Nonprofits, Are you Constantly Losing Staff of Color? Here are 4 Ways to Stop the Churn.

Racially Equitable Hiring and Retention Practices in the Nonprofit Sector: A 3-part blog series by Joanna Shoffner Scott

If you subscribe to my newsletter, then you know that I am a big fan of James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. Of the wonder that is this book, two of my favorite lines are: You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. Followed by: Your behaviors are a reflection of your identity. As I wrap up this series on hiring, I pose the question: How do Black staff fare within your organization and does that “faring” reflect your organizational identity?

Does your organization foster a sense of belonging across identity?

If you have experienced a churning of Black staff, meaning you hire smart, capable staff, then they leave after short tenures. Then, the process starts over and ends the same way. I suggest to press pause and take a hard look at your systems, the people in your organization and the way you work. In my experience, root causes for churn include:

  • A lack of inclusion that includes power;
  • No upward trajectory for promotion;
  • An oppressive, toxic work environment;
  • Feeling invisible or feeling hyper-visible (ignored or tokenized), especially as a white-led organization takes on diversity, equity and inclusion work; and
  • A disconnect between the organization’s public identity and internal practice.

To give you a visual click here to see critical work on the churn cycle of women of color in nonprofits (pdf) from the Building a Multi-Ethnic, Inclusive and Anti-Racist Organization: Tools for Liberation Packet (pdf). Might some of the illustrated dynamics be at play within your organization? 

In this last post of my series on nonprofit hiring, I want to explore ways that organizations can take concrete steps to retain Black staff and staff of color.

  • Acknowledge that your workplace environment could be toxic for Black people. Often in the organizational systems space, we talk about structures apart from people. Yet, people create systems and implement policies and practices. White supremacy lives in the structures of your organization. That means in order to disrupt it, you must first acknowledge it. Also, know people on staff benefit from its existence and that benefit can accumulate across racial lines. Serious conversations about organizational identity that center race can create anxiety. These feelings are real and stem from a deep fear of a loss of privilege and power.
  • Accept that your staff are likely having different experiences within your organization, according to their position and their racial identity. Critical. In my experience, this reality can be a hard one for managers to accept. Yet, it is true. So much organizational process is wrapped in an equality framework, i.e., everyone is treated the same therefore their experience must be the same. Once this reality is accepted, then it becomes easier to take action. A consultant can help you gather this information but I caution you: Do not go down this path unless you are prepared to hear hard truth (possibly about your own management style) and unless you plan to make a change.
  • Accept that some managers are never going to the okay with equity-centered processes. If that’s the case, then that’s probably a major reason Black staff depart your organization. Such attitudes signal an inclusion problem, which is at the heart of the churn. Shifting toward equity will require a mix of staff competencies and maybe some staffing changes. Again, this particular shift connects back to your organizational identity—are you who you stay you are?
  • Be accountable. Accept that the behaviors of staff inside your organization may harm people. Decide that creating trauma and harm is unacceptable. Shift toward equity by adjusting your policies, practices, and protocols to protect Black staff and staff of color, across the varying dimensions of identity.

With time and intentionality, you can change who you are as an organization. Do this important work before starting your recruiting process.

This post is Part 3 of a 3- part series on racially equitable hiring practices.
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Author: Joanna Shoffner Scott
Joanna Shoffner Scott is an experienced management consultant with deep expertise in racial equity. She is the founder and principal of Stamey Street Consulting Group, LLC, and is a Senior Consultant with the Race Matters Institute of JustPartners, Inc. Joanna has consulted with numerous organizations all over the country on unpacking race in their every day work.