As a local nonprofit veteran put it, COVID-19, inflation, and organizational flaws all contribute to an inability to thrive in the sector

(This is the first of a two-part article series based on our recent “How Are You Doing?” survey).

With more than three years passing since the outbreak of COVID-19, Charitable Advisors’ Not-for-profit News decided to revisit the survey question we asked of Central Indiana nonprofit employees in 2020: “How are you doing?”

Of the 366 survey respondents, 38.5 percent said that they are feeling “Upbeat and positive about the future.” However, 14 percent said that “Not good, hard to get through the day” was a more accurate definition of how they’re feeling in 2023. And the majority — 47.5 percent said their mindset is “Acceptable, getting by.”

More significantly, 21.5 percent said that they are “doing worse” than they were two years ago — at the height of the turmoil caused by the pandemic and social justice protests. The remaining respondents were evenly split between the choices “Doing better” (40.4 percent) and “About the same” (38 percent).

Some of these varying sentiments were conveyed by a survey respondent who has been working in the nonprofit sector for nearly 20 years. The past several years have been so challenging, she said, that she is planning to leave her organization.

“The nonprofit world is near and dear to my heart,” the survey respondent said during an interview in which she requested anonymity. “But the last three to four years have been so rough in our agency that I am currently looking to leave.”

The main reason? Leadership, said the survey respondent, who described the need for a leadership team that is positive, genuine, trustworthy, diverse in any area, puts aside pride and sets a good example.

“I believe COVID exposed problem areas,” she said. “When there is denial of the root cause, there cannot be correction to the path.”

However, she also pointed to external factors that have contributed to her dissatisfaction with working in the nonprofit sector.

“Overall, as a sector, it is worse due to staffing shortages and the quantity/higher needs of clients,” she said. “Inflation plays a role as well. For the most part, non-for-profit careers are not high paying.”

With the rising costs of living, brought on by inflation, nonprofit organizations have been struggling with fundraising while, at the same time, facing an increased need for services from people who need assistance, she said.

“It has been a constant drain,” she said.

Another anonymous survey respondent shared similar concerns, particularly from the perspective of expanding job demands, particularly for those who work for community foundations.

“I’ve been in the nonprofit sector for almost a decade, and this has by far been my hardest role,” the survey respondent said. “In the past, I’ve been told the workload ebbed and flowed around grant cycles, but since I’ve been here it’s felt more like climbing a constant mountain and never reaching the peak.”

Much of the increased demands can be attributed to the changing role of community foundations, she said.

“As community foundations move away from being ‘just a funder’ and into more leading/convening spaces surrounding community leadership, it requires much more from the staff than grant/scholarship review and coordination,” she said. “We are now required to have other sets of skills like strategic planning, coalition facilitation, capacity building, collective impact, research, and evaluation. We also will never have enough funding for all the needs in our community, so having the skills and emotional intelligence to navigate those hard conversations and situations as well as the IQ to piece together other opportunities or support from the foundation is crucial and required.

There’s a real feeling of having to be ‘on’ all the time, she said, including knowing the pulse of the community, understanding the needs of every nonprofit, connecting with various sectors in the community, attending evening and weekend events, and being available for emails and phone calls throughout the day.

Overall, the survey revealed that 36 percent of Central Indiana’s nonprofit employees feel “excellent or very good” about finding purpose in their work, while 45 percent rated it as “pretty good.” However, 18.3 percent said that they were no longer connecting to a purpose in their work.

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