‘The unanimous challenge has been in workforce.’ Ohio nonprofit sector facing challenges
In Ohio and across the country, many workers, from entry- to executive-level, are leaving the nonprofit industry, contributing to what industry leaders say is an unprecedented workforce crisis.
By Erica Thompson and Eric Lagatta
The Columbus Dispatch
When Clarissa Manirakiza was offered a position at AmerisourceBergen, she couldn’t pass it up.
Even though she enjoyed her previous job as a career consultant at Jewish Family Services, she has found more professional development at the global pharmaceutical company, which has a distribution center in Lockbourne near Columbus’ South Side.
“It was a better career move for me,” said Manirakiza, 25, of the North Side, who is a senior operations training specialist at AmerisourceBergen. “There’s a lot more room for growth. As (a recent college graduate), it’s always smarter to try and make as much money as you can to pay off loans. It was a much better financial move.”
Manirakiza’s story is not unique. Many workers, from entry to executive roles, are leaving the nonprofit industry, contributing to what leaders say is an unprecedented workforce crisis within the sector. While many other industries are struggling, experts say, nonprofits are contending with a unique challenge: They are hampered by limited funding and unable to match pay offerings elsewhere because historic levels of inflation make it difficult to increase the cost of services.
Furthermore, leaders are worried about people in need falling through the cracks as demand for life-saving services has increased.
“There are very few moments when there is a unanimous challenge for the sector,” said Michael Corey, executive director of the Human Service Chamber of Franklin County. “For the last 24 months or so, the unanimous challenge has been in workforce. And we don’t see that workforce shortage improving in the immediate future.”
While nonprofits always have competed with corporations and government agencies, experts insist the problem has increased during the pandemic. They say low wages, burnout, funding restrictions and excessive regulations and requirements are crippling the ability of nonprofit agencies to contend with other job sectors.
More job vacancies nationwide and throughout Ohio
In December 2021, the National Council of Nonprofits released a report finding that 76% of surveyed nonprofits reported job vacancies of greater than 10%. A total of 42% had 20% or more of their positions open, and 79% identified salary competition as a factor preventing them from filling job openings.
The council released an updated report in July, finding that the shortage of workers in all sectors of the nonprofit industry had continued to worsen compared to for-profit and government counterparts.
Many nonprofit leaders say employees increasingly are taking jobs in retail, food service and other customer-service businesses. Whereas nonprofits always have competed with government agencies and hospital systems for staff, “now our competition is Costco and Amazon,” said David L. Thompson, vice president of public policy for the National Council of Nonprofits.
“Those folks are getting burned out in the sector and are walking away from their mission, their passion,” Thompson said.
In May and June, the Human Service Chamber of Franklin County surveyed its more than 160 nonprofits, finding a collective 1,900 unfilled positions among the 89 that had responded. In a second survey distributed in October, members said they had a collective 754 open positions, but only 62 responded. Participants also said hiring is taking one to three months, and even longer for senior positions.
The Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County is gathering feedback from its 96 members with the intention of using the findings to sway elected officials to funnel more government resources into nonprofits, said Mike Moroski, the organization’s executive director.
Thus far, 40 agencies have responded, indicating they have a combined 358 vacancies. Moroski said no data is available from 2021 for comparison, but he added that the level of vacancies among the chamber’s membership is significantly higher than it was a year ago.
“It’s frustrating for us because people rely on our sector to fix so much of society’s problems, but you can’t do that if you don’t have employees,” Moroski said. “We’re the only sector where people expect us to do everything with nothing.”
Why are executives leaving?
Since March 2020, the most senior leaders at 47 Franklin County nonprofits have left or have announced plans to leave, according to Corey.
“It’s been an assortment of people retiring, people changing careers or elevating within their national organizations,” he said.
Tauna Batiste said she left an executive director role at a medical research and support nonprofit after she was denied a salary increase. She also said she faced microaggressions as a woman of color in the organization.
“I could stay in nonprofit work and continue to face these types of barriers, continue to not be rewarded in my compensation, or I could make the adjustment and (start) a for-profit entity,” said Batiste, 41, of Reynoldsburg, who opened her own nonprofit management consulting firm, Drew Alexander Consulting.
She also formed a program called Next Woman Up, which helps women advance in their nonprofit careers.
“I’ve seen multiple, brilliant individuals move on to something else because the pay is not competitive,” she said. “And I think there’s a (misconception) both inside and outside of the nonprofit community that we need to scrape by, or we have to suffer in some way to prove that we are worthy of the work.”
Nonprofit leaders have also struggled with burnout during the pandemic, said Oyauma Garrison, president and CEO at Maryhaven, a Columbus-based behavioral-health services provider.
“For a number of them, it probably got to the point where they need their own mental health break,” he said.
Dire effects for the community
To make matters worse, demand for services is rising while donations and staffing wane, according to many nonprofit leaders. The strain on the sector has led to ripple effects across vulnerable populations.
Staffing shortages in the for-profit sector could mean a consumer has to wait longer for a product or pay a little bit more. But when staffing shortages affect the nonprofit sector’s ability to operate, it could mean a victim seeking sanctuary at a domestic violence shelter is sent elsewhere or that people in need lose access to food or mental health services, Thompson said.
“That’s life or death for that person when the nonprofit can’t accept them because they don’t have staff,” he said.
For example, the Columbus-based Netcare Access phased out its 24/7 onsite crisis services this year for those in need of emergency mental health treatment or addiction services because the nonprofit agency’s leaders said they had struggled amid the COVID-19 pandemic to adequately staff the unit. For 27 years, the unit provided walk-in treatment to adults, but leaders say it no longer could recruit and maintain staff to meet the demands, and those remaining employees were given an opportunity to voluntarily transfer to other programs operated by Netcare.
Organizations in Hamilton County, such as Lighthouse Youth & Family Services, which provides a variety of resources to young people in the region, has struggled to hire licensed and credentialed clinicians who treat mental health and substance abuse issues. As a result, the wait list for many treatment services is growing, said Jodi Harding, Lighthouse chief operating officer, and the staff has been forced to triage care, prioritizing those with more severe needs.
And because staffing isn’t sufficient to meet increased demand for Lighthouse’s homeless shelters, leaders are focused on shortening the average length of stay.
Harding said she has noticed that more people now seek positions that allow them to work remotely, an option that is simply not available with some nonprofit work.
“I do think COVID has done real damage to those of us who do community-based work,” Harding said.
Though nonprofit agencies across all sectors haven’t escaped the strain, many leaders say the child welfare sector may have felt the largest ripple effect.
If working parents can’t find access to such services as child care, they might find it difficult to maintain employment, further harming the economy, leaders say. And right now, children services systems are struggling under the weight of the unprecedented demand, high employee turnover and market competition, according to experts.
The Ohio Children’s Alliance, the state’s oldest and largest child advocacy organization with a membership base of 85 human-service agencies, released a report in June with stark findings.
Some agencies reported being down a third of their staff since before the pandemic. And 74% of the surveyed organizations indicated wait lists or demand for services had grown in the past two months.
“This is the hardest time for agencies ever in our membership to recruit individuals to come work there,” said Mark Mecum, CEO of Ohio Children’s Alliance.
Organizations also are contending with funders that allow only a small percentage of money to go toward operational costs, Garrison said.
Additionally, reimbursements that organizations receive from Medicaid have not kept up with inflation, he said.
“But yet my cost to attract and retain talent skyrockets,” he said of Maryhaven, which has seen an increase in turnover from 37% in 2019 to 45% this year.
According to the Ohio Department of Medicaid, establishing reimbursement rates is a complicated process and that provider rates are not explicitly adjusted for inflation.
Rates are examined regularly as part of the state’s biennial budget process, according to a statement from the department, adding that the state budget is shaped by the administration’s priorities, the highest areas of need across the state and in alignment with expectations set by the Ohio General Assembly. Ohio Medicaid is actively working with Gov. Mike DeWine, the legislature and its stakeholder and provider community to identify budgetary needs and priorities for the coming 2024-25 biennium.
The positive effect of unrestricted funding can be seen on the Columbus Urban League, which recently received a series of gifts from donors, including philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. The organization has been able to take steps to attract and retain talent, implementing an entry-level salary of $50,000, opportunities for professional development and self-care days.
Like many other Black-led nonprofits, the organization previously struggled to attract enough funding to build capacity, said Columbus Urban League President and CEO Stephanie Hightower.
“When I first got here, 50% of the people who worked here had been clients,” she said. “I remember the first time we had an opportunity to disseminate holiday baskets; most of the people that worked here qualified for the baskets.”
Steps toward improvement
Organizations are taking creative steps to attract and retain talent.
Some are stripping their job descriptions down to core requirements instead of attracting the “best-ever candidate,” Corey said. One organization has even added pet insurance to its benefits package, he said.
The Ohio Children’s Alliance report found that the most successful strategies have included offering flexible and hybrid work schedules, as well as college internship programs to create a hiring pipeline.
Through the report, the alliance also is calling for licensure reform — scaling back licensure requirements by, for instance, expanding foster-care workforce to qualified professionals regardless of whether they have social work or counseling licenses and expediting out-of-state licensed provider applications for Ohio licensure.
The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services awarded $5 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to behavioral health organizations, which used the money to provide retention bonuses. OhioMHAS also collaborated with other state agencies to form the Direct Care Workforce Expansion Working Group, which has implemented a public service announcement campaign to promote direct care jobs in Ohio.
In May, DeWine announced a planned investment of $85 million of federal funds to increase the number of behavioral health providers to meet the growing demand throughout the state. The proposal, which remains before the state legislature, would release funds to help expand scholarship and paid internship opportunities for students in the behavioral health field while supporting providers and the new workforce with recruitment and retention bonuses.
The National Council of Nonprofits has requested additional student loan relief programs and the reinstatement of the Employee Retention Tax Credit, which nonprofits relied on to retain and hire staff. It also is calling for the extension of a provision permitting individuals to deduct charitable donations up to 100% of their adjusted gross income and a measure allowing corporations to deduct up to 25% of taxable income.
“I’m hopeful that the community will truly recognize the value that nonprofit staff members bring,” Garrison said. “And that we can have an open and honest conversation around how we properly fund the nonprofit organizations so that we can keep delivering on these services.”
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