Opinion

Raiding Our Staff at Nonprofits

A while back, one of my best staffers came to me with the kind of news that is too commonly heard by those of us who run nonprofit youth-serving agencies:

“I’ve been approached by the state about a job,” he said. “It’s for more money and, the irony is, less responsibility. No more on call. No more crazy hours. I’m tempted to take it, because I have to think of my family.”

I’ve worked for nonprofit youth-serving agencies in New York, Connecticut and Vermont, and found that while many elements of youth work are distinct to each state – such as interactions with child welfare officials and how youth work is financed – they all have one unfortunate pattern in common.

The nonprofit organizations have inadvertently become training grounds for the state governments.

Community-based organizations recruit staff, train them, promote them and train them some more. Then they leave – sometimes for a higher and better paying position at another nonprofit, but more likely for a state job, at a higher salary, with better benefits, such as tuition reimbursement.

This happened often during New York City’s crack epidemic in the late 1980s, when the foster care system swelled to something like 43,000 children in placement. The nonprofit for which I worked, St. Christopher-Ottilie, was desperate to hire staff. We constantly ran help-wanted ads, and we streamlined the interviewing process to get caseworkers on board quickly.

It was tremendously frustrating. As quickly as we’d hire one person, someone who’d been with us for a while would announce, “Hate to tell you this, but the Child Welfare Administration [as it was then called in the city] has contacted me, and they are offering a lot more money and will pay my graduate school tuition.”

My supervisor had a stock speech to discourage such people from leaving: “You’ll hate it there. You’ll be given an impossible caseload. The morale stinks in those offices. Talk to so-and-so – she left us and worked for the city, and now she’s back. She’ll tell you what it’s like.”

Sometimes her speech worked. Often it did not. People needed the money. They had loans to pay off, bills to pay and families to feed.

Connecticut wasn’t much different, although there was one curious distinction. We didn’t lose workers to the state child welfare system as often as we did to corrections. I found this particularly ironic and galling. My organization, Domus Foundation, ran juvenile crime prevention programs. We hired people to work with kids who were at high risk of offending or re-offending.

I once appeared before a state legislative committee to testify about it: “Do you realize how counterproductive it is to have staff members whom you have trained, whom you have taught how to reach out to troubled kids in order to keep them on the right track, and then lose those very people because they have been offered more money and better benefits to work in the jails? And to add insult to injury, I lose managers, people I have trained and promoted, who then take nonmanagerial positions in corrections because they can receive a better salary and benefits. These people can do better as line staff with the state than they can as managers with us.”

I wasn’t done: “We’re in the business of keeping kids from going to jail, and we’re funded by the state, but we lose our best people all the time to the corrections systems. This severely undercuts our work with youth, with the result that more of them end up one day going to jail. It is bizarre and unjust.”

I’m in a different state now, but the pattern continues. The staffer who approached me awhile back never got the state job offer, but I see once again how vulnerable I am to these approaches by government agencies.

This is the predicament facing those of us running the private, nonprofit youth service agencies in this country. Many of us are funded through a combination of local, state and federal dollars, with a little United Way and some private donations thrown in.

With our inadequate funding, we can rarely match the buying power of the state, in terms of salaries and benefits.

We’ve become their training ground.

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