Hurricanes. Pandemics. Overwhelming needs. Nonprofits find it difficult to retain workers.


Melanie Pang graduated from the University of Houston ten years ago determined to make a difference. She accepted jobs in nonprofit organizations, working on the front lines to solve intractable social problems such as hunger, poverty and racial inequalities have deepened with every crisis, from Hurricane Harvey to COVID-19 to last year’s winter storm.

Burnout became intense, exacerbated by long hours, low wages and a growing sense of futility as crushing needs overwhelmed tight budgets. It has finally become too much for her this year. She quit her job at the Houston Food Bank for a teaching position at the University of Houston.

“My physical and mental health was pretty good just before the pandemic, and everything has gone back so far and so fast,” she said. “Prolonged periods of exhaustion have caused my empathy to be lost at times, which is a dangerous sign for social workers who rely on their ability to empathize to help others.”

Pang is among workers who have left nonprofits in recent years and have helped create a workforce shortage that is straining social services and charity work as millions of Americans struggle to put food on the table and cover basic needs. The shortages have come as industries of all types compete for workers in a shrinking labor pool – competition that has put nonprofits at a disadvantage, unable to match the pay and benefits offered by for-profit businesses.

The National Council of Nonprofits estimates that at least 500,000 nonprofit jobs – the equivalent of every charity worker in Texas – remain vacant. About a third of nonprofits report vacancies of at least 20% and up to 40%.

Baker Ripley, one of the region’s largest nonprofits, employs approximately 1,200 people and was instrumental in the response to Hurricane Harvey. Staff turnover is up about 6% overall this year, and even higher in nonprofit educational programs, where turnover is up 10%.

A recent report that found that about 45% of nonprofit employees expect to consider career changes in the next five years, potentially forcing other nonprofits to downsize their operations.

“This is a pandemic in addition to a pandemic,” said Julie Jenkins, human resources manager at BakerRipley, of worsening labor shortages in the field.

Even before the COVID-19 hit, many local nonprofits still faced increased demand for housing, food and financial services following Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the Houston area ago. four years. The pandemic and the deep recession it caused have only increased the pressure.

Income plummeted as charities were forced to cancel fundraisers. The costs have gone up. Many charities have been forced to lay off staff even as demands increased. More work was piled on already overworked employees.

“The nonprofit community is very tired,” said Amanda McMillian, CEO of United Way of Greater Houston. “There are a lot of people who are just tired of having to go through at least one disaster a year as well as daily necessities. There is a breaking point somewhere. I just don’t know where it is.

“Lots of tears”

The shrinking workforce has left fewer workers to take on larger workloads, increasing the risk of burnout and employee flight. Many of those who stayed say they are barely hanging on.

Theresa Allen spent the early days of the pandemic living with women she counsels for addiction, homelessness and mental health issues at Women’s Home in Houston. Drug addiction, she said, “is a disease of isolation,” so when stay-at-home orders took effect, she chose to stay with her clients in their homes.

“We couldn’t just say, ‘OK, bye, see you later’,” she said. “It was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do because it was 24/7. There were a lot of tears. “

One of the association’s employees died from the virus. The workload has increased due to the pandemic’s toll on the mental health of their clients, about 80% of whom have been abused. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

The personal life of the social worker added to the stress. With schools and daycares closed by the pandemic, they have juggled childcare and other demands of family life along with their all-consuming jobs.

“It was exhausting,” said Patricia Homesley, case manager at Women’s Home and mother of children in elementary school. “There was a lot of homework to take over and be all the team needed at the time.”

The organization eventually switched to consulting on Zoom, which was practically helpful but made it more difficult to develop the intimacy and personal interactions upon which their work relies.

“I still feel tired some days,” Homesley said. “This will be one of those times where I think back and ask myself, ‘How did I get this to work? “”

“Emptying” work

For many nonprofits, making it work has meant a career change.

Michelle Salazar-Martinez started in the nonprofit field over two decades ago, working with AIDS patients during the early years of her career before landing at BakerRipley, where she helped oversee development. grants.

Seven years later – and two years after the onset of the pandemic which added to her exhaustion – she left that position to work for Care Partners, an interfaith healthcare group. It wasn’t quite a career overhaul as much of a necessary change of scenery. She expects many other nonprofits to plan for career changes in the wake of the pandemic.

“It’s exhausting emotionally, mentally and physically – all of it,” she said. “Especially now. We’re all competing for a limited number of dollars.

Salazar-Martinez was not the only one to cite funding as the reason for his concern over the nonprofit sector, which relies heavily on grants and philanthropy to stay afloat.

And so, it is much more difficult for charities to raise wages and benefits, a problem that has become more acute amid fierce competition for workers demanding higher wages.

A 2016 Department of Labor study found that managers of nonprofits earned nearly $ 10,000 less per year in salary and benefits than their for-profit counterparts.

Federal disaster aid and stimulus checks, which boosted giving, have helped keep nonprofits afloat. But finances remain tight for many organizations, especially small groups that serve minority or low-income communities, and rely heavily on volunteers.

The pandemic has made it harder to find volunteers as people feared going out and interacting with others, said Gayla Williams of VolunteerHouston, a branch of Houston Interfaith Ministries that combines volunteers and charities.

still believe

Pang, despite leaving the Houston Food Bank, still believes that nonprofits and their workers can make a difference. She tells this to her students at the University of Houston.

But she doesn’t hide the shortcomings of the sector and how this passion to help can slowly lead to burnout.

“The non-profit structure encourages exhaustion more than it encourages rest,” she said. “If you come back from vacation with three times as much work as before you left, what relief, let alone rejuvenation, can 10 days off a year really bring you, especially with a nonprofit salary? “

She still encourages her students to step into the field, but better equipped to deal with the daily onslaughts of stress and uncertainty that come with jobs – even in the absence of a pandemic.

“Burnout shouldn’t be an individual’s burden to deal with alone,” she said. “It’s a system-wide and a cultural problem. “

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