Bloomington-Normal nonprofits maintain workforce and funding despite the odds
This is Part 6 of WGLT’s series The Next Shift about workforce issues in McLean County. Coming Tuesday: A look to the future of the Bloomington-Normal workforce, its challenges, and its strengths.
Nonprofits are struggling post-pandemic. That’s no secret, and it has a lot to do with the business model.
By nature, nonprofits rely on grants, donations and state dollars. This means operations and even worker pay depend on how much money comes in, so when the economy struggles, so do these organizations.
Corporate workplace campaigns are down since COVID-19. Tax code changes impacted individual giving. And workers and families nationwide have less disposable income as rising paychecks fail to keep up with rising inflation.
In response, the government provided bailouts and other pandemic relief funding. Meeting the moment, donors also stepped up. Public and private grantors turned program-specific funds into general operating support and loosened reporting and outcome expectations.
For some nonprofits, that made the difference between keeping the doors open or not. For many, it has made post-pandemic reality even tougher — especially amid a steep decline in private donations the last fiscal year.
But for at least two McLean County nonprofits, this isn’t the case. While local nonprofits have struggled, they don’t seem to be seeing the critical decreases in funding and workforce volatility that is crippling nonprofits elsewhere.
Local nonprofits defying the trend
Sam Guillory, vice president of development and public relations at the Normal-based nonprofit The Baby Fold, said workforce vacancies and turnover are no higher than usual or expected for an organization its size.
“It's just natural that you're going to have some turnover,” she said. “It's natural we're going to have retirement too.”
Vice President of Human Resources Vikki Falls said most current openings are for paraprofessionals and other direct service providers that have been impacted by these workforce shifts.
She added that openings are sometimes due to internal lateral shifts. Promotions and new placements are encouraged at The Baby Fold.
“We want to keep people engaged in the work, and so sometimes it's a matter of looking at other areas and other opportunities,” she said. “When that happens, then that creates an opening.”
Guillory said the donor base also remains strong.
“Since you have an organization ... that's been around for over 120 years, the community recognizes and understands the importance of our vital services,” she said. “So we are still receiving donations, we are still receiving support.”
United Way of McLean County has also been around for almost 100 years. Chair Cat Woods attributes much of its success to adaptability.
“There has been a fundamental shift in the way that our United Way has worked,” she said.
Well before the pandemic, United Way had to reconcile when State Farm pulled its funding — nearly half of the nonprofit’s total income. It transitioned to an entirely work-from-home model, saving $80,000 on office space and other overhead expenses.
“We don't have an office, we don't have a copy machine … no telephones,” she said. “We pretty much know what our staff is going to cost us.”
She added that the rest of the money can go toward United Way's unique programs.
Collaboration one key to success
Moving from a grant-giving organization was critical to United Way’s survival, Woods added. Now, they lean on the strengths of other area nonprofits, rather than funding other organizations' programs or duplicating existing services. This allows them to keep their staff small and cut overall costs.
Woods said they haven’t had to let go of any workers in recent years.
She explained how a potential collaboration with the Baby Fold might look.
“[We’d say,] ‘You’re doing this for families, we feel that we have some families that could use your service, we're going to send them to you,’” Woods said. “Now, it's not necessarily us giving The Baby Fold money to do this. It's us saying, ‘We have this population that fits your mission, can we work together on it?’”
Sharmin Shahjahan of Forefront said collaboration among nonprofits is critical for sustainability.
“The state of the sector has clearly, very clearly shown that there is a very significant need to both build internal capacity and to figure out ways to collaborate with others that are doing this work,” she said.
Forefront advocates for nonprofits statewide, and Shahjahan is their racial equity data collector. Their newly released racial equity asset map was created for the express purpose of collaboration, so organizations that don’t have the capacity to dedicate a team member or a program to diversity, equity and inclusion can use the map to find a nearby nonprofit that can.
Funding, funding, funding
Current success does not always mean the coffers are full, though. Cat Woods of United Way and Falls of the Baby Fold both said funding is a perpetual issue.
“I do sincerely believe and know that we are doing well as an organization, but I don't want to downplay it that there continues to be a need for people to give,” Falls said.
Guillory at The Baby Fold credits some of their financial security to endowment funds. There are people who have the Normal nonprofit in their will.
United Way personalizes the donor experience, allowing people to sponsor individuals in its Workforce 180 program directly.
Then there are organizations that offer program-specific grants to nonprofits. The Illinois Prairie Community Foundation is one of them. They operate in McLean, Livingston, Logan and DeWitt counties.
Grants and Communications Director Michele Evans said this model can be restrictive. For example, it can’t be used to hire or pay current staff to put the grant proposal in motion, which she said can make it “very difficult to introduce a new program.”
As such, one of their subgroups has extended the scope of the grants to sometimes include these operational costs.
Peoria-based Community Foundation of Central Illinois Chief Executive Officer Mark Roberts said the group is considering a similar shift.
What is the impact on workers?
When the money is coming from the state, it can be even more limiting for nonprofit staff, and workers are the ones who ultimately feel the effects of these restrictive grants.
Lauren Wright of Illinois Partners for Human Services said there are immoveable restrictions from the state that directly affect pay, which can oftentimes lead to nonprofits losing workers to for-profit businesses.
“Organizations are often strapped because they can't just fundraise their way out of those competitive wages,” she said. “I'm all about high wages, but I also just think we have to acknowledge who has power in those scenarios.”
Roberts added that increased wages would likely be a key to attracting more people to nonprofits.
“In this day, and age, people that might fill those particular jobs can also go to a fast-food restaurant or a retail store and make approximately the same hourly wage with a lot less of the skill that they might need to do the specific nonprofit job,” he said.
In Bloomington-Normal, there are corporate options like Rivian and Ferraro that are hiring in bulk, sometimes poaching workers from other employers. Wright said this is a “unique challenge” she hears about in central Illinois.
At the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation, Evans said she sees turnover happening.
“I have to communicate with all of the grant applicants every year, and then I circle back about a year later and ask for final reports,” she said. “And during that time, I often get a bunch of bouncebacks that people are no longer there.”
Why some people leave the nonprofit world
Personal motivations for leaving the nonprofit world vary. A somewhat universal catalyst is compassion fatigue.
Sabrina Burkiewicz became the external communications manager at Bloomington-based energy company Growmark this year after working at Illinois Farm Bureau. Before that, she was at the same nonprofit for eight years. She said compassion fatigue was her main reason for leaving.
“It takes an emotional and mental and a physical toll also, because the work, it never ends,” she said. “There's always more to be done. There's always new people in need. There's always more crisis.”
This does not mean she did not love the work. Burkiewicz said it was more that she was “burned out.”
“I started when I was young, and just had boundless energy, boundless compassion, boundless drive, and I didn't know anything about those boundaries,” she said.
Leaving came with a 20% pay increase, but Burkiewicz said she wasn’t looking for a less stressful environment, not more money. She called the bump “a pleasant surprise,” and said she hopes to finish out her career in a nonprofit or retire and join the board of one.
For Kristin Manzi, entering higher ed felt like a natural part of her career trajectory. She spent years working at various Bloomington-Normal nonprofits before becoming a counselor at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.
“It really put all my skills together,” she explained about her current role.
Now that she’s experienced work outside nonprofits, she said it would probably be a hard sell to get her to return.
“I don't have to worry about, you know, if a grant is going to end and my position won't exist anymore, no matter how hard I have worked or how high my client satisfaction is,” she said, adding that regular raises and cost of living increases is a plus.
Much like Burkiewicz, Manzi doesn’t harbor resentment toward nonprofits. In fact, she still regularly dedicates her time to them as a volunteer consultant and leader. She said this can “scratch that itch” she gets to help, without compromising her job security.
Burkiewicz said general volunteers are probably what kept her working at her nonprofit for so long. They shoulder some of the burden for workers, reducing compassion fatigue.
As a consultant, Manzi said it’s becoming nonprofits’ responsibility to do this as well. She advocates for nonprofit workers in the hiring room.
“We make sure that we are looking at things like we're offering retirement or retirement matching and things like that because nowadays, we know that we do have to be competitive, and we have to offer those options,” she said.
In Normal, The Baby Fold’s Vikki Falls said workers can seek mental health treatment with a $15 copay and they offer a $1,500 health care line of credit.
“We want and need our folks to be and feel healthy and feel good about who they are and feel good about coming to work every day,” she said.