There are a variety of reasons people leave jobs in the nonprofit sector – bad fit, bad manager, new opportunity, mergers, downsizing, firing, restructuring — but there’s no question that at some point all of us will leave a job. The bigger issue is not why but how we leave, and what legacy we leave behind.
Wendy Plandowski, partner at leadership consulting group, BreakPoint Solutions says, “Almost everyone I’ve ever worked with in philanthropy has a desire to leave an organization in a better state than they found it.” She adds, “Probably 80% of the motivation to move on well is because you care for your community and organization, and 20% of the motivation comes from wanting to leave with references and relationships intact for your own benefit.”
This is especially true in small communities. Plandowski herself works in Lloydminster, Alberta, with a population of about 30,000 people. She says, “We all intermingle in our professional lives. Burning bridges would likely result in someone needing to move elsewhere.”
However, the same can be said for much of the charitable sector since, although it employs more than two million Canadians, it often functions in sub-sectors and sub-sub-sectors that become much like relatively small towns themselves.
The question of to let go well was actually one of the most responded-to requests for input on an article that we’ve ever experienced. Thanks to all of those who shared their thoughts and ideas with us, we’re able to share practical tips and philosophy on how to leave a job and move on well.
Emotions and lessons
Whether you choose to leave a job or are asked to leave, it is a form of loss and thus involves a process of grief, says Janice Cunning, cofounder, Fundraising Leadership. “Too often we focus on moving on to the next role without acknowledging that something is ending and processing our conflicting emotions.”
For “Kendall”, who recently left a role after a restructuring but has previously left other roles by choice, the emotional aspect of leaving is similar but not identical. “When it’s your choice, you go through a disengagement process while you’re still at the organization but with restructuring, it’s like a band-aid being ripped off and your world changes immediately.” In her situation, “I went through all the stages of grief. For the first two weeks I was operating in a state of shock (wasn’t eating or sleeping). I dove into the job search process, booking networking meetings, etc. (because that’s what you’re supposed to do). It was about the third week after where I hit the wall and slowed down a bit.”
Cunning encourages those leaving a role, for whatever reason, to accept the process and to also take time to learn from the experience they are leaving behind so that they can move forward well. “Take time to process your successes and failures, the good and bad parts of the role. Things are often hard at the end of a job but usually a lot of good came before that. Take time to feel gratitude for those experiences and figure out what you want to take forward.” She adds, “This is a good time to identify your personal values, your strengths, the environment you want moving forward, and even your perfect work day.” Kendall agrees, noting that reviewing her recent projects during her job search brought up a wide variety of emotions toward her former employer and colleagues.
Certain emotions, however, can be more challenging. “You want to be in the best frame of mind going forward so you don’t want to let yourself get bitter or cynical,” says Kendall. For “Grace”, a nonprofit leader on the east coast, working for a manager she describes as “emotionally abusive” led her into therapy, where she examined the relationship and how she could move on from its emotional effects in a healthy way.
It’s important to acknowledge that leaving any role in the nonprofit sector can be particularly difficult emotionally because many people work with the organizations they do because of an affinity with the organization’s mission. Cunning says, “If you’re working at a for-profit, you may have a strong sense of mission and purpose, but it’s not the same thing as if you began working with a cancer-serving institution after your mother died of cancer.” In fact, some people who left organizations reported that they stayed on longer than they likely should have at the organization because of the pull of the mission.
Those working in the nonprofit sector often find it easy for their identity to become embedded in their work, for good and for bad, says Plandowski. “We live, eat and breathe the roles we are in and they are often very holistic.”
Sometimes it’s not me, it’s you
Like any relationship, a workplace can become unhealthy for an employee. Wagman says, “If you’re leaving a toxic environment and you need to get out, wrap things up quickly and cleanly. You don’t want to burn bridges but you don’t need to spend time thinking about how you could make things better.”
At the same time, when Grace left her difficult workplace, she says, “I’m glad I put energy into doing what I could to leave the work in good shape. I left knowing I’d done my best to make sure the work had the best possible chance of surviving.”
Any job involves a wide variety of relationships, all of which will be affected by someone leaving. As Cunning says, “Leaving a job is leaving people.” At the same time, says Wagman, “It’s important to care for those relationships on your way out because you will cross paths again.”
Sometimes this leaving can be difficult on relationships. Plandowski recalls resigning partway through a campaign at a health foundation. “It caught people off guard and there were potentially some hard feelings.” She also recalls that leaving another job was difficult for her family members to understand.
“Be careful how you message your leaving,” advises Cunning. “People will want to know why you are leaving and it’s important to maintain professionalism, be positive and not say things you will regret. Talk what you are going towards, with a sense of possibility and excitement, rather than the story of why you’re leaving.”
Remember, too, says Cunning, that leaving a job doesn’t have to mean severing relationships. Cunning’s husband recently left a position and said one of the most important lessons for him was recognizing that relationships that were important could still be cultivated even when they didn’t work together, that former colleagues could be friends.
Nuts and bolts
There are a number of practical tasks that can mean the difference between an employee leaving well or poorly. Cindy Wagman’s fundraising consultancy for small nonprofits, The Good Partnership, is often called by organizations to backfill positions during gaps between employees. Wagman says, “The way a role has been left has a big effect on how quickly we can get things up and running. In our experience, big gaps in systems and information-sharing happen even when staff have the best of intentions and are committed to leaving well.”
Wagman offers the following practical tips:
- Decide with management what the priorities in your last few weeks of work will be.
- Use databases and keep them up to date. “Too often employees keep their own records in emails and files and spreadsheets where information is updated rather than using the central database. The next person coming in often has to spend months pulling information together.”
- Work on the cloud. “We often think it’s great to offer remote and flexible work but this only works well when work is cloud-based. This makes it easier in times of transition but also for collaboration. Don’t do your work in offline folders – it isn’t helpful.”
- Capture your processes. In addition to writing out all the information an employee thinks their successor might need, Wagman recommends creating simple, shareable videos for hard-to-describe processes, and says that Loom is a terrific, free screen capture and video tool that allows such processes to be communicated better.
- Manage information management. Wagman says, “I’ve seen organizations whose Facebook password was kept by the person in the position five staff members ago!” Password management tools like LastPass make sure information doesn’t leave with a staff person.
- Make warm introductions where possible. As an employee leaves a role, it helps the organization if they communicate their departure and what happens next to those they work with, such as volunteers, donors, etc. This might mean an introduction to the new staff person or explaining the interim plan and who can be contacted in their absence.
Several of those we talked with arranged an overlap period where they returned to their former employer for a day a week for a period of time, allowing for training of their successor, wrapping up of projects and a more seamless transition. All those who did this, however, recommended stipulating a pre-determined length of time for doing this rather than leaving it open-ended. Lee-Anne Bigwood, who is currently doing such a transition between employers, says, “The advice given to me was to try not to tie up too many things because work is always continuous. Even if you stay on with your employer through a transition, you need to recognize you won’t always be able to see your work through to completion.”
The jury is out on the value of the exit interview. In the entire process of leaving, Kendall used as a mantra the Polish proverb: Not my circus, not my monkeys. For her, this was a recognition that she was not going to be able to change a situation she was leaving behind. Grace experienced this the hard way: her efforts to share concerns with her CEO in an exit interview led to the meeting being rescheduled three times, before being shortened to a brief conversation.
Cunning advises clients, “If you’re fortunate enough to have the chance to do an exit interview, always be truthful about why you’re leaving. It doesn’t always help but it does mean that things that should be documented will be documented.” She adds, “It is important to craft your message in a way that is constructive to increase the chances of it being heard.” She suggests practicing what you want to say with a trusted friend who can help you balance professionalism and truth.
A number of people who left organizations talked about creating simple practices and space to let go.
When Cunning left a job, she asked a coworker who was a friend to have lunch on her last day. Cunning used the lunch to talk about what she had learned and appreciated, and what she was looking forward to next.
Grace says that the process of boxing up all her files and returning them to her employer was a satisfying way to clean out her space and bring a challenging job to an end, while “Jack” says that when a particularly difficult job ended, he found it cathartic to burn all the files his organization didn’t need.
Cunning says, “There’s privilege to doing this but if you can create a bit of time between jobs, I recommend that. Even if it’s only the weekend, it can create a bit of a reset.” Bigwood planned to take a sabbatical between jobs, to take a chance to think about what she wanted to do. When a terrific opportunity for a new job came up, she decided to shorten that time away but still decided to spend two weeks largely alone at a cottage.
Clean break or not?
Here’s where the song from Frozen (“Let it go!”) comes in. It can be very challenging for a former employee to know whether or not to continue to be a donor to an organization, for instance, or to follow the organization on social media.
The right answer appears to be very personal, and has to do with why you left and what you need to be able to move on.
Wagman, who says she tends to err on the side of making herself available to former employers, finds she doesn’t need to take a clean break, that she still talks about herself as part of the “we” that accomplished particular milestones. At the same time, she says, you need to figure out what’s right for your own needs.
For Bigwood, this means shifting her involvement with her organization: after leaving her paid role, she plans to be an active member instead.
But for “Charles,” “It is a real challenge to support the dreams of another as your dream is being dismantled.” He says, “The fine line between support and dismay has been interesting to walk.”
For some people, this means creating some space. While Plandowski continues to be a strong advocate and donor for her former organizations, she found she needed to take a break from following them on social media because “it was draining energy from me. I was feeling left out – and social media reminded me that my people were moving on without me.”
“The sector attracts a lot of all-in-for-the-cause people,” says Kendall. “We think what we’re working on is the most important thing in the world. Initially I needed to create distance from the organization I was leaving, to limit contact with coworkers in the early days, and to move forward.” Meeting with others in other subsectors and those who had also dealt with leaving roles gave her wider perspective and a sense of possibility for what could be ahead.
Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.
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