Retaining an Engaged Staff to the End

As with other limited-life foundations, management at The Atlantic Philanthropies has had few outside resources to turn to for guidance in planning the foundation’s final trajectory. There have been many programmatic and operational issues to resolve, of course, but chief among our concerns have been issues related to our hard-working and capable staff.

Since joining the foundation, all Atlantic staff have known, at least in an abstract way, that at some point each of us would be moving on and the foundation itself would cease to exist. Still, as we entered our final phase – most staff will depart by the end of 2016, and we’re set to conclude most operations by 2020 – this quickly became a more tangible realization, and one with the understandable potential for distraction.

Going into this final phase, we knew there was critical monitoring, evaluation, and dissemination work to do in order to maximize the influence of the foundation before its closure, and that fact raised an important question: How could we retain staff members who know they face limited tenure? More importantly, how could we keep them focused on their work, engaged and productive, while supporting them through what is certain to be a significant professional transition?

We soon realized that reducing distraction would require providing staff with as much clarity as possible around their own individual employment trajectories. So in 2013, we undertook an organization-wide staffing analysis to attempt to map out the staff structure that would be needed to accomplish our programmatic and communications goals through our final phase. Managers held individual consultations with their team members with the ultimate goal of trying to provide “as much clarity as possible to as many employees as possible.” We tried to base the ultimate staffing decisions on organizational need while incorporating, where possible, personal staff preferences. The resultant staffing “roadmap” provided each employee with a projected end date: either a fixed date, where proposed tenure was relatively certain, or in cases where it was too early to project specific functional needs, a provisional date which could be subject to extension. 

Upon their departure, we want staff to be recognized and feel respected for their contributions, equipped for their futures, and positive about their experience at Atlantic. Our human resources challenge was to weave all this together in a way that made clear to all staff that while we depended on their continued concentration and commitment, we also intended to devote significant resources to help them plan their next steps, professionally and personally, and to ensure that they understood all of the transition resources we would be making available to them.

Atlantic has always had strong staff benefits, including access to ongoing training and professional development. And we already had severance practices in place, but these generally had been to address one-off situations and were not widely enough understood by staff to provide a sense of security as the pace of terminations and departures picked up.

So we developed, and promoted internally to staff, a comprehensive transition approach that included the following:

Training and planning. Among our professional development benefits has been a generous and liberally applied training budget that, in addition to job-related courses, can be used to prepare for “life after Atlantic,” whether in philanthropy or an unrelated career. Staff can use up to five additional days each year for study leave. We retained several different outplacement firms so that staff could have a choice of providers, and these have presented onsite workshops dedicated to resume preparation, interview techniques, and other job search basics. We also had a headhunting firm present four-session workshops on searches from the recruiter’s perspective.  In lieu of working with an outplacement firm, several staff opted instead to work with a personal career coach. Our Employee Assistance Plan periodically presents workshops related to more personal concerns, including financial planning, dealing with change, and preparing for retirement. We also asked our 401(k) vendor to come in for individual portfolio consultations. And we loaded our intranet with resources related to all of these transition topics, including the severance policy itself, an automatic severance calculator, and an FAQ and glossary of departure-related terms.

Fellowships. We conceived the idea of underwriting post-Atlantic fellowships as a way to seed the fields in which we work with relevant intellectual capital while also serving as a bridge for talented staff transitioning out of the foundation.

Severance.  Our most significant resource in retaining and maintaining an engaged workforce has been a strong, comprehensive, and now widely-understood severance plan that expands on several principles established in an earlier plan drafted by our then-general counsel and current COO David Sternlieb. The plan acknowledges that some circumstances in a spend down scenario are unique, and that they should be reflected in our severance policies.

Involuntary job loss hurts, regardless of the reason, and most Atlantic staff are losing their positions despite more-than-satisfactory performance; therefore, even staff who leave voluntarily still deserve some severance, as spend down factors often contribute to their decision to leave. Furthermore, as an international organization with offices and staff in several countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, our plan needed to be tailored to those markets, despite the challenge of balancing a desire for organization-wide consistency with different legal requirements and cultural expectations. In addition, the plan acknowledges that our obligations to staff increase with length of service.

Reward longevity and encourage transparency. Our monetary severance benefit is built on progressive three-year tenure-based tiers – i.e. the longer someone stays, the more generous his or her severance (an obvious retention incentive). The plan includes a version of “phased severance” to reassure staff that even if an employee opted to leave before his or her planned exit date, so long as Atlantic could accommodate the earlier departure date, he or she would still be entitled to a percentage of their severance benefits (an invitation to employee/employer candor). The policy also includes COBRA coverage for the period of severance (with a comparable provision for our overseas staff); outplacement support; and an allowance for post-departure professional development or coaching.

The value of open communication during a time of change such as this can’t be overestimated. Upon inauguration of our new severance policy, the human resources team held an all-staff meeting, videoconferenced among all our global offices and complete with a robust PowerPoint, to formally present the new policy and answer questions. We continue to augment and publicize new transition resources, and we make sure to meet individually with each departing staff member to go over their plans for exit and ensure they understand their benefits. As Tony Proscio chronicles in his fourth report on Atlantic’s limited life, our staff welcomed the transparency of a publicized severance policy along with related transition policies and the sense of security those policies provide.

In almost all instances, we have been able to retain staff through to completion of their work portfolio, and also have been able to maintain an atmosphere of good-faith dialogue around departures. At the same time, crafting comprehensive transition resources for our staff has helped our human resources team realize its challenging mission of contributing to the field by creating innovative personnel policies and practices that potentially can be of use to other foundations considering a limited-life approach. Indeed, we feel that how limited life-foundations treat departing staff will be a significant part of the history and legacy of these organizations.

Do you have other ideas to support staff retention and transition in spend down situations? Share them in the comments!

This is the eighteenth post in the "Making Change by Spending Down" series, produced in partnership by The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and GrantCraft. Please contribute your comments on each post and discuss the series on twitter using #spenddown. See related content below for more posts in this series.