remain. While this may seem obvious, when I provide trainings on effective supervision, I often find that staff don’t have clear, updated job descriptions. Or that their managers are so “hands-off” that staff receives far too little directive supervision, coaching, or recognition for a job well done.

In our capacity building efforts, the Homeless Youth Capacity Building Project has provided training and technical assistance that we hope has a direct impact on decreasing staff turnover, including a regional training on effective supervision, and technical assistance to organizations to manage executive transition, and to revise their policies and procedure manuals, organizational charts and position descriptions. We’ve also created a resource guide with links to online resources, training and technical assistance with categories under Management and Administration, Staff, Volunteers and Consultants, and Succession Planning.

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