Several nonprofit employees share their personal insights a year after NFPN survey
by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News
How is Central Indiana’s nonprofit industry evolving? What’s next for 2023?
More than a year has passed since Not-for-profit News engaged 500 Central Indiana nonprofit employees as part of a “How Are You Doing?” survey. At that time, we wanted to know how the people who make up Central Indiana’s nonprofit sector were faring during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, stay-at-home orders, and social and racial justice protests.
In September of 2021, a significant number of survey respondents (54 percent) said they were thinking about leaving their jobs within 12 months. And 72 percent said that their nonprofit’s stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work impacted them.
Recently, we contacted several survey respondents who were willing to be interviewed about what had transpired since last year.
While the nonprofit employees’ responses varied, it was clear that the unprecedented events in recent years significantly impacted how their organizations will fare throughout 2023 — either positively or negatively. One person decided to leave the nonprofit field as a full-time career, while others decided to stay in environments experiencing high levels of employee turnover. For some, the pandemic strengthened their resolve to elevate their nonprofit missions.
The following includes an overview of their responses.
Nonprofit veteran decided to leave industry
A 25-year nonprofit veteran in Central Indiana, who will remain anonymous, quit her full-time job at a local nonprofit, making her among the approximately 4.5 million Americans who quit their jobs in 2021, a statistic reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I’ve always prided myself on working in a nonprofit and making it better than it was when I started,” said the employee, who launched a travel agency and consults for her former employer about 5 to 8 hours a week. “I wasn’t feeling that anymore. I wasn’t feeling like I was having any impact on anything. I wasn’t finding value in working for this particular nonprofit.”
While the pandemic accelerated her decision, she said, the work environment — including a high turnover rate among board members, a lack of inclusivity in decision-making, and a toxic culture — already had put her on a course to seek other opportunities.
She said that she believes the nonprofit lost sight of its mission. “To me, this (travel opportunity) is more impactful than raising money for a scholarship or to keep the lights on. It’s filling my bucket, my sense of purpose,” she said. “I’m encouraging people to travel to places they may not normally go. Writing fundraising copy just wasn’t cutting it anymore.”
In looking forward to 2023 and beyond, the former nonprofit employee said, she would encourage nonprofit teams, starting with the top executives, to re-engage with their mission.
“Somewhere, from the top to the bottom, we’ve lost the whole point,” she said. “Are we filling widgets. Are we raising money? With our most recent fundraising letter, they were focused on the size of the document and the need to fill every panel with a lot of text as opposed to what we really needed for our mission.”
Some nonprofits do make a personal connection with their donors, as evidenced by a local cat shelter that sent her a thank you letter for a donation made on her behalf. Along with a handwritten note with a cat image, the nonprofit sent a newsletter that had been written in Microsoft Word and featured numerous images of cats.
“They told me what they were doing specifically with my money,” she said. “There was nothing fancy. They taped a picture of a cat to the front and wrote something meaningful. I still have it because I think it’s so cute. I read it all the time. They got it right.”
The survey respondent also noted that the Great Resignation included people of all ages and industries, including her husband, who changed corporate jobs to work for a smaller company. She believes management will need to have more meaningful conversations with employees about their mission and their role in it. The message should not be “We need you in the office three days a week” or “Here’s a Starbucks gift card,” she said.
Staying the course amidst a sector in constant change
While the recent upheaval in Central Indiana’s nonprofit has been evident in various areas, Patty Cortellini is among those staying the course as director of agency relations for Second Helpings. “I guess it’s in my blood. I truly believe in the mission of Second Helpings,” said Cortellini, who is preparing to celebrate her 13th anniversary at the nonprofit organization.
“From an organizational standpoint, we have seen a lot of turn over,” she said. “A year ago, our CEO, Jennifer Vigran retired, and several other key individuals have moved on to other positions. Internally, we have seen changes among the ranks. The burnout due to COVID is high.”
Cortellini noted that Vigran was among a series of key local CEOs who announced their resignations, including John Whittaker of Midwest Food Bank and John Elliott of Gleaners.
Innovative approaches that Second Helpings implemented to accommodate COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and increasing food needs will likely continue throughout 2023 and beyond, Cortellini said.
“When COVID hit, we pivoted on a dime and created “to-go” containers for drive-through operations. We also implemented home delivery of meals based on need. At the beginning, the calls were screened by the Indy Hunger Network. Now they are screened by Gleaners,” she said. “To this day, we are still delivering food to home bound individuals/families and still packaging meals into to-go containers. I don’t anticipate those models will ever go away.”
The community also has a continuing need for services, based on requests made to Second Helpings, with the number of meals requested doubling from pre-COVID to today. “We have seen the need for sandwiches explode,” Cortellini said. “Currently, we make around 6,000 sandwiches a week.”
Other changes implemented by Second Helpings, Cortellini said, include the following:
- Second Helping’s CEO, Linda Broadfoot, and the board of directors joined the Good Wage Initiative, a group of Marion County employers who are committed to providing full-time employees a wage of at least $18/hour and access to health insurance benefits.
- Invested in a new prep area to expand the organization’s services.
- Switched fundraising events to a virtual format.
- Formed an internal committee to address DEI initiatives with the guidance of a Martin University professional. The nonprofit had planned to close its office to host the first of two staff-wide DEI training sessions.
Overall, Cortellini said, she is learning to relax. “Just last week, I was able to take a full complete week off,” she said. “I am working on placing more boundaries around me. I don’t feel like we are in a crisis mode like before. We have a little more breathing space.”
Implementing new approaches to nonprofit work
Susan Ferguson, chief program officer at accessABILITY, and a 30-year nonprofit veteran, said that she no longer feels the level of stress she did a year ago. “However, I do believe the almost constant state of stress, overwhelm, and burnout is real in the nonprofit sector,” Ferguson added.
Ferguson noted some positive outcomes because of the major shifts that nonprofit organizations experienced in the wake of the outbreak of the global pandemic.
“New developments include a more remote work environment,” Ferguson said. “We are now looking for new models for space, including renting space in a co-working model for the flexibility it offers. We have a need for a home office, but outside of our administrative and leadership staff, our staff are primarily working from home.”
Community Center’s CEO focuses on community, well-being
For Eric Koehler, CEO of JCC Indianapolis, nonprofit organizations must continue to play a significant role in healing rifts that have emerged in communities in recent years. “The pandemic really polarized our community, our state, our country, our world,” he said. “Our roles as nonprofit leaders in the community are more important than they’ve ever been. Our collective nonprofit mission is to help foster healthier, more inclusive communities from lots of different perspectives.”
He described JCC Indianapolis as a town square of sorts for the surrounding community, no matter a person’s background, orientation, or beliefs. “This is a place where everyone can gather around programmatic interest areas,” he said. “All that other stuff can fall away. That’s probably the most important of our mission. We’re not just a fitness center. We’re a conduit — a vehicle for us to create community. It’s a deliberate process. We foster a sense of community.”
Koehler also said that his leadership team has prioritized the well-being of employees in the wake of the pandemic outbreak. The organization shut down for a day in 2021 for a Mental Health Day, which included a retreat. After the gathering, the employees were able to take the rest of the day off.
“While it’s a common practice in the for-profit sector, service industry organizations may find it difficult to close their after-school care, fitness center, and early childhood programs,” he said. “But we felt like if we don’t take care of our people, they can’t take care of our community.”
Through the national JCC Association, the local JCC also implemented a MESH certification program designed to train participants in recognizing the signs of someone in need of mental health support. The organization also distributed free resources to employees to help them understand where they can seek help for additional mental health support.
On a day-to-day basis, leadership also plays a role in regularly recognizing the good work of their employees.
“As CEOs, our job is to be the primary cheerleader for the organization. Leadership, whether it’s the staff or the board or the executive team, must spend as much time as we can calling out good behaviors,” Koehler said. “We need to praise publicly and provide corrective feedback privately and find moments to celebrate. It shouldn’t be a once-a-month routine. Do it as many times per week as you can. Every time, you tell somebody something nice, you’re filling up someone’s bucket. It probably takes about 20 nice comments to make up for one negative comment.”
To keep up with the demands of his role, Koehler said that he stays grounded through prayer, fitness, and reading. Through decades of serving in the nonprofit sector, he said, he also has learned how to prioritize his varying responsibilities.
“I’ve been working in nonprofits for 30 years and there’s definitely times where you feel it. Sometimes we’re going to have to work an incredible number of hours for a special fundraising event or to open up our waterpark for camp,” he said. “But you can’t sustain that on an ongoing basis.”
Using advice he read in Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More, Koehler periodically assesses his schedule to make sure that he’s prioritizing the areas that will move the JCC Indianapolis’ mission forward.
“Sometimes it’s very rewarding to check off the quick things that actually don’t move you or your organization forward. It can be satisfying to say that it’s off my list,” Koehler said. “But it’s more important to focus on the things that I’m doing to move my organization and myself, professionally, forward.”