Canada's nonprofit labour force is in crisis

By Cathy Taylor

Nonprofits across this country are at the forefront of helping communities survive and thrive. Nonprofit workers are committed to serving their communities and have found innovative ways to do this throughout the pandemic.

But we’re at a tipping point. If governments do not act to support this labor force now, the most vulnerable in our communities will be impacted. Unlike many other sectors, an HR crisis in the nonprofit sector directly impacts essential services and affects Canadians in their everyday lives.

As we move past year two of the pandemic, the nonprofit sector is facing skyrocketing demands for services, coupled with significant drops in fundraising and the end of government pandemic support. Our staff are burnt out and leaving the sector in droves.

Women are disproportionately impacted by both the surge in demand and the struggle to keep the doors open, as they make up 77 percent of the nonprofit labor force, as well as a disproportionate number of caregivers to the most vulnerable in our communities.

A nonprofit crisis means Canadians are losing access to crucial services.

Already, childcare centers can’t open spaces and are shortening hours as they struggle to hire and retain staff to care for our little ones. Family counseling agencies can’t keep up with the exponential rise in the numbers of calls from struggling families, and clients across multiple programs are giving up when they hear of wait lists of over six months.

In many places, programs like Meals on Wheels and adult day programs have long waitlists and no staff to run them. Drop-in programs for people experiencing homelessness are seeing unprecedented demand, yet with rising rents and food costs, they may have to drop hot meal programs.

All of this has a ripple effect throughout the community, as loss of services means increased caregiver burden, as well as added pressures on other already overburdened institutions that everyone relies on, such as hospitals.

According to recent results of the Canadian Survey of Business Conditions32 percent of nonprofit-sector employers believe retaining skilled staff will be an obstacle over the next three months, while 36 percent are concerned about recruiting skilled staff.

It’s a job-seekers’ market, but the nonprofit sector is starting from a considerable disadvantage to fill roles and remain competitive in retaining staff. Average salaries in community nonprofits are already 35 percent lower than the economy-wide average in Canada. Additionally, thin operating budgets and inflexible funding agreements mean many organizations are significantly constrained in their ability to increase wages.

This is a national crisis, one that is affecting every region in the country and that needs the attention of all levels of government.

Without nonprofit workers, there will be massive gaps in community supports — and governments will be left to fill in services for many people who rely daily on nonprofit supports and programs. As we’ve seen in the long-term care and other care sectors, large for-profit chains are not the answer.

There are solutions. Addressing the working conditions and acute labor shortage will require a multifactored approach. This means investment in nonprofit labor force strategies, modernizing antiquated funding agreements so organizations have flexible operating budgets to meet increased demand and retain talented workers, and implementing public policies that enable nonprofits to offer competitive salaries and benefits to people who are providing priority services.

Nonprofit organizations and their workers are collaborating with their peers and governments with a laser focus on their mission and the people they serve. With 170,000 organizations and 2.5 million workers in Canada, the nonprofit sector is an economic driver contributing $ 189 billion annually. Supporting nonprofit workers is a critical part of rebuilding local economies and preventing downstream costs from systemic issues facing communities.

With the alarming rise in the cost of living and a country still grappling with pandemic impacts, Canada’s nonprofits and charities will be relied upon even more. We can’t get the work done without a robust workforce of skilled nonprofit workers.

In a year with many provincial and municipal elections, it’s time for political parties and candidates to turn their policy focus and commitments to where communities need them most.

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