Nonprofit Stay Interviews: Your Key to Staff Retention

Nonprofit Stay Interviews: Your Key to Staff Retention (with Tips, Benefits, and Scripts)

February 5, 2023
9 minutes
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In the nonprofit world, we’re all about donor retention. New donors are great and all, but long-time, devoted, reliable donors? They’re simply the best. However, in a tight labor market, at a time when most nonprofits are experiencing increased demand for their services, we need to turn our attention to a different type of retention: keeping our superstar staff members around. How can we ensure we’re fostering a work environment that attracts and retains top talent? Friend, allow us to introduce you to stay interviews.

What is a stay interview?

A stay interview is an interview between a supervisor and current employee to learn what actions can be taken to ensure the employee stays with the organization. You can think of it as an exit interview for current employees. When you willingly leave a job, HR usually sits you down and conducts an interview, right? They ask what went well, what didn’t, etc., etc., etc. And maybe it’s cathartic, but mostly, you think, “Why are you asking this now, when I’m already out the door?”

Where an exit interview is a discussion that, ostensibly, seeks to improve the workplace experience for future employees, a stay interview seeks to improve the workplace experience for current ones so that they want to stick around. By asking high-performing employees the right questions, you can glean essential intel about how to build a top-tier workplace full of super-satisfied employees.

Benefits of stay interviews

If you’re intrigued, allow us to elaborate on the many ways that stay interviews can benefit your nonprofit organization.

Improve employee retention. When you show folks that you care and invest in their workplace well-being, they tend to stick around.

Build trust and boost morale. People want to work for people who take a genuine interest in them—people who are invested in their satisfaction and success. Stay interviews show that you’re here and you’re listening, which builds trust and lifts spirits.

Get balanced feedback. Job interviews are all about the positive, while exit interviews are often all about the negative. Stay interviews offer a more balanced, less biased perspective.

Address issues early. When someone stands up and yells, “I quit!” then exits in a blaze of righteous fury, they didn’t wake up that morning and decide to do it. Things festered and festered until they reached a breaking point. If you make stay interviews a part of your strategy, you’ll learn about problems as they arise, so you can address them before they snowball.

Build a better culture. While stay interviews are a great tool for staff retention, they’re really about making employees feel valued—and that starts with a great culture. You can use the feedback you gather to improve your company culture, which will inevitably lead to happier employees, increased engagement, and greater productivity.

Get a head start. A stay interview sets the stage for transparent communication. If, in the future, an employee is considering leaving, it’s much more likely that they’ll come to you first with their issues, giving you the opportunity to convince them to stay.

It costs you nothing. You don’t need to invest any of your hard-earned money in stay interviews. (Though if you want to buy your employee a latte to make the convo flow smoother, we’re not gonna stop you.)

Tips for conducting effective stay interviews

The stay interview basics are pretty, well, basic. Supervisors schedule a 30-60-minute one-on-one chat with each of their top team members. If you really want to slay the process, however, here are some best practices.

  • Let employees know what to expect. If you slap a 30-minute stay interview on each employee’s calendar, their response is going to be, “What’s a stay interview, and am I getting fired?” You value your people, so do them the courtesy of setting expectations in advance and giving them the opportunity to prepare accordingly. Maybe even take a page from your #humanehiring playbook and send them the questions in advance?
  • Be selective. You don’t need to do stay interviews with every single employee. Talk to your top people, the ones you really want to stick around.
  • Meet face-to-face. Whether it’s in person or on Zoom, a stay interview is a personal experience. Body language is an important part of that, as is eye contact.
  • Listen more than you speak. You’ve asked your employee to discuss their experience with you, so give them the floor. Try to focus on their answers, be present, and only speak when they’re ready to move on.
  • Remember: This is not a performance evaluation. Resist the urge to respond to specific comments or defend against people’s quibbles. This isn’t about you or your organization; it’s about your people and making them feel valued. In fact, we suggest scheduling stay interviews far, far away from performance evaluations so that employees feel comfortable speaking their minds.
  • Plan ahead, but keep it organic. If you want genuine answers, this should be a conversation. Start with a few key questions, show genuine interest, and let things progress naturally.
  • Record it. A stay interview isn’t just a one-off event; after, you’ll want to review your findings, share key takeaways, and make actual changes. To ensure you stay in the moment, we suggest recording the interview—with consent from your interviewee.
  • Be honest. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep. If your volunteer coordinator is exhausted by the long hours, don’t give them the news that they’ll be working eight-hour days until an actionable plan is in place.
  • Follow up. The stay interview is just the beginning. Once you’ve met with the rest of the leadership team and discussed key takeaways, let your employees know about next steps. Make stay interviews a regular part of your annual routine, and show employees you’re listening by harkening back to their previous concerns.
  • Take action. Stay interviews can quickly turn into exit interviews if you don’t act on any of the information you learn. While you won’t be able to do everything, you need to commit to effecting real change in response to your employees’ feedback.

Ways to screw up your stay interviews

While stay interviews can be a powerful tool for employee retention, there are plenty of ways things can go south. Before you jump into stay interviews, it's important to consider the underlying structure, consider the context, and make a post-interview plan. If you don't want to faceplant, beware the pitfalls below.

Not following up. We just told you that following up is one of the most important parts of the process. Now, we're saying it again: Failing to take action is a huge miss. Look at it from your staff's point of view. If they tell you clearly what needs to change and things stay exactly the same, it's worse than if you never asked for their input.

Not allocating any resources to enacting changes. While stay interviews themselves are free of charge, there will be a cost to enacting necessary changes. Stuff like raises may cost money, additional PTO may cost in output, and making structural changes may require you to spend your own capital to go to bat for your team. Make a plan to free up those resources!

Going in with a closed mind. If you think your leadership is beyond reproach and you're using these interviews to corroborate that belief, you're doing it wrong. If you can't take constructive criticism, there are two ways things can go down: Your staff already knows it and won't give you the truth, or they'll give you a rude awakening while making themselves vulnerable. Either way, your stay interviews are now worthless.

Ignoring the power imbalance. You're the boss. Your team is subject to your reviews, your feedback, and your distribution of plum projects. Heck, they're at your mercy for a reference, even after they've left your org. For these reasons and more, you've got to keep that power imbalance in mind as you ask them to speak their truth.

Dismissing your unconscious biases. We've all got biases; they're human and natural. When we insist that we're above being biased, though, or refuse to acknowledge them, we're on a fast road to fiery impact. Disregarding feedback because of who it's coming from or making changes for one group over another is dicey territory, so examine your reactions and your Whys before you make a move.

Disconnecting the dots. If only one staff member on your team complains about the coffee flavors in the office, it's probably not a huge problem (although it'd also be an easy fix.) But if a majority of your team or an entire department are telling you that mandatory, 7AM, camera-on meetings are inequitable and The. Absolute. Worst., there might be something to it.

11 stay interview questions to ask

To prepare for stay interviews, you’ll need a half-dozen meaningful, open-ended questions to get the conversation flowing. Here are some classics.

1. What keeps you at this job?

Sometimes, it’s good to cut to the chase. If you know what’s keeping top employees at your organization, you can do more of that.

2. What’s your favorite thing about working here? Your least favorite?

Now, it’s time to dive into the day-to-day. People stay at a job or leave a job based on a variety of factors, but if they basically enjoy the work and the people, they’re far more likely to stick around.

3. What skills or strengths do you have that we’re not taking advantage of?

If your team members feel that their skills are being underutilized, they’re going to look elsewhere. Additionally, you never know what hidden talents you’ll discover. Every nonprofit could benefit from an amateur balloon animal artist, right? (Seriously, though, that would be extremely helpful at fundraising events.)

4. What do you like about our company culture? What could be better?

If you’re looking to increase overall satisfaction and engagement, cultivating a positive culture is the way to go.

5. What skills would you like to develop going forward?

Top talent wants to be challenged as they grow their skills and their careers. Offering them tailored development opportunities and training shows that you’re invested in their long-term success. Plus, this question provides insight into where they see their career going from here.

6. If you’ve thought about leaving the organization in the past, what prompted that?

This question might make your employees uncomfortable, so tread carefully and only ask it if you have a solid relationship built on trust and honesty.

7. What might tempt you to leave in the future?

If your people really trust you, they’ll tell you what could make them leave, so that you can meet that need and convince them to stick around.

8. How can I be a better manager for you?

While wider organizational transformation is a wonderful goal, it might be a bit farfetched. This is an area you have control over.

9. How would you like us to recognize your work?

Some folks want a shout-out in the newsletter, others prefer spontaneous daily validation, and still others desire a sparkling Dundie Award. Recognition is key to retention, so if you value a staff member, you want to recognize their efforts according to their individual preferences.

10. Do you have the resources you need to do your best work? If not, what should we be providing that we’re not?

If you want people to do excellent work, you need to give them the tools to succeed. This question asks staff members for specific guidance around how you can support them.

11. If you could change one thing about our organization/company culture/your role, what would it be?

While you might not have control over these big-picture suggestions, you can start working toward positive changes, in small ways, right away.  

Stay interviews: FAQs

What’s the difference between a stay interview vs an exit interview?

An exit interview is an interview given to employees before they leave an organization. It focuses on how the company can improve. A stay interview is for employees who don’t have plans to leave and focuses on improving the work experience for that individual.

Who should do a stay interview?

While exit interviews are usually conducted by HR, a manager or supervisor should handle stay interviews. That’s because they’re in a position to effect meaningful change for the interviewee.

Why can’t I just use an employee satisfaction survey?

Surveys are great, but they’re a general overview rather than a personal conversation. A stay interview shows that you’re invested in specific employees’ long-term satisfaction and allows you to make adjustments to meet their needs and keep them engaged.

How long should a stay interview be?

You never want to rush a stay interview, but they usually don’t take that long. Schedule each one for 30-60 minutes, knowing you probably won’t need the full time.

Your greatest asset is your people, so if you’re lucky enough to have a dream team, do your best to keep them around.

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