For a while, Kara Parks made just enough.
Her meager salary at Tides Family Services in Woonsocket, R.I., covered the necessities and provided her with the sort of front-line service work she had once dreamed of, helping vulnerable children and improving families’ quality of life.
But after four years of arduous home visits and erratic hours — for little pay — Parks hit her limit. The average salary at Tides, $37,000, no longer met the mark. In April, she left for a housekeeping job cleaning mansions in Newport.
“Even though you never knew when your phone was going to ring, I enjoyed [Tides]. But it came to a point where — I’m single, I live by myself — I couldn’t afford to stay. My paychecks were not covering my rent,” said Parks, 32. “If I could’ve dealt with the stress of the income with the stress of the job, I would still be there.”
Parks is one person in a flood of workers at human services nonprofits who have recently made similar moves, providers say.
In a persistently strong labor market, these organizations are struggling to offer competitive salaries and benefits, often losing their employees to better-paying jobs elsewhere. Nonprofit employment was in the midst of a sluggish recovery at the end of 2021, the last time reliable data was available. And little has changed since: Positions doing hands-on work — distributing produce at food banks, supporting domestic violence victims, and managing homeless shelters, for example — are going unfilled across New England. Almost half of nonprofits in Vermont and Rhode Island report having staff vacancies that last months at a time. (Massachusetts data was not available.)
“Employees at nonprofits are usually ever-ready-bunny types of people, the eternal optimists, and we’re losing them to Amazon and Target,” said David L. Thompson, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits. “It keeps me up at night.”
Staffing issues are coming to a head at a precarious moment for nonprofits, Thompson said, amid fears of a recession and in the midst of another COVID winter. Pandemic-era demand for social services has endured, meaning some nonprofits have opened new facilities or expanded existing programs for residents squeezed by a tumultuous economy.
The Boston food assistance charity Project Bread, for example, has more than doubled its staff since 2020, from 27 employees to 80 now. But that hasn’t been enough to keep up with demand as families grapple with high-priced groceries and electric bills.
Ronald McDonald House Charities of New England cannot hire for vacancies in the finance and fund-raising departments; Greater Boston Food Bank is on the hunt for warehouse associates; the Boys and Girls Club is low on youth development workers and lifeguards; and Quincy Community Action Programs had to cut some early childhood education classrooms due to a teacher shortage.
That’s shouldn’t come as a surprise, said QCAP chief operating officer Kristen Schlapp. Her organization can afford to pay teachers about $19 an hour, and pulls from the same limited labor pool as nearby public school districts that offer higher wages. QCAP has begun helping its other employees apply for teaching certifications, so they can eventually assume the roles themselves.
“Either way, we can’t compete with the schools,” Schlapp said.
Back at Tides, chief executive Beth Lemme-Bixby makes do with 119 employees, 30 fewer than the organization needs. In addition to Parks, she has lost people to Lowes and Starbucks, which pay better than she can. Right now, Tides is supplementing wages with a $694-per-month stipend funded with American Rescue Plan money, but that runs out in June.
“It’s getting expensive to live in Rhode Island, or really, anywhere,” said Lemme-Bixby. “How can my staff survive?”
Lawmakers have offered some support. In the November economic development bill, then-Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker set aside $225 million for human services nonprofits to increase their hourly rates and benefits. And advocates within the sector have proposed a bill that would require the state to reimburse outsourced social service jobs at the rate they pay state employees for the same job.
“Otherwise, we’re fighting with the state for those people,” said Michael Weekes, president of the Massachusetts human services coalition Providers’ Council.
Another approach, he said, could be offering stipends for child care, as many nonprofits employees are mothers, who have been slower to return to the workforce since the pandemic’s outset.
But as pandemic-era relief funds from ARPA and the CARES Act wear thin, nonprofits are shaking out the couch cushions of their budget to find money for extra compensation and benefits. At the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Boston, most staffers received raises of up to 15 percent in July, said Kelli Folger, vice president of human resources. The Greater Boston Food Bank instituted widespread raises too, offering $28 to $32 an hour for delivery drivers.
Connor Schoen, executive director of youth homelessness prevention nonprofit Breaktime, said the organization implemented a litany of measures to buck the longtime trend of underpaying nonprofit employees, using an influx of private donations. Now, no full-time staff member makes less than $50,000, and the organization pays for all of employees’ health and dental insurance. They also upped stipends for technology and gym memberships, and provided staff with T passes. On a case-by-case basis, Breaktime helps employees with gas, parking, and vehicle repair costs.
Those sort of moves may be paying off. In 2021, 60 percent of the staff at Project Bread — which has screened thousands more households for food assistance than two years prior — said they had considered looking for another job, said chief operating officer Douglas Flores. When employees were surveyed in November, that number was down to 24 percent.
“It’s not like you can snap your fingers and the problem is solved,” he said. “But that’s progress.”
Yet nonprofits know the exodus will have long-term consequences. People who have left the field in search of better pay may not return, while reports of low pay and burnout could dissuade future students from pursuing a career in the sector. Fewer people are signing up to volunteer, compared to 2019. And while nonprofits have raised a bit more each a month through so-called supersize donors, the number of donors overall is down year over year, according to a September report from the nonprofit coalition Independent Sector.
Maia Baker, a former employee in the communications department at Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, said more needs to be done or workers like herself will continue to leave from nonprofits. In February, Baker left the organization for a job on a state ballot campaign that paid nearly three times the $24 per hour she made at Planned Parenthood.
“I was worried that I would feel like I was selling out by caring about how much money I made,” said Baker, a 25-year-old Allston resident who after Election Day moved to another progressive advocacy job. “But I realized that as much as I want to work in a mission-driven field, what makes it possible for people to do that well is making enough money to live.”
Correction: A previous version of this article included the wrong name for Project Bread chief operating officer Douglas Flores.