For six years, Rhonda Robbins has helped adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities do daily tasks like get dressed, prepare and eat meals, and shop. She normally does this 10 hours a day, four days a week as her job at Waban, a nonprofit that provides housing and services to these adults and children in Southern Maine. The work is hard but rewarding.
The Changing Nonprofit Workplace
Charities are getting creative to compete for workers in a tight labor market. Some organizations are going all-remote. Another force shaping the employment landscape: younger employees' approach to work. Read more:
“I’ve made a real connection with the members and just love watching them grow,” she says. “I wish I would have found this line of work years ago. I love it.”
But the last year or two have been challenging. Because the group is understaffed, she often works overtime, putting in 14-hour shifts that leave her exhausted. She is going through a divorce and was having a tough time finding a place to live. Although she recently received a pay increase and a bonus, apartments are too expensive — as much as $2,000 a month.
Waban has struggled to find and keep employees like Robbins, and that means the nonprofit — like many others nationwide — has been forced to cut back on some services, and some clients are landing on waitlists. The organization is taking creative steps to stop the bleeding, but it hasn’t been easy.
Before the pandemic, Waban had 380 employees. Now it has only 320. It had to close one of its group homes, although it managed to move the people into other units it runs.
Of the 60 employees it lost, 37 worked one-on-one with developmentally disabled children. The organization eliminated about half the openings in its children’s programs and now has waitlists. Waban just can’t find enough people who are willing to do the job.
It has never been easy to fill direct-service positions like the one Robbins has, but the challenges now are unprecedented, says Jennifer Putnam, Waban’s executive director. Some staff re-evaluated their priorities during the pandemic and decided to work part-time or quit the work force entirely. Maine’s unemployment is a low 3.6 percent, yet labor-force participation is about 5 percent lower than it was a decade ago.
The Nonprofit Hiring Crisis
In October, the National Council of Nonprofits asked more than 1,000 organizations about their ability to hire and retain workers.
“I don’t have the answer to the question of where did all the employees go,” Putnam says. “But I don’t think they’re coming back.”
Nonprofits across the country face the same problems as Waban. In a December 2021 report from the National Council of Nonprofits, one-third of the health and human services, arts, culture, and education organizations it surveyed had 10 to 19 percent of their positions open. Nearly half — 42 percent — had 20 percent or more of their positions open.
About two-thirds of fundraisers and advancement leaders at universities and independent schools said that staff shortages and resignations were their biggest workplace concerns in an April survey by fundraising consultancy Washburn & McGoldrick. Nearly 60 percent of arts-organization leaders said it took one to three months to fill an open position. Thirty-eight percent said it was taking three to six months in an April survey by Advisory Board for the Arts.
Salary and competition are likely big factors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages paid by all employers rose more than 5 percent over last April. Job openings are hitting record levels. Nationally, there are 1.9 jobs available for every unemployed worker.
Nonprofits are trying everything they can to compete. Many have raised salaries, often trying to eliminate historical inequities in their pay structures by increasing the lowest salaries the most. They are offering more flexible and hybrid work schedules, sometimes going entirely remote. Some are trying to give higher priority to the needs of employees, listening to their concerns, working to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and practices, even restructuring and cutting hours. They hope that these measures can help make up for the one thing they can rarely do — pay as much as for-profit companies.
Faced with chronic staff shortages, nonprofits are struggling — and that is affecting the communities they serve. According to the council’s survey data, about one-third of groups that had waitlists for services reported that the waits were more than a month long. Some surveyed groups have stopped offering waitlists because clients are unlikely to ever get to the top of the list.
I don’t have the answer to where did all the employees go. But I don’t think they’re coming back.
The hiring crisis comes at a time when inflation is sending costs soaring and the demand for services is growing, says Tim Delaney, CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits. All of these forces, he says, “result in work-force shortages that threaten the ability of nonprofits to help their communities.”
In an effort to hang on to employees, Putnam, the Waban leader, has been listening to her staff to learn more about what they want and need. As a result, the nonprofit has started several creative efforts to help keep employees on the job.
Waban has opened its waterfront property to staff and their families for the summer. They can swim, fish, kayak, and occasionally use the fire pit for free. It increased its lowest salaries from $12.50 an hour to $16 an hour. The organization is providing loans to employees who need them. It has allowed its administrative staff and case managers to work flexible hours and work remotely all or part of the time if they choose. Waban gave out gift baskets and ordered pizza for staff.
One of the most common issues Putnam heard from employees was the area’s lack of affordable housing — some employees have quit to move to cheaper states. She decided to try to address the problem directly. Waban recently made four housing units it owns available to employees, and last month it closed on a building with eight apartments, which the organization will make available to lucky employees at below-market rates.
Robbins won one of the first units in a lottery. She moved into her new two-bedroom apartment in early May. The rent, including utilities, is just $1,050 a month.
All of the gestures, from the apartment to the bonuses, have bolstered the warm feelings Robbins has about the organization. “It makes me appreciate work a lot more,” she says. “It makes me feel like I’m a valued employee. It just feels good.”
Competing With Roy Rogers
Health and human-service groups have always had a hard time recruiting people for low-paying direct-service positions. The low wages are often the result of government contracts and grants that fail to pay for the true cost of delivering those services, says Victor Valentine, executive director of the National Human Services Assembly. Because their funds are often locked in years in advance, groups are unable to adjust to the tight labor market and inflation, even for trained professionals like social workers and therapists.
If groups can’t offer services, needs in communities won’t be met. Valentine says that in some places, for example, a lack of youth programs is leading to increases in dropout rates and interactions with the criminal-justice system. “We don’t have enough people to stand in the gap.”
Near Hearts and Homes for Youth in Maryland is a Roy Rogers. It has a sign-up offering $3,000 signing bonuses for new employees.
“That’s direct competition,” says Chloe Bernardi, CEO of the nonprofit, which provides housing and social services for young people who are referred there by the juvenile-justice system. She says her lowest-paid employees earn about $15 an hour. But that doesn’t compare with Target, which recently announced it will pay some starting employees $24 an hour, or the big signing bonus close by.
State contracts for services constrain what she can afford to pay. Bernardi sees the biggest impact with social workers, whom she says are nearly impossible to find. They often can earn more and work remotely elsewhere. By contrast, her social workers are working in person. On top of that, the state has not been able to issue licenses to social workers at its usual pace because of Covid, staffing shortages, and a December ransomware attack on the health department, according to a department spokesperson.
How to Attract New Employees — and Keep the Ones You Already Have
Increase pay. Funds are always tight for nonprofits, but many groups are finding ways to offer signing or other bonuses. To advance equity, some organizations are restructuring pay so that their lowest-paid workers get the largest percentage increases.
Offer perks. Gas cards and free meals can show employees that their work is valued. Some nonprofits are getting creative, offering employees low-interest loans and, in one case, below-market housing.
Cut hours. A rape-crisis center in Salt Lake City, unable to compete on salary, reduced the workweek to 32 hours for some hard-to-fill positions.
Be flexible. Many employees worked from home over the past two years, and they now expect more autonomy in their jobs. Let as many workers as possible work remotely, at least part of the time.
Cross-train employees. Some nonprofits are training staff to cover for one another. That way even people with jobs that must be done in person can work from home once in a while.
Create career ladders. Many employees want to know they can advance in their careers. An organization that advocates for children who have been abused changed its entire structure to create more levels of management to offer new opportunities for promotions. The nonprofit also provided additional training to help staff build skills.
Promote wellness. The rape-crisis center educated employees on how to recognize burnout and encourages staff to ask for help if they see signs of overwork.
Bernardi raised social workers’ salaries by about $5,000 to $7,000. She also raised compensation for hourly employees by $2 to $5 an hour. The group offers a signing bonus and another bonus after six months to encourage people to stay. Some employees receive funds to compensate for increased gas prices. But nothing has helped her to maintain her staffing levels. The result: Hearts and Homes is serving fewer people. Though it hasn’t cut programs, some group homes are only at 50 percent capacity. That comes at a time when cases are more complex, in part because of the pandemic. Young people are facing more mental-health problems, which has required more staff training to help them meet those needs After so much remote learning, they are behind academically, too.
“It’s a constant juggling act of figuring out where to put the money, how to keep morale up, how to keep people feeling safe, wanting to come to work,” she says. “There are so many other options for our employees right now to choose something else.”
Therapists have been the hardest group of professionals for Sonya Martinez-Ortiz to hire at the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City. The group provides services to rape survivors: accompanying them to the hospital for a forensic exam, teaching them about their rights, and providing case-management services and therapy. The organization also does community outreach about the issue and advocacy with lawmakers.
This past year the Rape Recovery Center lost funding because the government cut 10 percent from victims’ services spending. Next year it may cut another 15 percent, further affecting the group’s budget. At the same time, the organization is trying to make its pay more competitive. Its lowest paid staff now earn about $18.75 an hour, up from $17 before the pandemic. “I’ve been trying to slowly address pay equity, looking at the market, looking at our budget,” Martinez-Ortiz says.
But those increases can’t come close to meeting the prevailing salaries for early-career therapists. The group pays them about $45,000 a year. But many other employers start them out at $60,000 to $80,000.
“Early-career social workers are making almost as much as I’m making as executive director of a $1.6 million organization,” she says.
To try to make the jobs more appealing, Martinez-Ortiz reduced their schedules to 32 hours a week. That way they might be paid less, but it’s for a shorter week. The group has made positions as flexible as possible, allowing as many employees as it can to work from home three days a week. The organization encourages workers to take time off. No one needs to prove why they need a sick day.
That supportive work environment is a big reason Stephanie Nolasco, who helps rape survivors obtain services, does crisis intervention, and supports help-line volunteers, is so happy with her job. She received training from the center on how to recognize when she was overworked so she could look for things like irritability, a loss of appetite, or anxiety and a loss of enjoyment. “I can communicate if I’m experiencing burnout. I can set boundaries and people respect that,” she says. “I haven’t always had those experiences in other nonprofit jobs.”
Half of the therapist positions — including the clinical-director position — are open at Child Advocates of Fort Bend, an organization that provides services to abused and neglected children, including mental-health care. It’s been that way for months.
Rhonda Robbins moved into a low-cost apartment provided by her employer, a nonprofit in Sanford, Maine, that serves people with disabilities.
Several therapists left to start their own private practices because demand for services is so high. Later, some of those former employees tried to recruit some remaining staff members to join them.
Demand for services keeps growing — about 20 percent a year over the past two years. The organization now has a waitlist for therapy and has to refer people to outside providers, where they will have to pay for services that the group would have offered for free. Some staff members in other departments are taking on a higher caseload to make up for open positions.
“It has been extraordinarily difficult to recruit therapists. That’s been our toughest one,” says Ruthanne Mefford, the group’s CEO. “The demand is so high, and there’s just such a shortage of qualified therapists.”
Faced with impossible situations, nonprofit leaders are doing their best to appeal to prospective employees. Nonprofits do have one advantage over other types of employers — the work can be meaningful and important, says Lisa Brown Alexander, CEO of Nonprofit HR. With so many workers re-evaluating their priorities in life, that can help make a nonprofit career appealing, despite the financial difficulties.
But an appealing mission is not enough, she says. Groups need to make their employees a higher priority. “When leaders focus on creating positive, nontoxic workplace cultures, they tend to win in periods like this where the work force is reshaping and demands for talent are tight,” she says.
Nonprofits need to care not only for the people they serve but for the staff and volunteers who do the work. Alexander urges leaders to be flexible and give staff some autonomy. “Some rules don’t apply in this very unusual dynamic environment,” she says. “It’s agility, it’s empathy, it’s engagement, it’s equity, it’s understanding. Those are the things that help organizations get through difficult times, and humans will rise to the occasion.”
Some leaders struggling to hire and keep staff are already taking this approach.
At Child Advocates of Fort Bend, Mefford hired a consultant to help her assess the organization, and she conducted listening sessions with employees to learn more about their thoughts and concerns. One issue that came up was the group’s structure. It was too flat. There were executives and frontline workers — and not a lot in between. That meant that workers did not have much opportunity to get promoted and grow professionally.
Child Advocates hired a leadership coach to help it find ways to do more training and to help employees grow in their jobs. It created a top-level group of managers to receive leadership training. Some frontline workers became first-time managers and are receiving management training. Another group of direct-service workers is reviewing the various functions of the organization to see whether they are in line with the group’s culture in areas like recruitment, diversity, and self-care. The group of workers will make recommendations for changes to the leaders. The nonprofit also focused more on trauma-related care for its clients. And it created a new department that does community outreach and education.
Mefford says she wants employees to be engaged and have a sense of ownership over the organization and its direction. And she wants them to see that the group has changed. “There’s going to be many more career opportunities here,” she says. “This is a place you can stay in. You can build your career.”
A nonprofit, unable to compete for therapists on salary, cut their work week to 32 hours.
Some of those approaches resonate with Casey Davis, the organization’s community-engagement director. She appreciates the group’s focus on values and its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts over the past two years. She aims to pass on the autonomy and flexibility that she now feels to the people she manages. She can let people decide to work different hours or work from home. “If your team is not happy, nothing’s going to get done,” she says.
She also really appreciated that staff got raises at the end of 2020 — a time when many were not sure they would even have a job. “I love this organization. I feel like it makes for happier employees because at the end of the day, people feel appreciated for the work that they do.”
After two years of taking on new tasks, keeping their organizations afloat, serving their communities, and in some cases working remotely, many nonprofit workers have a stronger sense of their own autonomy. They expect their employers to listen and feel more confident in expressing their needs to their bosses.
Employees at the Rape Recovery Center feels more comfortable questioning management decisions, says CEO Martinez-Ortiz. They want to know why decisions are being made, not just what the decision is.
Employees are looking for transparency in decision making, says Nonoko Sato, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Increasingly, frontline workers want to know that upper management is listening to them. And mental health is being more openly discussed. “To have conversations around what does it mean to holistically support employees,” she says. “Those are really good conversations for organizations to have.”
Danger of Two Cultures
With so many people seeking greater flexibility in their jobs, organizations that must provide services in person are finding themselves at a disadvantage. Many of those groups are trying to build in as much flexibility as they can — but there is only so much they can do. And there can be risks.
Nonprofits that have some employees in the office and others working remotely — either part or all of the time — can end up with employees who resent each other and sometimes two separate work cultures, says Libbie Landles-Cobb, a partner at the consulting firm Bridgespan. Because direct-service work is often done by people of color, those different groups sometimes break down along racial lines. That can add another layer of racial inequity at a time when many nonprofits are trying to eliminate it. Some organizations are requiring everyone to come in at least a few days a week to make things more fair for all employees, she says.
“My sense is that we are headed back to a hybrid workplace,” she says.
At the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club in Chicago, which provides child care and youth programs, much of the work has to be done in person. When the group allowed administrative staff to work remotely, that created resentment, says Angela Habr, the group’s executive director. It lost one staff member because the employee couldn’t work from home.
Habr has created some flexibility for more of its senior managers and has done cross-training between positions so people can cover for one another to make some work more flexible. Now employees must come in at least three days a week. Most, she says, come in every day.
After the tumult of the pandemic, workers have a stronger sense of autonomy and expect employers to listen to their needs.
But that flexibility doesn’t filter down to everyone. Chanquel Jones, the group’s director of programs, says that she has to be at the organization’s offices every day. That means she has to put her son in an aftercare program after school, incurring a cost she didn’t have at her previous job, which was mostly remote. She has to work later than usual one day a week and has to have someone else pick him up from aftercare. On the other hand, she’s happy about the flexibility she has been granted. She has been able to take more time off than she had accrued to take vacations planned before she accepted the position. If emergencies come up at home, she can take time to deal with them.
Jones is trying to hire six to eight summer-camp counselors — jobs that must be done in person. The group recently increased wages, but that hasn’t helped. Jones recently scheduled 20 phone interviews, and no one called in. After revamping the hiring process in late April, she spoke with a candidate she hoped would take the job. But if all the positions are not filled, the group may only be able to offer half as many summer-camp sessions as it expected to, affecting both the fees it earns from these programs and the families in the neighborhood that rely on it.
The Brazos Valley Food Bank has had 70 percent turnover among its warehouse and trucking staff.
“We’re here to provide a service to families,” Habr says. “We just can’t provide the service if we don’t have the people to do it.”
Theresa Mangapora, executive director of the Brazos Valley Food Bank, in Bryan, Tex., doesn’t see a quick end to staff shortages. What she does see is rising costs and a continued struggle to find workers.
Over the last six months, the food bank has had 70 percent turnover among its warehouse and trucking staff. The organization takes in bulk food donations and then delivers them to other charities that distribute the food to people in need. At one point, board members were driving trucks to help deliver food. At times when the food bank required warehouse workers to wear masks, some employees refused and left.
Mangapora raised wages and is working with her board to develop a hybrid work policy for some positions, but food can’t be transported over Zoom. Costs are also increasing. Because food donations have slowed, the group is purchasing more. The cost of both that food and the gas needed to deliver it is surging. On top of that, Mangapora expects demand for food to surge again, with more pandemic safety-net programs ending and people’s budgets being stretched by inflation.
The higher wages the food bank is offering have been costly but necessary — yet they haven’t been enough to attract new drivers and warehouse workers — or to hold on to existing workers. A lot of those employees are now coming from temp agencies. She worries that any number of better-paying jobs will lure away the people she still has.
“Any day someone could see something better come up — there are better opportunities in just about in any field that you’re looking at right now,” she says. “It’s a continuing struggle to find people.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 1, 2022, issue.
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