Finding workforce is labor intensive for local nonprofits

PLAYTIME: Jordan Towle, a visitor services manager at the Providence Children’s Museum, plays with Jorge Rodrigues, 1, of Providence. The museum, according to Executive Director Caroline Payson, relies on ticket sales and membership fees to bolster operating costs. 
PBN PHOTO/ELIZABETH GRAHAM
PLAYTIME: Jordan Towle, a visitor services manager at the Providence Children’s Museum, plays with Jorge Rodrigues, 1, of Providence. The museum, according to Executive Director Caroline Payson, relies on ticket sales and membership fees to bolster operating costs. 
PBN PHOTO/ELIZABETH GRAHAM

The COVID-19 pandemic’s cascading aftereffects have been complicated and hard to shake for Rhode Island’s nonprofits, which employ 67,000 Rhode Islanders. That number represents 16.5% of the state’s private sector, a slight decrease from 17% before the pandemic.

Long, stressful days, job burnout and less-than-competitive salaries have impacted nonprofits. Cortney Nicolato, CEO and president of United Way of Rhode Island Inc., which partners with ­hundreds of nonprofits, many of them small, sees this issue clearly.

“The major challenges I’ve seen are ­either unique to or exacerbated by COVID,” she said.

The United Way, a large, prominent nonprofit in the state, hasn’t been buffeted as badly by the pandemic’s devastating long-term effects as smaller ­organizations, but it still competes for talent with the for-profit world, Nicolato said. Her colleague, Nancy Wolanski, said it’s a mixed picture for smaller organizations, however.

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“According to a 2022 survey, one reason nonprofits have staffing struggles is due to the pandemic’s extra pressures,” said Wolanski, who has been appointed executive director of the United Way’s new nonprofit resource center.

The survey, conducted by the R.I. ­Department of Labor and Training, the United Way and Grantmakers Council of Rhode Island, found that 47% of ­participants took longer than three months to fill staff vacancies and 82% had at least some staff burnout. Perhaps most telling is that 23% of survey participants paid entry-level workers less than $15 an hour, making them eligible for federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance ­Program benefits and other such assistance.

One stark figure, Wolanski said, is that 46% of respondents said employees left the nonprofit world completely, draining institutional memory.

“There’s normal churn, but this kind is concerning,” Wolanski said.

A PRESENT NEED: The Groden ­Network CEO ­Michael Pearis, left, speaks with ­Marketing ­Coordinator Hope Cahill in his office. Pearis says there is a 15% employee vacancy rate 
at the ­Providence-based social services ­organization, ­leading to more overtime costs. 
PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
A PRESENT NEED: The Groden ­Network CEO ­Michael Pearis, left, speaks with ­Marketing ­Coordinator Hope Cahill in his office. Pearis says there is a 15% employee vacancy rate 
at the ­Providence-based social services ­organization, ­leading to more overtime costs. 
PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

These numbers don’t surprise Michael Pearis, CEO of The Groden Network, a Providence-based organization that serves individuals with autism and behavioral disabilities. At Groden, with about 450 ­employees, there’s a 15% vacancy rate, which leads to more overtime costs and use of temp services, Pearis says.

“It’s always a challenge hiring ­direct-support professionals. We have 19 group homes where the staff is working with clients with autism and developmental disabilities,” Pearis said. “We have day programs with teaching assistants, some with degrees, who are working directly with clients. We’re hiring at $17 or $18 an hour, and it’s a competitive marketplace. People can work at Whole Foods for that, but our employees also need a certain level of training. It’s difficult work.”

Pearis said that on a professional level, he’s also competing for nurses, where new grads have many options beyond Groden’s nontraditional environment in which clients may be nonverbal.

“We’re all looking for the same folks, and we have to offer competitive salaries and benefits,” he said. “You could argue that if we raised salaries, we’d have better staffing, but we haven’t seen that. We end up with a higher base rate, which leads to higher overall costs.”

Since 95% of Groden’s funding is ­public, he said, increased costs for ­salaries, utilities or insurance become very ­challenging to deal with. “We’re locked into contracts that need legislative and state agency approval,” he said.

One possible long-term solution for Groden is investing in workforce development, getting young people interested in a career in human services early on. Partnering with the foundation ­Papitto ­Opportunity Connection, Groden launched an internship program for people ages 18 to 21. Interns in fields from technology to neuroscience rotate through the agency.

“Kids didn’t know there are [information technology] jobs at nonprofits or human services,” Pearis said. “We’re creating our own workforce.”

The Providence Children’s ­Museum, a 25,000-square-foot site in ­Providence’s Jewelry District, relies on ticket sales and membership fees to ­bolster its operating costs. The museum isn’t always recognized as a nonprofit because most families pay regular ticket prices, but SNAP recipients, military and other visitors are eligible for free or reduced admission.

Although the museum’s attendance has climbed in the last year, it still hovers at 64% of pre-pandemic levels, which affects budgeting.

“I’m overjoyed we’ve increased our numbers, but we have to be cautious ­looking ahead,” museum Executive Director Caroline Payson said. “The tail of COVID is longer for us because we work with young kids.”

Last year, the museum added an ­education director and another staff ­position, began paying more for entry-­level positions, and paid for a significant portion of health insurance coverage for staff and their families. Still, a lack of funding means the museum can only be open five days a week, creating a difficult situation for an institution that relies on admission fees for part of its revenue.

“We’d love to be open every day, but the numbers don’t bear that out,” Payson said. “We’d need four additional full-time staffers.”

Providence Promise, another small nonprofit, launched six years ago. Its mission: promoting higher educational aspirations and more-equitable opportunities for students in Providence public and charter schools. That includes advocating for college savings accounts and helping families reduce the burden of paying for higher education.

Like other small nonprofits, the organization has had to navigate a lot of pandemic-related changes. Staffing and retention were a challenge, said Executive Director Madalyn Ciampi.

“We struggled in 2021 and early 2022, although we’re in a better position now,” she said. “In my experience, it’s more about turnover. In 2021, we experienced a lot and each person we lost said pay was the primary reason. They were either moving on to a job in higher [education] or to the private sector.”

Burnout also caused staffers to leave, Ciampi said. She said hours are long and unpredictable, and that makes it hard to prioritize personal and family life.

Last year, Ciampi said, the organization took a deep look into its culture and team building, as well as the need to offer better benefits, slowly raise salaries and increase paid time off. Providence Promise also recognized the need to focus on nonmonetary things, such as taking a break during a hectic day to recognize a birthday or work ­anniversary.

The organization now has six full-time staff members, the most employees in its history.

While Providence Promise receives support from more than 300 large and small organizations, corporations and foundations, Ciampi also credited several large donors of unrestricted funds, including the Papitto Opportunity Connection, which has donated more than $200,000 annually.

“It’s been a game-changer for us,” Ciampi said. “We can pay for early scholarships and transportation and pizza for kids, as well as our rent and salaries.”

BUCKET BRIGADE: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ­Community Center ­Executive Director Heather Hole Strout, center, plays a bucket game with 
a group of preschoolers 
at the Newport-based 
nonprofit’s playground. 
PBN PHOTO/KATE WHITNEY LUCEY
BUCKET BRIGADE: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ­Community Center ­Executive Director Heather Hole Strout, center, plays a bucket game with 
a group of preschoolers 
at the Newport-based 
nonprofit’s playground. 
PBN PHOTO/KATE WHITNEY LUCEY

Last year, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Newport served more than 6,000 people through hunger-relief programs, early childhood and out-of-school education, and fitness and wellness programs, yet less than 2.5% of its funding came from the government. More than 90% of its money came from foundations, as well as corporate and individual donors.

“Some grant funders or donors want their money to go to food or other areas, not staffing, but it’s crucial to have trained people to do the work,” said MLK Center Executive Director Heather Hole Strout. “We encourage our donors to trust us in how we spend their donations,” she said.

Strout says the center struggled with hiring and retaining employees last spring. Much was related to burnout, mostly in its education programs.

“There were many days I was serving as preschool teacher or after-school teacher. It’s very challenging work, and we’re seeing sectors paying higher wages that couldn’t before,” she said.

Since the summer, the center has been “in a good place,” Strout said. Thanks to extra fundraising, MLK Center raised salaries by 5%, she said, and the organization is now overstaffing.

“That way if people call in sick, we don’t have to close,” she said. “We haven’t had a lot of turnover in hunger relief. We rely on volunteers, so we’re lucky because they’re so dedicated. Everyone is seeing … higher wages, but we can’t charge more money for our product because we don’t charge anything. People need a livable wage, but what’s livable is going up faster than we can afford.”

Livable wages, benefits and diversity must be offered in the nonprofit world if the community wants high-quality programming, according to Strout. However, “not everyone realizes that,” she said.

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