Giving Thought: Nonprofit workers are a nonrenewable resource
Worker retention is widely understood to be critical for organizational productivity and sustainability, which begs the question of what happens when turnover is prevalent across systems and communities?
Nationally, staffing shortages are creating greater opportunities for individuals to negotiate higher wages and compensation packages, but organizations shouldering the burdens of tighter budgets due to rising costs are struggling to meet the needs of workers. In places like the Aspen-to-Parachute region, the cost of living is pushing workers out of the region entirely, creating job openings that are difficult, if not impossible, to fill. Nonprofits are especially feeling the impact of the continually changing landscape.
Across our region, nonprofits of all sizes and areas are grappling with how to retain their staff and sustain their organizations. Some are able to increase wages while others are hoping that other benefits will support staff retention.
Organizations that serve children and families are especially impacted by shortages, as these systems are already traditionally operating at a deficit. However, as more organizations navigate shortages and strains, the broader systems are experiencing pressure, and, as a community, we are feeling the effects of lack of available childcare or long waitlists for intervention services.
When an employee leaves an organization, the housing shortage has made hiring difficult. Recently, several organizations have shared that qualified job applicants have ultimately not accepted job offers to fill vacancies because cannot find housing — turning our regional workforce into a nonrenewable resource in the current economic climate. A number of nonprofit directors have acknowledged that if they were not living in our region currently, they would not be able to accept job offers here as they could pre-pandemic. Others have indicated they are considering whether life here is sustainable despite a desire to stay.
The Early Learning Center in Aspen has been grappling with a shortage of teachers for over a year, despite raising teacher pay this fall to $21 an hour.
“If I lost another teacher, I would have to look at closing a classroom or reducing our hours. Currently, I am the only person (who) can cover anyone’s vacation days or if they call in sick. There are many factors that play into hiring, but housing and pay are big ones,” said Leslie Bixel, the executive director of Early Learning Center. A director filling in for classroom teachers is not sustainable or ideal for organizational efficiency and impact.
While the Early Learning Center has been able to raise wages, they have not raised enough money to keep up with other centers or school districts hiring teachers at $30 an hour with no experience.
“With these pay raises, we are operating in the red, and, without significant fundraising, we will have to draw a large chunk of money from our reserves,” Bixel said.
YouthZone, a youth-serving nonprofit based in Glenwood Springs, has seen an increase in demand for its services since the onset of the pandemic as mental-health struggles continue to rise. As a result, their board recognized the importance of retaining their workforce and approved significant staff raises in April 2022. This move underscores their organizational belief that supporting those who are working with youth and families improves the lives of those they serve in the community and was also intended to support staff recruitment and retention.
“YouthZone is a service-based organization, with our people being our most valuable resource. The impact of the work our team does daily is monumental. In some instances, their commitment to precious humans is the difference between life and death. Hiring and retaining the right individuals is essential to carrying out our mission and positively impacting our community,” said David Portman, a YouthZone board member.
Given the multiple, unique struggles our region presents nonprofits with — coupled with the national trends — our workforce has become more precious than perhaps ever before.
The systems and organizations supporting children and families living in our region have critical missions and are essential to a thriving community. At the heart of this work are the individuals carrying out the daily work needed to support healthy development and growth.
Staffing shortages across systems are creating breakdowns and gaps, placing the health and wellbeing of our community in jeopardy. As a community, we have an opportunity to recognize our people’s critical importance and to make the changes that support our interconnected future in sustainable ways.
Allison Alexander is the development director of Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.