May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. This article is the first of a three-part series that explores the mental health of nonprofit employees and offers solutions to bolster their health and well-being.
Nonprofit organizations are the third-largest employer as a sector in the United States, constituting much more of a robust and sizable economic force in the American economy than is widely recognized. Yet many nonprofit workers – particularly women of color – do not earn a living wage or have access to healthcare or other mental health supports.
Often, when we talk about nonprofit organizations, the conversations center around the mission of the organization or the challenge the organization serves to redress. Rarely is the conversation about the well-being of its staff. This has contributed to the perpetuation of a dangerous status quo: Low-wage-earning women of color are the engine of the nonprofit sector, serving as the backbone of communities, yet they’re facing significant challenges—and we aren’t talking enough about it.
The problem is complex and layered. There is more than ample information on the intersecting challenges that pay and gender inequity exacerbate and who it most negatively impacts—women of color and women at the lower end of the economic ladder. There is equally sufficient data highlighting the reality that most nonprofits (regrettably) significantly underpay workers with almost no ability to increase wages within the current systemic funding mechanisms.
Here’s the paradox: Many nonprofit employees are confronting the same struggles and are in a very similar economic category—at or below the poverty line—as the clients they serve.
COVID-19 shed light on the challenges frontline workers face. The plight of low-wage earners, especially women, quickly made headlines as women tried to contend with the daily realities of trying to balance kids at home, no childcare, low-wage positions, and little-to-no healthcare. Many nonprofits were simultaneously seeing a dramatic increase in the need for services while also having to close their physical doors. Daily, we saw stories about the safety nets that nonprofits nationwide were extending to their local communities, with nonprofit leaders relentlessly advocating for continued and deeper supports for their nonprofits’ missions. But internally, staff experienced high stress, anxiety, long hours, vicarious trauma, doing more with even less, and burnout, all of which exacerbated realities caused by a starvation cycle of historic, relentless foundation underfunding, low wages, and a pattern of ignoring staff mental health.
Philanthropy had to suddenly revamp grant requirements and deploy dollars faster. Foundations large and small pooled hundreds of millions of dollars to support nonprofit missions, with a tiny portion even going to support staff who was bearing the weight. Some funders even surveyed nonprofit leaders and asked them how their staff’s mental health and well-being could be improved during this time – and they listened by directly funding counseling, retreats and other well-being initiatives to help mitigate the combination of stagnant, inequitable wages and lack of mental health access with the stress of shouldering so much community need and suffering.
This quick philanthropic learning curve pivot proved that foundations can adapt their processes and funding priorities quickly and match grantee needs—but has this continued learning pivot and trusting of grantee needs deepened? Sadly, most of these staff well-being initiatives were offered one time and discontinued, leaving those same workers without increased wages or access to health or mental health support.
Last week, President Biden announced the end of the COVID national emergency, yet the evidence of need for equitable access to mental health supports is more visible than ever. Who is supporting the health and well-being of our nonprofits’ staff? Low wages contribute greatly to varied health stressors and regardless of geography, the impact of paying little attention to our collective mental health is evident. The connection between low wages and (lower) mental health and well-being is not difficult to understand, yet it has been too easy to systemically ignore.
In the following articles in this series, we’ll dive deeper into the imperative of focusing on the well-being of the nonprofit staff who support our communities. Solutions do exist but they cannot be the responsibility of one sector; corporations, government, nonprofits and philanthropy have to work together to create new approaches for the greater well-being of those who support our communities for a living. The mission requires more action.