The Story of How One Organization Succeeded in Retaining Staff
By Yossi Prager
One prominent nonprofit leadership challenge is attracting and retaining talented staff. As I come to the end of 25 years as Executive Director of AVI CHAI in North America, I have been reflecting on how fortunate I have been to keep together a team of program and support staff, in some cases for two decades. Something about the culture built by our Trustees and management has worked, and I share these reflections and stories in the hope that they will be useful to others.
I need to start with the elephant in the room. AVI CHAI is a private foundation, and foundations generally retain staff at higher rates than other nonprofit organizations. Foundations usually compensate at a higher level, offer more stable financial environments and are better able to give staff the resources they need to succeed in their work. Most important, while foundation staff work hard, they do not experience the constant stress of fundraising that characterizes most nonprofits. All true. My experience is relevant to foundations and perhaps may be helpful to leaders at other nonprofits.
As I reflect, four factors most significantly contributed to AVI CHAI’s ability to retain highly-performing staff: (1) the people we hired, (2) a feeling of partnership among Trustees, management and staff, (3) the opportunity for evolving roles even within the same jobs and (4) work-life flexibility. What ties all these elements together is a belief that while organizational success depends on many factors, including strategy and finance, nothing matters more than recruiting the right people and enabling them to succeed and grow. I am incredibly grateful to AVI CHAI’s Trustees for having encouraged and supported me in this way of thinking.
Who We Hired
You might expect that a foundation with the mission of Jewish education would hire primarily Jewish educators. Yet in recent years our professional staff consisted of two lawyers, two public relations experts, the former president of a marketing company, a former Jewish Children and Family Services chief executive, and a professional from a non-Jewish foundation – in addition to a PhD in education with Federation experience on a day school program and two professors (who work at AVI CHAI part-time). All of them feel lucky to have been lured to Jewish professional work.
The hiring from diverse fields started when Zalman Bernstein z”l hired me out of a big Manhattan law firm on the theory that AVI CHAI staff needed to complement rather than duplicate the expertise of our grantees. In turn, I hired people I thought would be best for the roles we needed to fill, even if they did not have professional experience in the Jewish community. We hired based on intelligence, personality, professional skills, a history of hard work, and – very importantly – personal passions demonstrated by the way candidates led their lives outside of work. We also sought candidates with diverse Jewish backgrounds who were deeply committed to Jewish education and in love with the Jewish people. For the most part, we used the same criteria in hiring support staff.
Our Trustees made clear to me that hiring the right people and enabling them to succeed was my primary responsibility. In one case, I flew to Boston immediately after learning that a woman I dreamed of hiring had become engaged and the couple intended to move to the New York area. I made an offer before the bride even had a chance to consider alternatives. In the process, I snagged one of the key components to our spend-down planning and educational strategy.
Bringing together a diverse group of professionals with a common passion for the mission turned out to be invaluable for knitting the culture of mutual appreciation. Each person around the staff table contributed a unique skillset and perspective. All were dedicated to their own Jewish lives and personal Jewish growth, with different views and practices. There was so much we could learn from one another, including support staff.
I believe that program staff at AVI CHAI feel themselves to be full partners in the work and decision-making because they are at the table and encouraged to tenaciously defend their views, and because of an unusual compensation structure I’ll describe.
Every member of the program staff attended board meetings and had the opportunity to respond directly to Trustee questions and concerns. In addition, the governance system created by Zalman Bernstein at the onset of AVI CHAI partnered a Trustee and staff member on every grant program. This gave individual staff members a direct working relationship with Trustees. In some cases, the Project Trustee became a part of the team that oversaw the work on an ongoing basis.
More broadly, the culture at the foundation is almost Talmudic, in the sense that people routinely disagree with one another and vigorously defend their positions about the best course for advancing the mission. Meetings are not genteel: staff voice opinions, and even interrupt one another, without regard to their hierarchical roles. The discussions are respectful but blunt. Dating back to Zalman Bernstein, the leadership of the foundation has believed that robust debate is the best way to clarify ideas. As a side benefit, people learn that probing questions are not personal attacks but a tool for deepening thinking.
This is not to say that decisions are made democratically. The foundation has a hierarchy with the Trustees on top, clear accountability of the staff to the executive director, and junior staff reporting to direct supervisors. We actually became more hierarchical over time, in response to a concern from staff that too many people reporting directly to me was delaying approvals they needed for their work. The culture is less an Israeli kibbutz and more an entrepreneurial company: giving people the opportunity to make their best argument improves decision-making and also increases investment in the work even when the decisions disappoint staff.
The risk in stimulating robust debate is that staff use the opportunity for competitive advantage rather than collaborative thinking. It therefore became even more important to reduce tensions that undermine collegiality. One factor that can stimulate resentment is differences in compensation. This is a special concern at nonprofits, where public tax returns disclose the salaries of highly-paid employees. At AVI CHAI, we compensated senior staff at the same level, with salaries rising in tandem. There can be no issue of gender difference, and no disgruntlement about pay differential. The law firm I used to work for had a similar compensation structure for partners and associates.
Another facet of our approach to compensation communicated our high regard for program officers. In most organizations, there is a significant gap between the compensation of the executive director and the other staff. This is true at AVI CHAI as well. However, while the salary of the executive director was set to be in the mid-range of compensation for the top professional at similar Jewish foundations, salaries for program staff were always at the high end of the comparables. We wanted our program staff to understand how much we appreciate their contributions.
Small organizations offer limited opportunity for staff advancement. As a result, if organizations want to hold onto staff, they have to offer opportunities for the evolution of staff roles within their positions. Ten years ago, I learned that potentially destabilizing uncertainty and change can actually be a catalyst for energizing staff.
In 2008, as we began planning for spending down, AVI CHAI began to explore the possibility of simultaneously making many changes in our operating approach and internal culture. At the start, there was great uncertainty. Would our work actually change or were we just wasting time meeting? If we did change, would it lead to staff additions or terminations? How might the roles of individual team members change? What would happen if we failed to make the transition effectively? I wondered whether and how many staff might leave the foundation because of the uncertainty.
I remember opening the meeting that began the planning process with a thought about the Torah’s exhaustive (and exhausting) list of places the Jews camped during their 40 years in the desert. I suggested that the Torah’s message is for us to embrace the uncertainty of the journey, taking advantage of opportunities for growth as we travel from one encampment to the next. The staff seemed to internalize the message and, ultimately, the foundation shifted significantly – from solo funding to working in partnership with other foundations; from “buying programs” to also investing in the overall capacity of grantee organizations; from a flat staff structure to new roles and added hierarchy; from a Trustee-driven foundation to a Trustee-managed foundation with a larger role for staff.
The change did in fact create new positions in communications and strategic partnerships, some of which we filled internally. More important, all of our staff were charged with collaborating with grantees, other funders and the public in a different way. Staff needed to help plan for the long-term viability of grantees and programs, earn the trust of other funders, and learn to write and speak in public with a compelling voice. We helped the staff develop these skills through a set of professional development programs and, in a few cases, personal coaching. These changes and professional development invigorated the staff, who undertook their new roles with the excitement of people starting a new job.
We experienced a second change after staff-wide learning about ways in which new technologies and the broadband internet were creating a new context for our work and society. After months of reading and discussing books, learning from visiting speakers, and working with consultants, AVI CHAI undertook a new program area: blended learning. This, too, gave existing employees the opportunity for a new challenge, another change in role without leaving the foundation.
Change is often both necessary and frightening. My experience is that it can also be catalytic for giving employees energizing new challenges.
When we first grew our staff, we had a traditional work environment: everyone was expected to be in the office daily from 9-5. By the early 2000’s, the young women we hired began having children. AVI CHAI had a generous maternity leave policy (and a more limited paternity leave policy), but after the leave staff were expected to return to full-time work in the office. By 2006, a few of the mothers found the work-life balance to be sufficiently challenging that they were considering leaving the foundation or reducing their hours. At that point, we re-examined our assumptions about what kind of working conditions were needed for effective performance. Was there a way that we could accommodate staff needs for greater availability to family without losing the benefit of staff working together in the office?
We responded with a Solomonic compromise: we offered these women the opportunity to work at home two days a week – on Tuesday and Thursday – with the expectation that the full office would be present on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for scheduled in-person meetings and serendipitous trips to the water cooler that offer great potential for generating good ideas.
Staff needed to be set up to work effectively from home with both hardware (funded by AVI CHAI) and childcare. They were expected to be at their desks during work hours. And they needed to be flexible enough to attend meetings on a Tuesday or Thursday if necessary, even on little notice. Unfortunately, we felt unable to make the same offer to administrative staff, whose support was needed on site.
Both Arthur Fried, then AVI CHAI’s chairman, and I made the proposal with some trepidation. Concerned about productivity, I initially required staff on the program to provide weekly written reports on their work. When it became clear the productivity continued to be high, the requirement ended.
One staff member wrote a 2012 article providing her perspective on the flexible workspace arrangement. She wrote, “If I had not had the flexibility of working from home, I probably would have spent my 30’s working part-time. I would have put my family first and my career, and thus my opportunity to serve the Jewish people, second.”
Subsequently, another employee requested flexible hours (more hours Monday through Thursday, and Friday off) and argued that in her particular situation the new schedule would increase productivity. Consistent with the belief that our highest priority should be enabling talented and dedicated staff to succeed – and having learned that flexibility and productivity align – I said yes.
There is one additional, overarching factor. At AVI CHAI, the mission dominates, rather than personal egos. Zalman Bernstein implanted this ethic when he invested his Trustees with the authority to decide, even in his lifetime, the allocation of the funds he contributed. As a result, the foundation was never fully a reflection of him or any other individual. The Trustees, highly-successful academics or philanthropists in their own right, are humble in nature and were further inspired by the Chairmen who succeeded Zalman – Arthur Fried and then Mem Bernstein – to focus on organizational success and not personal ambitions. Without question, the culture of AVI CHAI developed because of this shared ethic among the Chairmen, the Trustees and management.
I have been blessed to lead the AVI CHAI – North American staff over the past 25 years. In sharing my story, I hope to “pay it forward” by contributing to the important conversation across the general and Jewish nonprofit worlds about how to attract and retain the most talented staff.
Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.