Hiring for Turnover

A Modest Proposal

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 20, No 3 (Fall 2009)

Claire Peeps

When I was in college, I had a great work-study job at an organization that placed students in internships with local nonprofits. It was a small outfit and a jack-of-all-trades sort of job. I answered phones, mocked up application forms, stuffed envelopes, filed, ran errands, organized open houses, and learned how to write a business letter. It wasn’t the sort of job you’d want to stay in for too long, but it was a fabulous introduction to the nonprofit sector. It gave me practical office skills to boot.

Today, I find myself in a small office again, at the Durfee Foundation in Los Angeles, having worked at a variety of larger organizations along the way. We have a bigger budget and scope than did my college post, but the administrative needs are pretty much the same—filing, database management, correspondence, light bookkeeping, events production. It’s still the kind of work that gets stale after a while.

To keep it fresh, I’ve marketed the job as a two-to-three year executive assistant position “ideally suited to a student who has recently graduated, or who may be between training programs, who wishes to gain practical experi-ence in the nonprofit sector as part of a platform for future studies and work in the nonprofit arena.”

Despite the fact that I have to rehire and retrain every couple of years (not so bad, after all), it’s been a successful, satisfying, and surprisingly easy strategy, and one I’d recommend to other foundations—especially to smaller operations, where there might not be much opportunity for upward mobility.

I know it seems counter intuitive to hire for turnover—especially right now, when we’re all just trying to hang on by our fingernails to any job at all. But careers need to advance, even in a bad economy, and it turns out that billing the more mundane tasks of the foundation’s management as a stepping-stone to future opportunities has been a good solution to the dilemma of the office doldrums. Give me a recent graduate who wants to change the world, and I’ll give her a crash course on the possible paths to her goal. What better perch, after all, from which to observe the work of dozens, or hundreds, of innovative, change-making organizations?

We’ve had four “office manager/executive assistants” in the past nine years—Christine, David, Sarah, and Daniel. They all joined Durfee shortly after finishing their undergraduate degrees, and all planned to go on to graduate school, though they hadn’t settled on their course of study.

Now, Christine has an MBA and a master’s in urban planning, and is working in transportation and land use, at a for-profit company. David, after working in China for two years and then launching an online merchandising company in the US, has co-founded a nonprofit that uses comedy improv as a healing activity for kids, seniors, soldiers, and others suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Sarah is due to arrive back in the States after a two-year tour of duty with the Peace Corps in Mongolia and plans to work in the public sector before going on to graduate school and working abroad. Daniel is preparing for the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), and exploring business school options. High achievers, every one of them.

We recently got together to compare notes on life after the entry-level Durfee job and to solicit their advice for other foundations who might want to give this “hiring for turnover” a go. One of the keys, they agreed, is for the job to be structured with enough downtime to allow for the pursuit of future goals.

At Durfee, we’ve structured this admin job as four days per week, and eighty percent pay. The staff have been encouraged to use the fifth day to pursue activities that might advance their aspirations, and it seems to have worked.

“The four-day week gave me time for research and reflection,” said Sarah. “I took classes. And in order to apply for the Peace Corps, I had to make a dozen appointments with doctors and with the Peace Corps office—all during normal working hours. I don’t know how it would have come together without the four-day week.”

Christine also took classes, “and I volunteered a lot. The money was a downside,” she said, “but I felt I was adequately compensated for the work I was doing, and there were a lot of other rewards. On a five-day salary, it would be easy to be complacent.”

“The four-day week has taught me a lot about time management,” added Daniel. “It’s a lot of responsibility. There are deadlines, and things have to get done.”

“I think about the graduation speech Steve Jobs gave at Stanford,” mused David. “He said that you can never connect the dots looking forward, only looking back.” With a post-Durfee interlude in the for-profit arena, David is now working at a nonprofit start-up, and sees his Durfee stint as the link connecting his undergraduate campus activism with his current social entrepreneurism.

“It was an ideal job,” said Christine. “It gave me so much exposure to so many organizations doing great work. The foundation is uniquely positioned to introduce you to a wide range of practice, from social justice to the arts.” As a newcomer to L.A., the job also “gave me a concept of the physical scale of the city, as well as the breadth of needs and opportunities here.”

And of course, there’s a selfish agenda in all this on my part, too. I am able to be constantly in the company of curious, ambitious, progressive minds who keep me on my toes. They are highly motivated and qualified, and bring fresh eyes to the work. They may move on after a short time, but they are enormously productive before they do.

Durfee is not the first to institute this short-term hiring strategy for entry level staff, nor the most evolved. A recent inquiry posted on the GEO listserv brought responses from several foundations with similar policies, among them the William Penn Foundation, the Duke Endowment, the DC Bar Foundation, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. The North Carolina Network of Grantmakers has published an excellent paper, “Cultivating Emerging Philanthropic Leaders: How to Establish a Fellowship Program,” which profiles several of these. It’s a valuable resource for grantmakers who might wish to add this dimension to their human resource policies.

Something to ponder, though. Durfee’s executive assistants—who all were promoted to “program associate” in their second year, with a raise and some added involvement in programs—said they might have had different expectations if they’d come in as fellows.

“I don’t think I’d have expected to do the filing,” said Christine.

“Filing wasn’t that bad,” David kidded her. “It was just paying dues to get to do the other stuff.”