In the face of unprecedented demand for services, financial vulnerabilities, and a human resources crisis, the sector is at a crossroads. In this introduction to our Work in Progress series, which will examine the key issues relevant to the future of non-profit work and workers, contributor Yvonne Rodney outlines some of the fixes that are needed now.
As we blink the still-settling pandemic dust from our collective eyes, we peer into the grey grit of what remains and take stock. How has the non-profit/charitable sector fared? Is everyone OK? What did not make it through? Where do we go from here?
State of the sector
In May 2022, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) and the Assemblée de la Francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO) conducted a bilingual survey of Ontario non-profit organizations to ascertain the impact of the pandemic on the sector. There were some sobering findings:
Unprecedented demand for services
Seventy-four percent of the 1,500 organizations that responded reported a significant jump in demand for services, compared to 63% in 2021 and 47% in 2020. From getting people back to work and providing critical care in areas of mental health, addictions, housing, food, and more, non-profits and charities saw community members turn to them for help in numbers previously unseen. Black and Indigenous communities have been disproportionally affected. And the demand is not expected to wane any time soon.
The ONN/AFO survey showed that the sector, already vulnerable because of a history of having to do more with less, became even more strained during the pandemic. Tightening family budgets, increased operational costs, fewer avenues for generating revenue, increased demand for services – all added extra pressure to organizations. Some were forced to close their doors, while others bought time by running deficits.
Imagine Canada reported in February 2021 that “overall, charities are fairly pessimistic in their predictions for the future. They are substantially more likely to believe their financial condition will worsen rather than improve over the next three to six months.”
ONN’s Pamela Uppal notes that as the impact of the pandemic became felt, the organization had to park other initiatives to address the human resources crisis confronting them. “People are quitting – executive directors, board members; sports and arts organizations can’t rehire people because people aren’t using their services. We’re having to figure out what the ‘great resignation’ means.”
The “great resignation,” the “big quit,” or the “great reshuffle” are terms used to describe the masses of workers in the United States who left their jobs in the heart of the pandemic, starting in 2021.
People are quitting – executive directors, board members; sports and arts organizations can’t rehire people because people aren’t using their services. We’re having to figure out what the ‘great resignation’ means.Pamela Uppal, Ontario Nonprofit Network
Employee attitudes about what constitutes meaningful work and what they were prepared to tolerate changed, it seemed, in a heartbeat. They wanted to focus on what made them happy: work/life balance, quality of work, better working conditions, and more fulfilling lives. The pandemic awakened them to the reality that life is short and time is precious. And people chose priorities.
No to long commutes or being contained within corporate walls. No to expensive cities and unattainable housing. No to long hours, unrealistic employer expectations, inflexibility, and “grinning and bearing.” Yes to quality time with family, friends, or self. Yes to working from home or on a boat or in a different country. Yes to flexibility, trust, and mental health.
Interestingly, The Financial Post, citing Statistics Canada data for 2022 suggests that a “big rethink” is what happened in Canada. The data show few job losses and even some slight gains during the pandemic from workers in the private, public, and self-employed sectors. Based on Uppal’s observations, however, it seems that the non-profit sector – in Ontario, for sure, and arguably across Canada – took the biggest job-loss hit.
What’s the way forward in light of these findings?
Sector fixes needed now
A 2017 PricewaterhouseCoopers report, Workforce of the Future: The Competing Forces Shaping 2030, notes that while humanity is capable of infinite ways of adapting, we are also risk averse. That means by and large we have to be pushed, prodded, or propelled into change. The pandemic did just that. There is no going back to what was.
Embrace the new reality
Wage parity, decent working conditions with better pay, flexibility, and stability are no longer wish-list items for employees. These are now demands. And that is just on the staffing side: 62% of the organizations from the ONN/AFO survey reported significant losses in volunteer staffing as a result of the pandemic, and more than half the organizations expressed difficulty in recruiting volunteer help.
- Is the non-profit sector’s experience of the “great resignation” a symptom of underlying vulnerabilities?
- If yes, what does this mean for the future of the sector responsible for the circle of care in Canada and elsewhere?
- How can the non-profit sector compete for good staff when salaries will never match offerings in the private sector?
- What must be done differently to not only recruit but also retain volunteer staff?
Invest in our people
Surabhi Jain, executive director of the Workforce Funder Collaborative, says that the non-profit community, on the whole, needs to step up its game. Jain accuses the sector of failing to invest in the career development of its staff. “We don’t invest and we don’t get paid time off to focus on learning.”
Bruce Lawson of The Counselling Foundation of Canada agrees. “Employers want fully formed human beings. They don’t want to invest in employees. They don’t want to pay it forward.”
Employers want fully formed human beings. They don’t want to invest in employees. They don’t want to pay it forward.Bruce Lawson, Counselling Foundation of Canada
By not investing in its workers, the sector is guilty of expecting workers to stay for the cause without equipping them well to do the service.
And specifically whom are we not investing in? Women, immigrants, and Black, Indigenous, racialized, and older workers.
A recent Imagine Canada report, Diversity Is Our Strength, reveals that even though women make up more than 75% of the non-profit workforce and even though non-profit workers are more highly educated than those in the broader economy, those working in community-based agencies earn an average annual salary of $38,716 compared to $57,137 economy-wide.
Immigrants and Black, racialized, and Indigenous people are proportionally overrepresented in the sector. These are groups that have likely benefited from non-profit services or are firm believers in the work. Implementation of equitable workplace practices cannot wait for a more convenient season. It must happen now or the sector will continue to bleed good employees.
- Now more than ever, as workers are rethinking life and what meaningful work constitutes, how will the non-profit/charitable sector keep staff professionally developed?
- How can training and staff development be done differently, and more cost-effectively?
- Are there promising practices within or without our sector that can be emulated?
- And if the non-profit sector invests in its employees and they leave to work in the public or private sectors, is that necessarily a bad thing or potentially a way of broadening alliances?
- What does growth (or growth opportunities) in the sector look like? What does a career path look like?
Upgrade technology and digital literacy
“Hybrid work is here to stay,” says Pedro Barata, executive director of the Future Skills Centre. Whether it’s two days in office and three days working from home or whatever the combination, workers want this flexibility. However, outdated computer systems, unwieldy databases, and low digital literacy meant many non-profits were not able to quickly pivot in a world that became even more digitized during the pandemic.
Hybrid work is here to stay.Pedro Barata, Future Skills Centre
Jain describes employers who, during the pandemic, expected employees to work from home, “but you’re in charge of learning, not us (and you have to keep abreast of technology) and digital literacy. It’s always been like that. You’re in charge of your education.”
Products, technology, and tools that allow for easy and effective service delivery in a hybrid work environment must be acquired and training provided to staff and clients to increase their digital literacy.
Yet the fact of the matter is that non-profitwork by and large does not lend itself well to technology. Most of it is direct, up close, and personalized. Where is the balance to be found?
- What tools do non-profit workers need to deliver services online? What will it cost and how do we secure money to pay for technology upgrades so workers can remain digitally up-to-date?
- Which areas of non-profit work can be done digitally and which cannot?
- Whose job is it to help clients procure the technology required to interface with our services? Who trains them?
- What space could artificial intelligence occupy in the non-profit sector?
Factor inflation into funding
There is talk of an imminent recession. Post-pandemic prices for food and basic goods have outpaced wage increases. This directly affects how far grant funding can stretch. The Atkinson Foundation responded by adding an 8% inflation top-up to all grant payments for 2022 to address the spike in service demands across the communities they fund. They have also joined other voices in advocating for decent wage, decent working conditions, income supports, and access to basic public programs and services.
- How can funders factor inflation adjustments into grant payments?
- In what circles should the discussion about sustainable and adjustable funding structures be taking place?
Looking to the future
We return to the questions with which we began. And the answers are: Everyone is not OK. Some things did not make it through. And there is no shortage of ideas about where we go from here.
Barata says that immigration (as a means of addressing Canada’s skill shortage), investing in non-profit leadership, data consolidation, and digital literacy must be critical areas of concentration for the future.
Uppal thinks expanding the care economy, increasing wages, and taking the “private” out of care are three necessities for the non-profit sector to survive.
A July 2022 article in Forbes offers several recommendations for non-profits, including paying attention to staff well-being and offering training opportunities. It also suggests that outsourcing work that is not core to an organization will free up time and resources to focus on what is most essential.
Do you agree?
Over the coming months, The Philanthropist Journal will probe into and animate some of the key issues relevant to the future of non-profit work and workers. Funders, governments, sector leaders, workers, and clients must collectively join forces to create a viable path forward.
The Work in Progress series is being developed in collaboration with the following content development partners: the Future Skills Centre, the Counselling Foundation of Canada, CERIC, Imagine Canada, the Ontario Nonprofit Network, and the Workforce Funder Collaborative.