It would be a stretch to say that people employed in the non-profit sector enjoy warm fuzzy thoughts about the work they do.
But overall, many are drawn by the innate rewards found in making a contribution to the community.
The sector is also known for flexible work schedules that allow people – especially women – to juggle home/life demands.
Too often, however, the pay is lousy, and benefit programs non-existent.
And as the sector picks up the slack for governments that continue to off-load their responsibilities, the stresses on non-profit workers mount.
People are fed up and burning out, young talent is hard to attract, and a key group of workers in the 45-and-over age group, whose skills are readily transferable to more profitable sectors, are increasingly disgruntled.
“I would say that there is trouble ahead in the areas of retention and recruitment,” says Kathryn McMullen, senior researcher for the Canadian Policy Research Network.
CPRN recently released its second of five reports on the non-profit sector, and said the weaknesses in the quality of work could threaten its sustainability, hurting the workforce and thousands of Canadians relying on a variety of services. The sector employs 900,000 people in 60,000 organizations (this excludes religious organizations and quasi-governmental organizations such as hospitals and schools).
In its most recent report, CPRN notes that 75 per cent of employees in the non-profit sector are women; 25 per cent of the jobs are part-time; 14 per cent are temporary; and only 25 per cent of employees are under the age of 35 (compared to 37 per cent in the for-profit sector).
Overall, two-thirds of workers said they were satisfied with their jobs and pay. Disturbingly, close to 70 per cent of workers in the 45-and-over bracket said they were unhappy with their pay and benefits.
The latter group, a large component women, has suddenly been hit by the realities of life.
“In some respects, the non-profit sector compares well to other sectors,” explains McMullen. “It can be especially attractive to women trying to strike that work/family balance. But when they get to 45 or older, their priorities shift.
“They can compare themselves (to others) in terms of salary, which is likely lower. It’s a natural reaction of people of that age to become aware of retirement possibilities, the realities of income earnings, pensions, or perhaps the costs coming up to put their children through post- secondary education.”
McMullen believes that as the labour force shrinks with the retirement of the Baby Boomers, these non-profit people may be welcomed with open arms by the for-profit sector or the Quango sector (non-profit organizations in quasi-public industries including elementary/secondary schools, colleges/universities and hospitals and public infrastructure).
The question then becomes, who will fill the shoes of the departing skilled managers? Perhaps no one. Or at best, not fully-skilled replacements.
CPRN director Grant Schellenberg says that there are weaknesses “that could threaten the sustainability of non-profit organizations if ignored.”
“If we are to depend on non-profit organizations to the extent we do today, then steps need to be taken to improve the quality of work in the sector.
Failure to do so will hurt thousands of workers and equally, many more thousands of Canadians who have come to depend on them for vital services.”
CPRN is a national not-for-profit research institute with a mandate to create knowledge and stimulate debate on social and economic issues.
It is expected to release its third research paper this month. (Executive summaries can be found at www.cprn.org.) CPRN has drawn on statistics from an unprecedented Workplace and Employee survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 1999.
“In the literature we’ve been gathering, in large parts of the sector there is a sense that people are being asked to do more with less, leading to stress and burnout,” says McMullen.
“I wonder if that’s being compounded because the number of hours being volunteered by Canadians has decreased (dramatically) over the years.”
She adds that groups that don’t have core funding, that exist on a project-to-project basis and receive funding one year but not the next, have a difficult time offering longer-term employment contracts, let alone giving people a chance to move up the career ladder or pay scale.
“With cutbacks in funding over the past few years, organizations have been less able to have someone come in at an early age, to be developed and groomed for management,” she adds.
Meanwhile, existing staff is being handed more work and asked increasingly to learn new skills. In the for-profit sector, workers would normally be compensated for assuming increased responsibility; non-profits on the other hand simply don’t have the money.
Statistics also show that only a minority of non-profit employers offer supplemental medical insurance or dental plans, pay overtime and provide merit pay – let alone come close to matching salaries in the for-profit sector.
So even though people are often drawn to the sector for altruistic reasons, it’s also easy to see why the warm fuzzy feelings begin to wear thin.