Talk to any nonprofit leader and they will tell you: burnout in the nonprofit sector is going to be one of the biggest and most tragic outcomes of the pandemic. After over 20 years working in this industry, I have never seen this level of staff turnover. Our employment statistics were already dicey with three to five years as the average tenure of a nonprofit CEO and an astounding 18 months for a development officer. But what we’re seeing today is more alarming with the release of a 2021 study conducted by Nonprofit HR reporting that 45% of nonprofit employees will seek new jobs by 2025.

What does this mean for the nonprofits in our community and their constituents? The resulting instability from that level of turnover will be devastating to program delivery and direct services. We should brace ourselves for the possibility that our favorite nonprofits may not weather the storm. We will likely see consolidation of services and a shrinkage in the sector.

We know that there was a slimming down of the industry after the last recession and some of that was positive in eliminating redundancies in the space. Mergers and acquisitions in the nonprofit sector have been needed for some time and the scarcity of resources effectively forced the hands of leaders who were already contemplating either closing or teaming up with other organizations to maximize impact and increase operational efficiencies. But what this study is predicting could disrupt the entire nonprofit industry.

My greatest concern is not that we will see more movement within the industry, but rather we will start seeing employees abandon service organizations altogether. With no clear end to this and higher demands on their time, these workers are being asked to do more with less… indefinitely. Meanwhile, McDonald’s has signs offering $500 signing bonuses and job growth is predicted to remain strong through the end of 2021. We can’t fault nonprofit employees for leaving the industry and never looking back.

Volunteerism has been particularly challenging during COVID-19 as retirees became more wary of doing in-person service work. The threat of new variants will continue this trend and again, the impact of fewer volunteers is an overwhelming workload that cripples nonprofit teams. Recognizing the added burden and showing gratitude goes a long way. As does money. With a bit more money for hiring, even temporary positions, we could see a real decrease in burnout.

Nonprofits need capacity-building support from funders to help keep their teams intact. Dollars to increase health benefits, or PTO days, or even salary increases, and performance bonuses would improve staff morale. It also probably wouldn’t hurt if the public thanked them. Just as we thanked front-line workers, we should be thanking our service providers and trying to buoy their spirits right now. We fought for our local businesses and now we need to fight for our favorite nonprofits.

Many foundations in Colorado have relaxed deadlines and reporting requirements and have given nonprofits more flexibility in how dollars are spent. Hopefully, this trend continues. These are the agencies that provide much of our state’s safety-net services and without them we would need a major government effort to fill the gap.

But what can we do as individuals? We can continue giving to the agencies we love and letting them use those funds however they please. Unrestricted gifts allow nonprofits to deploy dollars where they’re needed quickly. Often, major gifts from large patrons have strings, but our smaller gifts can support organizations however they see fit.

And we can also think about how we spend our dollars. When we shop at Hope Tank, we know a portion of those dollars are going straight to their nonprofit partners. When we drink coffee from Prodigy Coffee, we’re supporting their apprenticeship program. When we eat at Café 180, or SAME Café we make sure someone else can eat as well. 

It might not seem like much, but together we’re powerful. We can be part of the solution by giving a bit more, supporting businesses who care and simply letting a nonprofit employee know that we’re grateful. As Coloradans, we prove time and time again that we have generous hearts whether it be supporting our first responders during the wildfires or ordering takeout from our favorite Korean BBQ to keep them afloat during lockdown. Let’s help salvage yet another important industry.

Melanie Ulle is the founder and CEO of Philanthropy Expert, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Denver.