It’s Time to Invest in Well-Being and Infrastructure for Human ServicesApril 13, 2023
By Monisha Kapila and Victor Valentine
Human services have always been at the frontlines of our greatest challenges and are a core foundation to ensuring well-being in our communities. We saw this even more so during the pandemic, when human services never “stayed home.” Frontline human services staff ensured that food pantries and drop-in centers stayed open; critical health services for the aging and persons with disabilities were maintained; support for emergency relief was available to those most in need; and so much more. Across the social sector, human services saw the greatest increase in demand for services during the pandemic, putting additional strain on an already taxed sector.
New research from the Urban Institute titled The State and Future of the National Social Sector Infrastructure, examines sector infrastructure—defined as the support system that helps the social sector thrive—and discusses how to strengthen it. The report, which was featured in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article, explores three themes around challenges and opportunities of social sector infrastructure growth, inequities and disparities in the social sector and its infrastructure, and the importance of well-being for staff and leadership in the social sector. Leaders from the National Human Services Assembly (NHSA) worked with Urban Institute to provide feedback on the report’s findings and offered some potential opportunities to address some of the challenges identified.
At NHSA, we have also identified two of the key priorities mentioned in the report through our day-to-day work. As a leading voice in the human service sector, NHSA has convened and collaborated with various stakeholders that have prioritized two leverage points identified in this research as critical to maintaining important human services: 1. Well-being for frontline workers, and 2. Increased access to infrastructure supports for human service organizations. In this post, we will share our learnings around well-being and infrastructure supports for human services. We will also identify recommendations to advance these priorities for the sector.
The Importance of Well-Being
In order for the social sector to maintain critical human services for communities, we need to support the well-being of staff, particularly frontline workers. NHSA’s Human Resources and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Peer Councils have been focusing on approaches to combat burnout and increase retention of human service staff. NHSA’s Executive Director, Victor Valentine, was also quoted in an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last year on staffing issues.
Some studies report that the turnover rate among health and social service workers reached upwards of 39% as recently as 2021. According to Gallup, the majority of workers in Generation Z, Millennials, and Generation X are experiencing high levels of stress, and nearly one-third are burned out. In addition to the burdens on frontline workers navigating the pandemic, there has been increased competition from other industries–including food, hospitality, and retail–that are offering higher wages, better benefits, schedule flexibility, and often less stressful working environments.
Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that well-being is an equity issue, given that a significant percentage of frontline workers are women of color. According to a report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research during the onset of COVID 19, nearly two-thirds (64.4 percent) of frontline workers were women. From a sector perspective, women were particularly overrepresented on the frontline of the Health Care industry (76.8 percent of workers) and Child Care and Social Services (85.2 percent). Concurrently, people of color were overrepresented in many occupations within frontline industries. Just over four-in-ten (41.2 percent) frontline workers self-identified as Black, Hispanic, Asian-American/Pacific Islander, or some category other than White. Additionally, frontline workers in human services are older than other fields, with about one-in-three (33.9 percent) over the age of 50.
Through our network at NHSA, we are seeing human service organizations identify ways to address well-being and equity through higher wages, more comprehensive and affordable benefits, increased time off, and creative work arrangements and scheduling.
Resourcing the Social Sector’s Infrastructure to Combat Inequities
Nonprofit human service organizations continue to be the most resource constrained in the social sector. Whether due to underfunded programs, low reimbursable contract rates, or caps on infrastructure and general operating spending, many providers live at the margins with some having to close their doors during the pandemic. Another challenge that is largely ignored, is the availability of initiatives and opportunities for organizations to maximize the resources they do receive. Access to needed goods, services, consultants, research/data, networks, and more often come at premiums that smaller organizations find prohibitive. This can negatively impact growth for organizations, particularly those led by BIPOC executives servicing some of the country’s most at-risk communities.
It is imperative that we increase resourcing and infrastructure supports for human service organizations, particularly smaller organizations in at-risk communities.
Advancing These Priorities for the Sector
Human service providers are but one part of a larger ecosystem that includes funders, capacity-building experts, academia, government and community leaders. In order to advance these priorities for the sector, we have identified recommendations for funders, infrastructure providers, and network leaders.
In the case where human service organizations receive funding from the government, it is common that reimbursements don’t pay enough for the increasing costs of direct services, much less employee well-being. Many of the sector’s leaders convened by NHSA believe that the funding community can play an important role in helping human services by providing resources for organizational infrastructure. For example, resourcing employee well-being through more unrestricted and general operating support can provide organizations the flexibility they need to train, develop, support and retain workers. Additionally, philanthropy can play a leading role by prioritizing infrastructure funding to ensure that human service organizations can continue to provide critical services while supporting their workforce.
Infrastructure providers need to consider that many human service organizations are small, independent entities and make concerted efforts to increase access and opportunity for these providers. As an example, here at NHSA we recently expanded our membership eligibility to encompass any domestic nonprofit organization which is substantially focused on health or human services and that is aligned with the values, purposes, and goals of NHSA. We made a conscious decision to drop criteria that specified organizations had to be national in scope and focus solely on human services, thereby creating opportunities for small to mid-size organizations to become members and have expanded access to what used to be reserved for a select group.
Network Leaders can increase awareness about infrastructure supports for human service organizations. For example, the National Human Services Assembly is attempting to level the playing field through our nonprofit group purchasing program, PurchasingPoint®, offering discounts to members, their affiliates, and other nonprofit networks. Key benefits of PurchasingPoint® are double-digit savings and simple ways to increase diversity in purchasing with several certified minority, women, service-disabled, and veteran owned business enterprises. Over the life of the program, participating nonprofits saved an estimated $234 million through discounts with PurchasingPoint®, allowing significant dollars to be redirected to other key areas like staffing and mission-related programs. While over 8,700 organizations currently benefit from PurchasingPoint®, many more could avail of this resource if they had awareness and time to engage this service.
In addition, we have continued to prioritize partnerships that ensure nonprofit organizations of all sizes have access to the discounts available through NHSA’s PurchasingPoint® program. Twelve years ago, we partnered with a national foundation to share information and access to PurchasingPoint® with all of their grantees. Over more than a decade, this foundation encouraged over 450 of their grantees to utilize the program. As a direct result of their efforts, these nonprofits saved over $16 million, monies that were redirected towards mission-aligned activities.
Without a doubt, it is time for us to invest in human services–the organizations that never “stay home” and are always at the frontline to support the most important issues in our communities. And for the betterment of the sector and our communities, we need to focus on equity, well-being, and greater economic viability for the sector in order to thrive.
Author’s Note: As part of our upcoming Centennial Event in 2023, we are going to be focusing on frontline worker well-being, funding issues in the sector, and more. We also regularly focus on these issues and more in our Peer Councils. Please be sure you sign up to receive our newsletters and event invites.