A tough time for small nonprofits

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A tight labor market and the COVID-19 pandemic have hurt employment numbers at small social service nonprofits. Agencies are holding their own with efforts to maintain a positive, mission-oriented culture, but filling vacancies remains a challenge.

“We had a number of staff members leave,” says Meaghan de Chateauvieux, president and CEO of the Willow Domestic Violence Center. “They were all direct-service professionals.” 

Willow, which offers multiple programs and a 49-bed emergency shelter for those seeking to escape domestic violence and their children, normally has 83 part- and full-time employees. Eight of its staffers have left over the last six months, with at least five of them for reasons arising from the pandemic. 

Nonprofits around the Rochester region have faced similar staffing problems.

“We know workforce shortages are really significant, and not only because of burnout and exhaustion and trauma, but also very real issues around pay inequities with for-profits, as well as challenges with accessing child care,” says Jennifer Cathy, chief impact officer of the United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes, which funds many local nonprofits.

A national problem

Staffing problems aren’t limited to this region. Among the 1,035 social service organizations surveyed by the National Council of Nonprofits in 2021, nearly one-quarter reported that up to 29 percent of their positions were open. Another 16 percent stated that more than 30 percent of their jobs were vacant. 

Jennifer Cathy

Almost 80 percent of the nonprofits surveyed identified salary competition as a factor that prevented them from filling their positions. Council of Nonprofits chief operating officer Rick Cohen laid some of the blame for the problem on the ways in which such organizations are often financed.

“A lot of social service organizations operate under fixed contracts with governments to provide certain services,” Cohen says. “The government contracts are not being adjusted to allow nonprofits to pay better wages.”

2013 Urban Institute survey of 20,000 U.S. nonprofits found that government funding did not cover the full cost of services for 54 percent of the organizations.

For-profit enterprises can more readily pass salary increases on to their customers. According to a survey by the Conference Board, a nonprofit research group, businesses raised their wages by an average 3 percent last April. The group projects that employee pay will increase by an average of 3.9 percent in 2022, the highest increase since 2008. 

Coming during a tough labor market for employers, such increases can leave nonprofits at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for workers.

“There was always an issue around pay scale,” Cathy says. “I think the organizations are struggling more now than ever before.” 

Vacant positions

Veterans can turn to the Veterans Outreach Center for a range of services, including job training, free legal assistance and placement in the nonprofit’s 33-apartment residential facility for homeless vets. Executive Director Laura Stradley declines to specify VOC’s pay scale but says its staff earns more than they would at similar organizations. That didn’t stop six employees, or roughly 12 percent of the 49 on the nonprofit’s payroll, from exiting in 2021. 

Laura Stradley

“Most of the people that left and went on to other employment either progressed … in their career to a higher-level position or just (went) to a for-profit agency or company that could pay better,” Stradley says.

Most of the departing employees were in case-management positions, which call for special skills. Counting those who left or were let go for other reasons, VOC lost 14 staffers last year. 

Filling those slots was much more difficult for VOC than it was pre-pandemic. A relatively small number of people responded to the organization’s job postings; some applicants were no shows at interviews and others lacked the needed qualifications. Still others had salary expectations that were way out of the ballpark. 

“We had folks that applied for sort of a management position within the shelter (VOC’s residential facility) whose expectations were probably $20,000 higher than we could pay,” Stradley says.

As a result, several VOC jobs stayed open for months. The unfilled positions at the nonprofit’s shelter for homeless vets, some of whom suffer from mental health issues, were of particular concern. 

“Our veterans population is twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population,” Stradley says. “If you don’t have enough staff on site, you really worry about that could someone slip through the cracks.”

It did not help that three of the shelter’s residents and some of its staff contracted the coronavirus and had to be quarantined. 

Maintaining a positive workplace

VOC managed to fill its open positions and has striven to maintain a positive workplace culture. As part of that effort, the nonprofit focuses upon four principles: respect, integrity, service and excellence. Called RISE for short, the principles are incorporated in VOC’s job descriptions and covered at its monthly staff meetings.

“We go around the entire agency (and) we talk about how we have witnessed other staff demonstrating those four values,” Stradley says.

Meaghan de Chateauvieux

The eight staffers that Willow lost worked directly with abuse victims and their families.

“It was people who were on the front lines answering calls, providing shelter services, doing the real intensive patient-facing work,” de Chateauvieux says.

The risk of contracting the virus led some of the nonprofit’s employees to seek safer working conditions.

“Some of the folks would leave for, for example, a counseling position doing telehealth,” de Chateauvieux says. “You’re not interacting with people in person, so the risk is much lower.” 

Others may have left the workforce because of their personal circumstances.

“I think some of these staff members were new to their careers and had the family resources,” de Chateauviewx says. “They were sometimes fresh out of school and still living with mom and dad, and just feeling like their risk level was too high being in the work force at the time.”

In addition to coping with staff losses, Willow has had to deal with the effects of COVID on those still on the job.

“We have certainly had several staff who has been out either with their own illness, or (that of) someone in their immediate family,” de Chateauvieux says.

Hiring new people has proved more difficult for Willow than normal due to the pandemic’s impact on the public and the nature of the nonprofit’s work. 

“In a kind of dark period overall, to sign up for domestic violence services takes a special kind of person,” de Chateauviewx says.

In addition, the social service nonprofit can’t sign up desirable applicants fast enough to counter the effects of the tight market for employees.

“We’ve lost some really great candidates to faster offers from other agencies or higher pay elsewhere, particularly the hospital systems,” de Chateauvieux says. “They can pay quite a bit more than we’re able to.”

Retaining staffers

Willow has also sought to retain its current employees. Those needing to take time off during the pandemic to care for themselves or others can make use of as much as 10 weeks of leave annually.

“Putting that in place, I think, helped us alleviate some of that stress for the staff,” de Chateauviewx says.

Willow’s managers and directors have doubled their caseloads to make up for the its loss of staff, but the organization has suffered despite their efforts. Unable to hire a case manager for its human trafficking program, Willow was forced to put the program on hold and refer its caseload to other agencies.

Sister Grace Miller

Sister Grace Miller says COVID countermeasures have helped the House of Mercy keep its staff on the job. 

“We were on top of the pandemic as soon as it broke out,” says Miller, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We just made sure that people that came in received the vaccine, and were OK.”

The House of Mercy offers many services to the Rochester area’s poor, including an 82-bed homeless shelter, a food pantry, a soup kitchen and the assistance of social workers. Its 14 full-time and three part-time employees serve thousands each year, and the coronavirus aways presents a risk. 

“House of Mercy staff and residents testing positive for coronavirus has been an ongoing problem,” says Bolan Marshall-Hallmark, donor relations associate for the House of Mercy. 

Marshall-Hallmark could not say how many have contracted COVID at the House of Mercy, but more than 30 of its staff and residents reportedly tested positive late last year, forcing the facility to close on Dec. 29. The nonprofit reopened on Jan. 15, but infections among the staff sometimes force it to operate with fewer people on the job than normal. That’s of particular concern in the shelter, where residents can conflict with each other.

“The staff normally in charge of monitoring and supervising the shelter have been unable to come in once or twice,” Marshall-Hallmark says. “It has meant that the normally pacifying presence of shelter managers who provide conflict de-escalation and supervise our guests have not been there.”

The occasional reductions in staff have not resulted in “safety incidents,” Marshall-Hallmark notes.

Mission at work

The Bivona Child Advocacy Center coordinates a multidisciplinary response to child sexual and physical abuse, and facilitates abuse investigations. It also provides supportive services to child victims and their families and educational services to Monroe County schools. Though the pandemic has cost the nonprofit employees, it has experienced a net gain of staff since the virus hit the area in early 2020.

That gain was not without its difficulties. The nonprofit, which employed about 26 people before the pandemic, lost two of its staff in mid-2021. Both were in frontline positions that put them at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“The work of doing child-abuse cases in such a sort of dark time was really just too discouraging and grinding for them,” says Executive Director Deb Rosen. 

Deb Rosen

In addition, the 2021 arrest of Hilton elementary school principal Kirk Ashton for allegedly sexually abusing students led the nonprofit to expand its educational services to Monroe County’s schools. 

“We observed need in the community for greater services, and we were able to identify funding for those services,” Rosen says. 

Despite the challenging labor market, Bivona was able to hire four new community educators to meet that need. 

“I think people are personally inspired and moved by the mission, and they want to be a part of that work,” Rosen says.

Not that the hiring process was without its difficulties. Instead of the 30 or more applicants that used to try for each of its positions before the pandemic, no more than 10 applied for each of its recent openings. 

Bivona funded its expansion with approximately $600,000 that it had received in the form of a Monroe County Department of Human Services grant, a Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES-facilitated state Department of Education grant and philanthropic donations.

Altogether, Bivona has hired seven employees since the start of the pandemic. It now employs 30 people, up more than 13 percent compared with its pre-pandemic payroll. The nonprofit is still searching for one more new hire to fill its roster completely.

In addition to bringing on new people, Bivona has contended with pandemic’s effects on those it employs and their family members. Staff who contract the virus stay home, working remotely when possible, while the rest of Bivona’s employees try to pick up the slack. 

“We’ve somewhat needed to modify (operations) without limiting operations,” Rosen says. “Changing people’s shifts, changing people’s scopes of responsibilities somewhat, just making sure that all bases are covered.”

Those who are infected or caring for infected loved ones receive their full pay without having to tap into their vacation time, sick time or paid time off.

“Nobody gets penalized for COVID,” Rosen says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

2 thoughts on “A tough time for small nonprofits

  1. Interesting that this article did not include any BIPOC nonprofit organizations or agencies, even though 52.1% of Rochester’s 2022 population demographics is non-white. Many BIPOC-led, grassroots community nonprofits were serving and struggling prior to the pandemic and continue to do so. Where is their story and community concern?

  2. Excellent article Michael. Lots of valuable dialogue with the the top leaders of top organizations. Clearly non-profits are sulfuring right with staffing issues everywhere and high inflation!. Good Job

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