September 2, 2022

This Monday, we formally observed the power and dignity of the American workforce. Despite the celebration, we find ourselves in a time when millions of people in America’s nonprofit workforce are suffering under layers of crisis. This has created an existential threat to nonprofit workers, our organizations, the funders who support us, and the communities we serve.

UNDER PRESSURE

It is impossible to overstate the pressure the COVID pandemic has placed on the nonprofit workforce. According to the National Council of Nonprofits, last year:

  • 34% of U.S. nonprofits had job vacancy rates of 10%-19%. 
  • 26% had job openings for 20%-29% of staff positions.
  • Another 16% reported vacancies greater than 30%.

As The New York Times put it succinctly late last year, the inability of nonprofits to raise pay is “making it difficult for them to deliver the services they exist to provide.”

Yet the sector has been weakened over many prior years in ways that made the pandemic worse for us, and will make it harder for us to recover. The weight of these layers of crisis has grown to the point where organizations are starting to rip at the seams. People and organizations are melting down – and even shutting down – as a result.

  • One example is the Prison Birth Project, whose demise – driven by low wages for the founding staff leaders – was documented by a regretful board member in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
  • Another example is CAUSA, which – before a complicated staff-management conflict ended its run – was a long-standing immigrant-rights movement organization in Oregon. There are certainly others that have not fully imploded, or whose demise has not been so publicly documented.

Funders tend to focus on the latest specific iteration of the challenge (the Great resignations, now the Quiet Quitting, etc.). But we cannot get to workable solutions if we focus on one symptom at a time and miss the full picture. To help grantee workers and organizations renew and rebuild, it’s helpful to step out of the current conversation cycle and understand the wider view of what has been happening to us. 

So let’s take a step back and consider five layers of pressure on the nonprofit workforce: four new layers of crisis, piled atop one preexisting condition. These five layers, pressed together over time, have produced the pressure-filled conditions now facing the nonprofit workforce.

FOUR LAYERS OF CRISES…

Layer 1: The Great Recession

Recent analysis of financial data indicates that the Great Recession was not as bad for nonprofit employment as it was in the for-profit sector. However, the Great Recession was nevertheless a period of great stress for many nonprofits, those of us working in nonprofits, and for the people and communities we serve. We were just coming out of that period when a few other things happened….

Layer 2: The 2016 Election and Trump’s Presidency

The result of Clinton versus Trump was a shock not just because Trump won, but because Clinton lost. The first woman who came close to being U.S. president was defeated by an unabashed sexist, racist, and xenophobe. This was not just a defeat for a candidate – after President Obama’s two terms, it seemed to be a rollback of  America’s progress toward a more perfect union. 

For many idealistic nonprofit folks, Trump’s ascent, his cruelty, his regressive policies, his ability to reshape our politics around White grievances, and his ability to outrun accountability, have been devastating. And they have weakened the sense of personal and collective moral agency that is essential to nonprofit and social justice work. With Trump and his Supreme Court blocking our ability to make changes that once seemed within reach, and retracting hard-won rights, many in our sector have shifted attention inward to focus on their organizations and their colleagues. 

This internal focus had yielded both positive and challenging results. In some cases, organizations have been able to make great advances in their internal equity agendas and organizational culture. In others, the internal focus has devolved into open conflict, with factions forming and no solutions forthcoming. A widely-discussed piece in The Intercept warned:

“The battles between staff and organizational leadership have effectively sidelined major progressive institutions at a critical moment in U.S. and world history.”

As the Trump presidency rolled-out anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-environment policies, we saw increased mental trauma, exhaustion, and burnout in the nonprofit workforce. Activists stood on the frontlines of social issues, struggled to advance racial equity in the face of growing hate mongering, and stood fast as the bulwark of our democracy as wave after wave of new crises hit our shores. This was exhausting to the core for many. Yet, given the urgency of so many social issues during that period, the working conditions for nonprofit workers receded even further into the background.

Layer 3: The Pandemic and the Great Resignation

In early 2020 (still during the Trump era) COVID hit, isolating nonprofit workers from one another, leaving many laid-off or in unstable situations, unable to deliver programs or plan for the future. The pandemic hit nonprofit workers hard, and we experienced multiple traumas: high rates of death in our communities; closed schools; the overwhelm and/or loneliness of working from home; professional and communal isolation; a scramble to fundraise and keep payroll afloat; shut-downs of institutions; managing workplace culture and conflict; and so much more. 

In late 2021 the so-called Great Resignation was recognized as a new crisis growing from the pandemic economy, with workers less willing to put up with dangerous or toxic workplaces, and more willing to leave without new jobs lined-up. We are now experiencing new levels of difficulty both recruiting people and retaining people into virtual nonprofit workplaces.

Layer 4: The New Era of Racial Politics

As the nation was still reeling from the early days of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the ‘racial uprising’ of 2020 intensified racial politics within nonprofits. Nonprofits are generally composed of people who are grounded in serious moral commitments. And nonprofits have struggled to create workplaces that reflect the values we promote externally, while managing within the constraints of resources, time, and capability to do this important internal and external work. Without additional support from their funders, nonprofit leaders often do not have the flexible resources needed to meet staff demands for improved support and development, and to undertake the structural change needed to truly shift culture and practice in their organizations. 

ONE PRE-EXISTING CONDITION

The four major crises described above – the Great Recession, the Trump Era, the Pandemic, and the Racial Reckoning – have overlapped and inter-mixed with one another, never allowing nonprofits to fully recover from the previous crisis, and compounding the impact each has had on the nonprofit workforce. Although it feels like we’ve been living this nightmare for millennia, all these experiences have developed in the relatively short span of the past 15 years. 

Layer 5: The Investment-Deficit

And all this has been layered atop one constant, chronic, and pre-existing condition: the under-investment in the nonprofit workforce. This deficit of investment goes back decades, and likely back to the beginning of the sector.

Despite warnings from The Bridgespan Group, Building Movement Project, Fund the People, and others over the last several decades, supporting the nonprofit workforce has largely remained on the back-burner for most funders.

Unfortunately, many private foundations and governments continue to operate in a fashion that is based on harmful concepts like the overhead myth, and maintain conditions that promulgate the infamous nonprofit starvation cycle in grantee organizations. (Thankfully during the pandemic years, some funders have loosened restrictions and lessened the burden of grant applications and reporting. Yet this does not equate with talent-investing – the intentional deployment of capital to support and develop nonprofit leaders and workers.) 

The deficit of investment in the nonprofit workforce has always been infused with received assumptions that carry the stench of racism, sexism, and classism. These assumptions have shaped our inequitable terrain over a long time, and continue to frustrate the equity agenda in our sector. The lack of investment in our workforce has hobbled equity; the lack of equity has hobbled talent-investing efforts.

THE FUTURE OF (NONPROFIT) WORK

Few of us anticipated the Trump era or the COVID pandemic and their impact on “the future of work.” We cannot know what new crises are next. Whatever we face going forward, America will need nonprofit workers to be strong, diverse, and enduring. And, to do that, the nonprofit workforce will need significantly more investment across an array of supports. These tactics ought to include supports such as those that follow. 

  • Well-paid internships and apprenticeship programs
  • Professional development, career pathways and network-building
  • Personal well-being resources for individuals and teams
  • Debt relief for college and graduate school loans 
  • Medical, dental, and eye insurance, and other essential benefits
  • Equitable wages and compensation
  • Flexible workplace policies that balance the needs and commitments of management and workers
  • Planning and managing healthy executive transitions
  • Supports for new executive directors
  • Hiring or outsourcing human resources functions
  • Management training and skills-development for working with a unionized workforce
  • Sabbatical policies available to all long-serving employees
  • Retirement savings so long-serving workers can afford to retire
  • Progressive personnel policies and practices
  • Conflict management and organizational development resources

As we increase support, we can lift people up, relieve some of that pressure from these years of layered crisis. Together, we can make choices that improve working conditions, so that our people and organizations get realigned, get re-motivated, get refueled by mission, and get moving once more. 

Toward that end, here are three questions all funders should be asking themselves:

  1. Do our grant guidelines, budget restrictions, and other policies and practices reinforce the overhead myth and the starvation cycle in grantee organizations? In other words, are our grants doing more harm than good to the workforce of our grantees?
  2. How could we ask questions and listen to grantees in such a way that we get honest feedback about what talent-related capacities they need, and how our grants could better help them meet those needs?
  3. How could we use our inherent flexibility to proactively experiment with some talent-investment tactics to better support the workforce of our grantees in our next round of grants?

It is of utmost urgency that philanthropic funders take action to infuse significant new levels of investment into the nonprofit workforce. Otherwise, we risk the collapse of the nonprofit workforce – a crucial part of our communities, our economy, and our democracy.

Fund the People offers useful resources to help you take talent-investing action. I invite you to listen to our Podcast (Season 3 episodes drop throughout this fall). Check out our Fund the People Toolkit. And be sure to visit our Talent Justice tools. And be sure to follow us on your preferred social media (Linked-In, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook) for all the latest.

If you think you might benefit from more hands-on assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to explore hosting a Fund the People speaking engagement or consulting services.

With gratitude to Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Sarah From for edits and notes as I prepared this post. Whatever poor analysis or blindspots you find are fully the fault of the author.

About the author 

Rusty Stahl

A prominent advocate for investing in America's nonprofit workforce, Rusty Stahl is President and CEO of Fund the People, which he founded in 2014. As host of the Fund the People Podcast, he enjoys geeking out about talent-investing with amazing colleagues. He previously served as founding Executive Director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP).

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