Why People Leave Your Social Enterprise

(Hint: It has to do with your employee value proposition)

August 19, 2015

Last month, after three years of incredible service, we said, “Goodbye” to Maribeth Carroll, Acumen’s Director of Talent. The work Maribeth did revolutionized how Acumen approaches talent. Before she could get away we sat down with her to hear what she’s learned about recruiting, developing and retaining talent in the social sector.

Before Acumen, Maribeth spent 15 years in HR at a large financial services firms so she’s been watching employees join and leave jobs in the private and nonprofit space for nearly 20 years. It turns out that what people care about and value in their work transcends sector, ethnic culture, and even economic and education levels. In this exclusive interview, Maribeth shares what she’s learned about why people leave social sector organizations and the importance of developing a clear employee value proposition to keep your people engaged, connected, and committed to your organization.


You’re not managing expectations.

The battle for good talent in the corporate and social impact sector is quite similar, except for one added pressure - outsized expectations of what it should look and feel like to work on social change.

When people make a choice to work for a social impact focused organization they’re often giving up cushier digs in the private sector where they didn’t have to contend with the same resource constraints or infrastructure challenges. “When you are working in a resource constrained environment, whether it's financial, technical or human capital constraints, there are just more day-to-day challenges that require a certain level of resilience and grit,” says Maribeth.

“When people make the choice to do this type of work, along with the sacrifices that accompany that choice, these added challenges frequently rest right below the surface and can impact employee satisfaction and engagement, especially when other challenges arise.”

In addition, “People have a personal commitment to wanting to do the work, and when it becomes more personal like that, I think people’s standards and expectations are higher” says Maribeth. “When the expectations are so high the disappointments are greater when things don’t go as planned. It could be anything from not getting a promotion to not feeling the organization is moving in the precise direction they want it to go.  Because they feel so deeply attached to the mission and impact your organization is trying to create, these issues feel more personal and the disappointment is amplified.” It’s these outsized expectations, which Maribeth believes are fairly reasonable on the side of staff but pose additional challenges for managers in keeping team members happy and engaged.


Acknowledging outsized expectations pose a challenge is the first step in retaining and engaging employees. However, the second more important step is understanding what your employee value proposition is: what motivates your staff and how you can build that into your incentive structure. Below Maribeth describes three strategies nonprofits and social enterprises can employ beyond the standard tools (such as compensation or equity) found in the private sector.

1. Understand Your Employee Value Proposition

Employee value proposition is talent speak for the unique characteristics that make your organization such an appealing place to work. It’s essentially the deal you strike with your staff for their contribution and performance.

The key pieces of your employee value proposition could include the following.

Maribeth says the key to developing a solid employee value proposition is recognizing that “You don’t have to compete on every single aspect. You just need to define what is unique for your organization.”

“The most compelling aspect for organizations in the social sector can be the Vision and Mission.”

“Don’t miss the opportunity to emphasize that and have your managers keep that front and center in the work experience.”  The best advice would be to connect team members with the customers who positively benefit from whatever your social enterprise is creating or changing.  There is extensive research by Wharton professor, Adam Grant, and many others that prove the importance of meaning in avoiding burnout and increasing productivity and engagement.  You can hear more about that research in his TEDx talk.


But there’s also an opportunity to differentiate your social enterprise in other areas.  Say you’re running a coffee washing station at a company like Acumen investee KZ Noir, which sources coffee from smallholder farmers in Rwanda and sells it to blue chip buyers such as Starbucks, Sustainable Harvest, Mercanta, and Stumptown. They may not be able to compete highly on compensation and benefits but they can compete making it the best coffee washing station work culture in the region.

That’s exactly what Maribeth saw when she visited KZ Noir in Rwanda. Gilbert Gatali, founder and Managing Director of KZ Noir has deliberately built a company culture that goes against many of the norms found in Rwandan work culture. For example, in an environment where paying people on time and consistently is not the norm, Gilbert has made a commitment to doing just that to build trust and accountability with his employees.

As the Managing Director Gilbert sits in the same office as the other members of his management team and he has created an open culture, versus reinforcing the traditional hierarchical environments. Everyone in the 65 strong company starts the day in a circle and shares what they’ll be working on that day including Gilbert, which again reinforces accountability and respect regardless of whether you are the administrative assistant or the CEO.

Maribeth says everyone she spoke to from the day laborers at the washing stations to the station managers commented that they know management cares about them and the work they’re doing because management “shows up” and gives constructive feedback on how the washing station is performing, and consistently show a real understanding and appreciation for their work. “There’s a great sense of loyalty that’s been built with Gilbert and his management team.”

2. Align Reality with Rhetoric

“Whatever you say you’re delivering in your employee value proposition, make sure you deliver that."

Most importantly, Maribeth says,"The reality and the rhetoric need to be aligned. It’s more damaging not to deliver on something you’ve highlighted versus just saying we can't pay at the top of the market, but we offer other compelling developmental opportunities by working here and this is what they are. Then be sure to deliver those. People joining then understand what they’re getting and enter with expectations more aligned with reality.”

When you’re not explicit, others can impose their expectations onto your organization and that’s when we see misalignment occur. It’s a challenge but one you can actively manage by communicating a clear employee value proposition and being transparent on what you can and can’t deliver.

3. Management can be a lot simpler than you think

After spending time talking with many people at Acumen and Acumen-backed companies, reflecting on her own experience in the nonprofit and private sector, Maribeth has learned that people value similar things in their work environment:

  • People want to work for people they personally trust;
  • They want to understand and have shared goals so they feel they are contributing to an organization’s results;
  • They want to see people in the organization move from one role to another and begin to visualize a future for themselves;
  • Most learn best through an apprenticeship model, when their manager can teach them more about their role by partnering and allowing the team member to shadow the manager;
  • They want autonomy to contribute and make decisions within the scope of their role
  • And they want senior management to show their commitment to the team by showing up, being present, asking them what’s important to them, and how they are doing personally and professionally.

It’s not complicated and the managers who do it well create great cultures and great organizations.

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