(August 12, 2021) The charity workforce has already been buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are predicting a significant migration or even a ‘reckoning’ as charities come back to more regularized working conditions.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw people being very loyal to their organization, that they would stick it out,” says Deborah Legrove, president and owner of Crawford Connect an executive recruiting firm specializing in the charity sector. “People didn’t take vacations.”
“During the first 5 or 6 months, things slowed down significantly,” echoed Sal Badali, Partner, Not for Profit & Public Sector Practice for Odgers Berndtson, an international executive search firm.
“But there was also a lot of downsizing,” says Legrove.
While some charities, such as food security organizations, had demands on their services explode and expand during the pandemic others, such as national health-related charities experienced massive lay-offs. MS Society of Canada laid off nearly half its staff, or 165 people. The Canadian Cancer Society laid off 300 people, or roughly 30 per cent of its staff. Diabetes Canada laid off 50 per cent of its workforce and YMCA Canada temporarily let go 20,000 employees across Canada — 75 per cent of its workforce.
“At first, I was shocked at how many people large charities were letting go, one large charity let go a third of their workforce,” says Gina Eisler who works with Legrove at Crawford Connect.
According to The Charity Report’s study, Charity Sector Employees: Employee Stats, Industry Compensation and Salary Averages for 2018, there were 3,031,176 employed in registered charities in 2018, 50% of them full time and 50% part time. (Compared to the charity sector, only 19% of the Canadian workforce is engaged in part-time work.)
Of those left employed during the pandemic, working conditions changed dramatically. All non-essential frontline workers immediately began working from home. For some—those who wanted flexibility and had the space and means to work at home, this was a dream come true. For others, who lived in cramped quarters, in a multigenerational household where home was meant to be home, and those with small children, it was a nightmare.
Many reported Zoom fatigue. Others told The Charity Report they felt the way they were supervised during work-at-home lacked empathy and knowledge. One woman working for a large international development organization said she was required to be reachable by her computer at any time between 9 and 5, and said she felt “chained to her chair.” Another working in the health sector said she could see a member of her team was holding Zoom meetings “from his closet.”
Leah Eustace, ACFRE, is president of Blue Canoe Philanthropy. She has been speaking on the topic of mental health for many years.
“Based on what I’m hearing, there has been a real change. Initially, when the pandemic started, we talked about self-care, deep breathes and yoga,” she told AFP Daily in May. “Now, we are at the stage where trauma has set in. I’m hearing a fight or flight response. People are beyond being tired and have moved to absolute exhaustion. I know I’m sleeping about 12 to 14 hours a day.”
“Remote work is a salvation or a curse. We are looking for remote workers. You can live and work anywhere and that’s enormous,” says David Hutchinson, President of Cause Leadership Inc, an executive recruiting firm. “The flip side is that maybe people don’t want to work from the dining room table.”
Whatever the reason, now, as the charity sector workforce is beginning to come back to normal working conditions, there are many people deciding not to come back to work at all—or to look for other work.
Dubbed “The Great Resignation,” workplaces are seeing a trend in employees quitting their jobs, writes Holly Corbett in Forbes magazine. “A record four million US workers called it quits in April alone, according to the US. Labor Department. Pandemic burnout, a collective reassessment about priorities and what matters most, a labor shortage and more companies calling workers back into the office may be some of the reasons behind this trend.”
“The employees who were treated well by their employers will likely stay, but those employers who took a misstep might lose people”, says Hutchinson.
“All the reading that I’ve been doing is that the turnover is only going to increase,” says Legrove.
“Our company is typically working on seven searches at any given time. We are now doing 11. And we have several proposals out there, and our inquiries are up 50%. People are retiring, and I look at the long-term care centres, community health centres, and family health teams. We see the signs of a lot of turnover out there.”
“I would call what we’re about to experience an employment reckoning as opposed to an employment migration,” says Hutchinson. “And it’s a situation impacting the private sector as well.”
“We all think there’s going to be a lot of movement because during the pandemic organizations were reluctant to hire and people were reluctant to leave,” says Badali. “There is a pent-up demand that’s reasonably robust.”
The lack of qualified leadership has been a concern for some sector observers for more than a decade. Charity founders who are ready to retire and those who’ve been in leadership for a quarter of a century are considering—depending on their retirement savings—shuffling off to retirement creating a vacuum at the top and little in the way of leadership training having taken place.
“Today, we are facing the same issues we were facing on March 1, 2020,” says Hutchinson. “There is a shortage of leadership in the charity sector now, just as there was then. Because of the lack of recruitment and investment in leadership development, there’s not enough Gen X’ers around who are available and/or qualified for leadership positions now. So, we must look to the Millennials for leadership.”
“I have seen the leadership gap. Fifteen years ago, a long list might have been longer than it is now, but there’s still good choice available to organizations,” says Badali. “They must pay a decent salary, of course, and offer a mission, but I don’t see organizations starved for talent.”
“Our sector tends to go to an older generation on leadership,” Hutchinson points out.
“In the private sector, you can be tagged for leadership at the beginning of your career not at the end of your career. In the 1990s, we should have been attracting GenX’ers to the sector but, anecdotally, we didn’t do so in enough numbers. Today that negatively effects the number of available and experienced leaders from that demographic. We must convince boards and c-suite executives to look at the high-potential Millennial leaders. As a sector, we cannot afford to miss this group of leaders like we did with GenX.
Hutchinson says, “like every generation, 20% are going to rise to the top. Boards and executive leaders need to consider younger leadership when recruiting for their charity.”
One of the most important things to candidates on the job market is that their prospective employer has a post-COVID plan, says Eisler, who speaks with dozens of employment candidates a week.
“In terms of managing remotely, nonprofits are trying to figure it out,” adds Legrove. “Charities are giving up their office space. Others are looking at downsizing.”
One thing both Legrove and Eisler have noted is that calls from people wanting to move into the nonprofit sector from the private sector, which used to be a regular thing, have stopped.
“We don't know why. One reason could be that they know salaries are lower,” says Legrove.
Some private sector operations are interested in making progress on the same issues as organizations in the charity sector and they don’t believe you have to be a charity to have an impact says Hutchinson.
“The B Corp certification for some organizations could be greenwashing or it could actually be authentic,” he says. “There are companies that see their operations as contributing to social impact. Charities haven’t gotten rid of hunger and poverty—some organizations have seen progress, of course—but the private sector may be seeing itself as being able to have an impact quite independent of charitable partners.”
Hutchinson sees leadership qualities being transferable across sectors.
“There are nuances and perceptions that need to be dealt with, of course, but building people up, leading them from the bottom applies to any sector. The private sector experience translates if the leader is willing to learn and adapt and if the charitable sector is willing to embrace them.
Overlaid onto the impending employment migration in the charity sector is the increased scrutiny on equity and diversity, but diversity is not simply one hire away.
“Of course, the issue of diversity and inclusion has been on the top of people’s minds and, sometimes, people we speak with say they need to hire a diverse person,” says Legrove. “But it’s not simple. I look at a board and see they are not diverse. So, I ask if they have a diversity policy or if their staff is diverse. Because we can’t specifically recruit for diversity when that person could be set up for failure or worse because of the landscape they’d be walking into.”
“Diversity will play a huge role in the way we address the talent pool,” says Hutchinson. “But it can’t just be one moment of realization. We must work with people who want to see diversity in the talent pool. As a middle-aged white man, I need to acknowledge and learn more about diversity issues. Together we need to see the diversification of the sector as a strategic priority in addition to a human one.”
There is a push to have a diverse workplace, says Badali.
“Organizations are sensitive to it and want diversity. And there’s great talent out there that will be getting a second look. For our hires, the long list is typically 4 to 8 people, and our short list is 3 to 4, at least some of those have a diverse background.
“As a sector, we still appear to be largely white, and that needs to change” says Hutchinson. “A snapshot of today’s charitable sector might suggest that executive leadership is primarily made up of, or being assumed by, white women. While that is wonderful and good for gender diversity in leadership, does our sector have the will to change and embrace diversity in other ways?”
Because of their pandemic experience, people are being very careful in the next job they take, says Legrove.
“Charities are merging, some charities are closing, probably the smaller charities most of us have never heard of will close. Some of the people who’ve been laid off will be underemployed, some will leave the sector entirely. There are so many moving parts and so many elements at play, and we learn from candidates each day about what they are experiencing. It’s most likely something we’ve never quite experienced and will have to use our creativity to manage.”