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Why stay interviews are perfect for nonprofits

By February 6, 2020April 5th, 2021No Comments

If you’re a nonprofit CEO or HR manager, you know how to conduct job interviews with prospective employees and exit interviews with departing employees. But do you know how to conduct a “stay” interview with your current employees?

A stay interview is a one-on-one chat between workers and direct managers designed to learn why employees like showing up every day and what might make them leave. It’s a prophylactic technique designed to root out problems and disappointments before they propel a worker to pursue other opportunities, aka quit.

“Stay interviews are a way to cut employee turnover,” says Richard P. Finnegan, CEO of C-Suite Analytics and author of “The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention.” “But stay interviews must be part of a business-driven process, just like sales.”

Even though stay interviews are a great way to retain employees, few nonprofits use this HR tool.

A 501(c) Agencies Trust survey in 2020 found that only 16% of the 214 nonprofits surveyed conduct stay interviews.

“It’s easy for nonprofits to believe that employee retention is an uphill climb, because they can’t offer what for-profit companies can,” Finnegan says. “That’s all the more reason to do stay interviews because they tell you what employees want versus what you think they want.”

Nonprofits struggle with finding enough time to perform mission-necessary work plus the standard HR requirements like annual reviews and in-house training. How can nonprofits afford to carve out time—20 minutes per employee per year—for stay interviews?

How can nonprofits afford not to, Finnegan asks.

“Calculate the cost of losing a professional, times the number of people you lose in a year. Then decide if you have the time or not,” he says.

In fact, conducting stay interviews enhances the primary reason employees stay at a company – trust in their managers.

“People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers” is an HR truism. Not only do stay interviews help cement the bond between workers and managers but if conducted correctly, stay interviews dive into ways that bond might be weakening.

How to conduct stay interviews

Conducting stay interviews is as much art as industrial psychology.

The biggest mistakes managers make, Finnegan says, is that they talk more than listen, accept rather than probe, and try to fix problems immediately rather than mull the issues.

“If the problem is there’s not enough pens in the supply cabinet, fix it,” Finnegan says. “But most people’s issues run deeper than that. You don’t have to find a perfect fix, you just have to improve things.”

More importantly, you must show workers that you hear, digest, and take their grievances seriously. One way to do that during a stay interview is to say, “I have taken four pages of notes. I want to think about everything you’ve told me and talk to people on the team. Can I come back to you Tuesday at 2?”

Here are more tips on how to make the most of the stay interviews you conduct.

Listen more than talk
Unlike annual reviews, where you spend the bulk of time offering feedback, stay interviews are the time for you to listen. Finnegan suggests that managers commit to listening 80% of the interview. Try to focus on what your employee is saying, and not on what your next question will be.

Take deeper dives
Probe answers your worker gives during the stay interview. Questions that begin with “why,” “how,” “what do you mean,” can elicit more information than initially offered. Probing questions also send the message that you’re listening and you care.

Keep a record
Jot down important points, emotional words, and proposed solutions to any problems your employee raises. Jotting down notes shows that you take the interview seriously, and it gives you a record to review before the next stay discussion. Be careful, however, to focus most of your attention and eye contact on your employee, not a notepad.

Here’s a cheat sheet for stay interview questions

A great stay interview is a spontaneous conversation based primarily on the information your employee reveals. Finnegan has provided the following a specific list of stay interview questions that, he says, help you learn “how to leverage an employee’s interests and meet their work needs.”

  1. What do you look forward to during your commute to work? – This question is designed to guide an employee to discuss the everyday reasons they stay engaged in their job – people they like working with, relationships with supervisors, engagement in work projects. Do your best to draw out answers with follow-up comments such as:
  • Tell me more about that.
  • Give me an example.
  • Please be more specific.
  1. What are you learning here, and what do you want to learn? – For new employees, ask what they’ve learned so far and where you, as their manager, are coming up short? For veteran employees, who express boredom, come back to them with every job that might appeal to them or their skills.
  1. Why do you stay here? – This often is a tough question for a worker to answer, but resist temptations to help out with suggested reasons. If you can tolerate the silence, the worker can dig inside, gain insight, and announce to you why they stay with your company.

“Once they say it, they won’t forget it,” Finnegan says. “Then you can begin to connect dots. ‘What can I do to take what they like and leverage it to make their job 5% better?’”

  1. When is the last time you thought about leaving us, and what prompted it? – This question is a toughie, because many workers won’t admit that they ever thought of quitting. But hopefully, by the time you’ve reached Question 4, you’ve proved yourself to be a good listener and a person who’s not defensive.

If the answer is, “Last week because you were a jerk to me,” your answer should be, “Tell me more. Let’s talk it through. I don’t want you to think I’m a jerk.”

  1. What can I do to make your job better for you? – This is what Finnegan calls the build-a-boss question because it provides information that shows how you’re falling short as a manager and how you can improve. Perhaps you need more support or resources from your supervisor. And that’s a good place to start during your own stay interview with your boss.

About the Author

Lisa Kaplan Gordon is a veteran content producer, e-book creator, and social media writer with two Pulitzer Prize nominations and three National Headliners Awards. Her writing has appeared in Washingtonian Magazine, Redbook, Yahoo!, AOL Real Estate, AOL Daily Finance, USA Today, and US Weekly, as well as major metro dailies. She writes several times a month for


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