Many industries continue to see a decline in workers as the Great Resignation continues. Within the government and nonprofit sectors, worker losses may extend beyond the loss of organizational expertise and negatively affect the organization’s networked efforts to reach the broader community. As the Great Resignation continues to drive workers out of education and health care, what happens to the social impact goals for learning and health outcomes set by community partners?
Social impact refers to outcomes that occur across a community or environment as a result of organizations working together. But achieving social impact is not short- term proposition. Instead, it may take several years of working together before networks begin to see any results. That’s a long time for an industry characterized by high employee turnover.
As researchers who are primarily interested in how social impact organizations collaborate to pursue social impact for the communities they serve, we rarely see a network that relies on the same leaders from start to finish. Nonprofit leaders retire, they quit and re-surface at another community organization, or they quit the sector completely. Other nonprofit leaders remain committed to the network in theory, but simply stop showing up at meetings or events. As one of our research participants suggested, relationships are built between people rather than organizations. When personnel changes occurred, these relationships “reset to zero.”
We know that change is frequent. But we have also seen how innovative organizations can be as they keep going. The following are several suggestions for nonprofit leaders as they seek to maintain their networked efforts amidst organizational and individual turnover.
Create working groups.
This strategy for navigating frequent turnover is one that we’ve seen applied to large networks. Some networks, such as the Howard County Local Children’s Board or the Summit Education Initiative, find it useful to split into working groups that focus on priority areas. This allows groups to go at their own pace, ensuring that some groups continue even when another is impacted by turnover. The presence of working groups may also be beneficial to new network members who join efforts already in progress, as it’s an easy way for members to self-select into the networks based on their interests or expertise. Having multiple working groups may also create a “two tables” solution that allow for disagreement within networks – and potentially creating a more inclusive network less likely to be negatively impacted by turnover.
Invest in network expertise.
Human resources – including knowledge about how to access hard-to-reach populations or local expertise – are perhaps more difficult for nonprofit networks to replace than financial networks. Social impact networks are already relying on individuals who are essentially working two jobs – typically as a paid employee of an organization while offering unpaid support to the network. Network leaders can minimize the loss of network expertise – and ward off burnout – by distributing network responsibilities and knowledge across the network. There are multiple approaches to setting up a network, some of which rely on distributed governance and shared responsibility that may reduce the pressure on any one individual or organization.
Cultivate commitment to the network.
The Multi-Agency Alliance for Children (MAAC) suggested that although organizational turnover is commonplace, network leaders should hold any new replacement staff to the same levels of commitment. When an individual leader departed an agency within the MAAC, their replacement was not guaranteed network membership. Instead, the existing network members vetted the agency under its new leadership and voted as to whether the organization could remain. The MAAC uses this approach because of the rigorous standards of care required by each participating agency and because of the vulnerable populations the network serves. In holding organizational partners to this standard, the MAAC cultivates a commitment to the network that transcends any individual leader.
Balance efficiency with inclusivity.
When network members are constantly turning over, it can mean a loss of expertise or support for the network – or it can mean that the network is gaining new members that are excited to participate but don’t necessarily share the same vision that was cast by their predecessors. In these cases, it can be tempting to go back to the beginning. The network can become stuck between moving forward in pursuit of its goals or revisiting previously resolved questions about how to approach its work. We suggest that this is a network dilemma – something that never is fully resolved, but rather a problem that a network must continually manage. Given that social impact networks form in response to social problems, it is expected that some revision will occur. But networks might also encourage new members to support some initiatives that they might not have chosen.
Consider whether turnover provides an opportunity for greater – but necessary – change.
Some changes in network personnel may prompt a change for the better. Our research highlights some of these examples, including new executive directors that prompted a transformational change in the network. These new leaders injected fresh energy into the network while maintaining consistent funding. Voyage became more community-focused as a result of its leadership change. The network reported streamlining its program offerings while also growing network membership. Similarly, Achieve Brown County suggested that a change in leadership resulted in reconsideration of the network’s mission and vision – but ultimately resulted in reinvigorated partner engagement.
Though the Great Resignation’s effects will likely be felt for years to come – and nonprofits, in particular, are vulnerable to these changes – social impact networks can continue their important work. The value of any effective network is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and a successful social impact network can keep going even as its membership changes.
Katherine R. Cooper is an assistant professor at DePaul University. Michelle Shumate is the Delaney Family University Research Professor at Northwestern University. They are the co-authors of the recent book, Networks for Social Impact (Oxford University Press).
Written by Katherine R. Cooper and Michelle Shumate