Nonprofit social service agencies depend on paid staff

As I sat through the city of Ashland's social service grant process last month, I heard, over and over, questions about staff salaries. This reminded me of a grant application interview I had in the fall during which the interviewer asked, "And you are asking us to fund personnel costs?" with a look that sent me fumbling for words.

"We serve bereaved people and we need experienced staff to do that," I replied.

I wondered then, and again during the Ashland process, why people think nonprofits should minimize staff costs and try to do it all with volunteers. The whole question of why nonprofits have to pay staff and the pushback from foundations and donors makes me crazy.

As a community, we make financial contributions to nonprofit agencies and, of course, we want to know how the money is spent. Perhaps underneath the pushback is this: Are personnel costs worth the investment?

Even deeper than this question is a pervasive attitude nationwide about where nonprofits fit in our economic system. In a March 2013 TED Talk, Dan Pallota states that it's fine for people in for-profit companies to make a lot of money "not helping people," but as a society we have a "visceral reaction" to nonprofits making money to help other people. His statements ring true, and thus those of us working in this sector continually have to fight an uphill battle to keep our organizations afloat.

So let's educate ourselves about staff roles in nonprofits, in the hopes that we can shift this attitude and lessen the reluctance to invest in staff operating costs.

I am in awe of the effective staff I get to work with, people who drive the mission of WinterSpring, which provides bereavement support services using a companioning model. The staff works hard to make sure we give everyone who connects with us the best and most compassionate care we can with our limited resources.

On a recent morning, I overheard program manager Anya Neher on the phone with a mom whose husband died, leaving her family in deep grief. Anya carefully listened, asked questions, and gave assistance. She told the mom about our Children's Program and the Spouse/Partner Loss Group and offered to send a list of resources.

Anya's day includes a long list of work to coordinate volunteers and manage our bereavement programs, yet she patiently addressed all of the mom's concerns.

We receive several calls from grieving people each day. Anya shares the phone support role with Paul Gibson, who also coordinates our teen program. This is highly sensitive work in which depth of experience, an ability to communicate effectively through difficult emotions, and attention to detail are essential to helping people gripped with loss.

As in many nonprofits, WinterSpring's staff members have stressful jobs without much financial reward. Our rewards come from the people we help, such as a client who told us, "WinterSpring's love and support helped me through the darkest time of my life after my daughter took her own life ... I will never stop being grateful for all you have done for me ..."

Volunteers also contribute to our mission. They facilitate bereavement support groups and help in other ways. They are awesome, yet they require training, coordination, management and evaluation — by staff. While there are great volunteers in our organization and others, ultimately, volunteers are not accountable for what goes on with the people we serve.

The most sensitive work we do is best done by staff. Why? Because they are accountable, they see the big picture of where we are going, and they sustain what we for do the long-term.

I can't imagine how we would fulfill our mission without any one of our staff. They are the heart and soul of what we do to help people learn to embrace life again after deep loss.

Nonprofits serve a vital function in our economic system. The whole community benefits when individuals and families can find the support they need during hard times. And when people open their hearts and wallets to the nonprofits that resonate with their values, this means we in the nonprofit sector can focus most effectively on our programs rather than scrambling for where we are going to get our next dollar. Personnel costs are worth the investment. And quite frankly, it's a bargain for the work we do to enrich the quality of life in this valley.

Julie Lockhart is executive director of WinterSpring.

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