As I sat through the city of Ashland social services grant process last month, I heard, over and over, questions about staff salaries. This reminded me of a grant application interview I had in the fall during which the interviewer asked, "And you are asking us to fund personnel costs?" with a look that sent me fumbling for words.
"We serve bereaved people, and we need experienced staff to do that," I replied.
I wondered then, and again during the Ashland process, why people think nonprofits should minimize staff costs and try to do it all with volunteers.
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The whole question of why nonprofits have to pay staff and the push back from foundations and donors makes me crazy. While there are great volunteers in our organization and others, ultimately, volunteers are not accountable for what goes on with the people we serve.
The staff works hard to make sure we give everyone who connects with us the best and most compassionate care we can with our limited resources.
As a community, we make financial contributions to nonprofit agencies and, of course, we want to know how the money is spent. Perhaps underneath the push back is this: Are personnel costs worth the investment?
So let me explain staff roles in nonprofits and why the community should want to invest in staff operating costs.
I am in awe of the effective staff I get to work with, people who drive the mission of WinterSpring, which provides bereavement support services using a companioning model.
On a recent morning, I overheard program manager Anya Neher on the phone with a mom whose husband died, leaving her family in deep grief. Anya carefully listened, asked questions and gave assistance. She told the mom about our Children's Program and the Spouse/Partner Loss Group and offered to send a list of resources.
Anya's day includes a long list of work to coordinate volunteers and manage our bereavement programs, yet she patiently addressed all of the mom's concerns.
We receive several calls from grieving people each day. Anya shares the phone support role with Paul Gibson, who also coordinates our teen program. This is highly sensitive work in which depth of experience, an ability to communicate effectively through difficult emotions, and attention to detail are essential to helping people gripped with loss.
As in many nonprofits, WinterSpring's staff members have stressful jobs without much financial reward. Our rewards come from the people we help, such as a client who told us, "WinterSpring's love and support helped me through the darkest time of my life after my daughter took her own life. ... I will never stop being grateful for all you have done for me."
Volunteers also contribute to our mission. They facilitate bereavement support groups and help in other ways. They are awesome, yet they require training, coordination, management and evaluation by staff.
The most sensitive work we do is best done by staff members. Why? Because they are accountable, they see the big picture of where we are going, and they sustain what we do for the long term.
I can't imagine how we would fulfill our mission without any one of them. The whole community benefits when individuals and families can find the support they need during hard times. Personnel costs are worth the investment.
Julie Lockhart is executive director of WinterSpring and an adjunct faculty member at Southern Oregon University. She and her daughter live in Ashland.