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  • Pat Libby

How to stop the exodus

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (something I’ve longed to do lately), you’re probably aware of the Covid-triggered worker shortage that’s been accompanied by the Great Resignation. Business Insider reports that 38 MILLION Americans quit their jobs in 2021!

What happened?

  • More than 30 million Baby Boomers said they’d had enough in the 3rd quarter of 2020 alone! Many more followed them in the ensuing months.

  • 10 million mothers decided that the mental and physical health of their kids was more important than their jobs.

  • Workers of all types became fed up with being treated like commodities

  • Shut-downs and the ripple-effects of the illness gave people time to reflect on the meaning of life. That led to a push for better work-life balance, new careers, or new business ventures.

I’ve read a gazillion articles by economists and social scientists about what’s happening, and how businesses are struggling to find good employees. Like you, I’ve read, about wage increases (thank God – it’s about time).

And, I’ve also noticed something that hasn’t been discussed much which has caused me to form my own theory…

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

At every single one of my favorite restaurants (and these are neighborhood joints not upscale places), almost every server who was there before Covid is still there!

Yup, the same folks who know that I like spicy jalapeños and black tea, are still smiling and chatting with me about the weather, daily specials, Covid, my dog, my earrings, their earrings, whatever.

To state the obvious, these aren’t jobs that are high on the pay scale. BUT, they are businesses where the owners treat the staff like family.

From The New York Times: "'The tolerance for dealing with jerky bosses has decreased,' observed Angelina Darrisaw, chief executive of the firm C-Suite Coach, who saw a spike of interest in her executive coaching services last year. 'You can’t just wake up and lead people,' she added. 'Companies are thinking about how do we make sure our managers are actually equipped to manage.'"

So, what’s a nonprofit do to ensure a happy and productive workplace?

1. Set some values and live by them. One of my wonderful clients, Mama’s Kitchen, has its value statement posted throughout the organization and advertised on all job announcements. Their core values are dignity, respect, reliability, integrity, diversity, and team work. The really great thing is they mean it, and you can feel that when you interact with anyone on the staff.

2. Think carefully about the work-life balance of your staff. Are people working endless hours staring at Zoom screens or are they taking some time to care for themselves? In this sector, we’re always prone to sacrifice for the good of the cause. We need our staff to sacrifice perfection for their own mental health.

If you aren’t sure how hard people are working, ASK and observe.

3. Make sure your staff feels supported. With so many of us working from home or going into nearly empty offices, we’re not getting quality time with colleagues. Humans are social animals! We need to interact. Figure out how to provide regular support, feedback, and teamwork at your organization.

4. Start paying decent salaries! Nonprofits are adept at spending a nickel five ways, but we have to stop being cheap with our peeps! In this sector, people matter most. Take a page out of the book of the Seattle-based, Choose 180 to see what fair pay looks like. We need to educate funders and donors about why our staff deserves to be justly compensated for what they do.

These are stressful times my friend. If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, please let it be that we need to treat each other with greater kindness. That’s not only good for the soul, it’s good for the bottom line no matter what type of business you’re in.


Pat Libby is a nonprofit consultant and author of The Lobbying Strategy Handbook: 10 Steps to Advancing Any Cause Effectively from Oxford University Press. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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