Why nonprofit executives leave, and how to keep them

Molly Brennan
Molly Brennan

Molly Brennan

In the corporate world, salary is a key motivator that causes executives to move on to a new position. While salary can be a factor – and may become even more of one during the current economic downturn – most nonprofit leaders choose to move on for a whole host of more subtle reasons, many of which could be and should be addressed before key leaders decide it’s time to look for a new position.

As most people connected to the nonprofit sector know, a leadership deficit is looming large. According to some estimates, by 2016, as many as 640,000 new senior managers will be needed in the nonprofit sector – the equivalent of 2.4 times the number currently employed.

This is one compelling reason to find ways to retain and engage current leaders. But there is another, even more fundamental reasons why it’s important to create an environment that inspires loyalty and enthusiasm: it’s critical to your mission. When employees feel good about their jobs, they are able to further your organization’s mission productively and efficiently.

Below you’ll find a list of five of the most common factors that push nonprofit executives into the job market as well as ideas for addressing these situations before they become an issue.

Lack of clear expectations from the board of directors

Executive directors and other senior leaders need clear expectations and goals just as much as more junior staff members. A clear strategic plan that maps out goals, how they will be achieved, and senior manager’s roles in the process is an absolute must.

Without this, an executive is forced to make guesses about what the priorities are and how to align resources.

An inactive board of directors

One of the most frustrating organizational roadblocks for nonprofits is an inactive board. A board that doesn’t fundraise or members who don’t commit time and energy to their positions make it almost impossible for senior leaders to do their jobs well.

Board development – and clear expectations about what each member is expected to bring to the table – is absolutely critical for any mission-driven organization. A strong, productive board provides a framework of goals and expectations that allow senior management to concentrate on the day-to-day tasks of achieving the mission.


There’s no question that burnout is a serious issue in the nonprofit sector. A critical mission combined with limited resources is a sure recipe for overwork, and eventually, burnout.

So many nonprofit executives live and breathe their jobs in a way that can become unhealthy for them individually and for the organization. There are many systems and benefits that can be established to avoid burnout. These include scheduling adjustments like flextime, which allows employees to navigate work and personal responsibilities, or telecommuting, which allows employees to work from home on a regular or occasional basis.

Sabbaticals are another benefit that is extremely effective in combating burnout. The ability to take a sabbatical can give executive directors and other senior managers a break while also giving less experienced staff members an opportunity to step up to new challenges.

Many organizations find that employees who take sabbaticals often return refreshed, energized, and even more connected to the mission than before they left.


Once executive level managers master the ins and outs of their jobs, they can be at risk for stagnation. Running a nonprofit doesn’t leave much time for professional development or new challenges.

But professional growth is key for employee retention and engagement. Even high-level managers need regular performance evaluations and the opportunity to set personal and professional goals.

Executives should be encouraged to attend conferences and training sessions, and they should always feel like they are growing and learning even though they are already at the top of an organization.

Feeling disconnected from the mission

Managers are often so entangled in paperwork and organizational concerns that they become disconnected from the core mission. It’s important to set up systems and programs that help management and staff remain tied to the work that the organization is doing.

This could be a monthly or quarterly direct-service requirement or regular visits to sites where the mission is actually being served. It’s also important for nonprofits to remember to reflect on accomplishments. So many organizations are focused on resources that taking time to publicly draw attention to successes never happens.

A strategic plan is another useful tool for making sure that employees are connected to the mission. When a new plan is developed, rather than diving into the implementation phase, spend time talking about how the plan is going to impact the mission.

Lack of a clear vision for the future

This is one of the most important factors that play into an organization’s overall success, not just whether or not an executive level employee will stay or go. All nonprofits need a crystal-clear vision.

Executive directors and other senior managers should be able to look five years into the future and see what the organization – and thus their jobs – will look like. A fuzzy vision is a major red flag for employees. An unclear vision could push strong performers out the door.

By paying attention to the warning signs listed above and taking steps to address them before they become concerns that are grave enough to cause executives to consider leaving, you will not just be retaining your best talent. You’ll also be building an organizational culture that inspires loyalty and engagement from the top down.

Molly Brennan is a senior search consultant at Koya Consulting, LLC, a national retained search and consulting firm dedicated to the nonprofit sector. She can be reached at mbrennan@koyaconsulting.com.

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