Charity Works: Employee retention


Lisa Vitale, left, program manager for the PRS Recovery Academy, talks during a suicide assessment training. The nonprofit helps people with mental illness or behavior and emotional disorders. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

Nonprofit: PRS Inc.

Type of work: Serves clients with mild intellectual disabilities, substance-use disorders and mental illness.

Area location: McLean.

Number of staff: 55 full-time, 14 part-time.

Annual budget: $5 million.

There seemed to be a revolving door at PRS. Graduates fresh with a degree would join the human services nonprofit, stay for one year — maybe two — spruce up their resume for a higher-paying private or public sector job, and then leave.

“We became a training ground rather than a place where people have their careers,” said Wendy Gradison, chief executive of PRS.

Things had been that way since the nonprofit first opened its doors 49 years ago, as are most nonprofits that provide human services. After arts and culture nonprofits, human services had the second highest turnover rate in the nonprofit sector at 25 percent in 2010, according to a report by Opportunity Knocks Research, an organization that provides human resources data for nonprofits.

PRS had nearly twice that rate.

Almost half of the staff at PRS were replaced in a given year.

It was costly and it threatened relationships with clients — especially those with mental illnesses — who depend on a consistent case manager to walk them through rehabilitation. Not to mention that the busy work of replacing staff diverted attention from better helping clients.

It was three years ago when Gradison realized something had to change. She called up a colleague that she knew with an impressive nonprofit consulting portfolio, Ian Cook of Fulcrum Associates. He helped engineer a three-year strategic plan.

One of the defining initiatives in the plan was for PRS to become “the employer of choice.” To do that, PRS had to figure out why people were leaving.

They found that people left because of compensation, lack of training, lack of support from managers and, for some, the culture just wasn’t right.

After bringing in a human resources director, PRS implemented new programs for staff, including skills training, job coaching, group coaching and biweekly meetings with supervisors.

For managers to detect any early warning signs with new staff, they implemented entrance interviews within the new hire’s first 90 days.

The human resources department also beefed up rewards and benefits with programs such as tuition reimbursement and whole life insurance.

A new dashboard system helps track employee well-being and satisfaction, and a new survey Web tool called Evaluate to Win tracks staff feedback.

The door doesn’t revolve so much these days at PRS.

The turnover dropped from 40 percent to 14 percent in three years. The median tenure now is 3.5 years and the nonprofit was named 19th in the Nonprofit Times’ 50 Best Nonprofits to Work For in 2012.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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