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Community Update: Staff, volunteer retention issues compounding sector pressures


More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects continue to put significant strain on organizations that serve the most vulnerable people in our communities.  

Workers are leaving the non-profit sector in droves, bringing many organizations to a breaking point, all while the demand for services steadily rises.  

The CanadaHelps 2022 Giving Report highlights that while 25 per cent of Canadians expect to give less to charity in 2022 than they did in 2021, 26 per cent expect to use or already use charitable services to meet their basic needs.  

Since February 2020, United Way East Ontario’s COVID-19 Community Response Table has taken on many roles. This group of more than 100 public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and others has kept a common goal of supporting local people as they cope with the effects of COVID-19. This has required constant collaboration between organizations and across sectors to quickly find innovative solutions to the most pressing challenges facing our communities. 

Layers of compounded crises are pushing staff and volunteers to the brink, but the course for this was set long before the pandemic began. At our latest Community Response Table meeting, we explored how and why human resources in the social services sector are strained, what we are doing about it, and how we might organize to meet ongoing needs.  

How the human resources crisis is affecting the non-profit sector 

Since the autumn of 2021, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) had heard from charities and nonprofits that recruiting and retaining employees during the pandemic was getting harder.  

Pamela Uppal, Director of Policy for ONN, says external factors like inflation, limited care infrastructure (healthcare, childcare, etc.), and the general assessments people are making about the role work should play in their lives, are butting up against the challenges the nonprofit sector is facing. For the past two years, the sector has been working in a crisis, forced to do more work than ever before with fewer resources, and without the space to adequately adapt to evolving circumstances and growing demand.  

“We've always faced an HR crisis in our sector. We've always had difficulty recruiting and retaining folks, but I think what's particularly different about this moment is that it's happening a lot faster. And thinking forward, there's going to be a growing demand for our services.”

Pamela Uppal - Ontario NonProfit Network
Pamela Uppal
Source: Ontario Nonprofit Network

ONN does not have the data to understand where workers are going when they leave the nonprofit sector, which makes it harder to understand which changes would be most effective to attract and retain talent in the sector. But Pamela says the impact is clear: programs have been forced to scale back, and many services are closing.  

“Our biggest asset and vehicle for serving communities is our labour force. If they’re treated well, our communities will receive the best care. We need to continuously build a strong and resilient workforce, because the world around us is changing continuously.” Pamela Uppal

ONN is developing a sector-wide labour force strategy and continues to advocate to the provincial government for a public policy environment that empowers better work in the nonprofit sector.   

A crisis at least four layers deep 

Amber Bramer, Resource Development Manager at Cornerstone Housing for Women, spoke about the deep effects that repeated crises have had, and continue to have, on staff working the frontlines of social services. 

“Pre-pandemic, in our city, we were already facing an opioid epidemic in our sector, we are already facing a housing and homelessness crisis that was declared a state of emergency by our city. We got hit by the global pandemic which drastically heightened the staffing shortages across our sector, and then we got hit by the convoy.”

Cornerstone’s housing case workers, the executive director, and other administrative staff have all had to take on frontline roles to support the capacity of the shelter. Constantly working in a crisis state prevents staff from being able to mitigate challenges and build personal rapports with residents to support their wellbeing. 

 Amber said Cornerstone has also had difficulty hiring new people to staff the shelter, and a lack of capacity to train existing staff on emerging issues. Before the pandemic, a job posting would receive 50 to 100 applications, but now they are lucky if they get five.

In emergencies, and particularly during the convoy occupation, the shelter relied on third-party staffing firms to fill positions; security firms to keep residents safe; transportation services to ensure staff arrived safely to and from work; and additional mental health care for traumatized staff and residents. These unpredictable costs put further strain on agencies that struggle to keep the lights on in “normal” times. 

Amber Bramer, Cornerstone Housing for Women
Amber Bramer

“We're the last stop for people in crisis. Our frontline staff are exhausted and they're providing care to people who are also experiencing trauma. We have limited resources in our sector, and we need to have the capacity to be more proactive, so our staff are equipped to take on these emergencies.”

Amber says the sector needs the following support to weather the next storm: 

  • Contingency planning and funding for future emergencies. 
  • Time and space for training and adapting to new circumstances. 
  • Stable, full-time work with equitable wages.  
  • Less paperwork and faster approval times for funding opportunities. 
  • Continued collaboration in the sector.  

Innovating to meet rural capacity challenges 

In 2020, the United Counties of Prescott and Russell were beneficiaries of emergency social services relief funding from the Government of Ontario to support the sector in weathering the pandemic.  

Lisa Deacon, co-founder of Datafest Ottawa, worked with the communities on a “community lab” to find solutions to food insecurity in Prescott-Russell. 

The lab aimed to find and create food security solutions amidst rising costs of food, closures of small grocers, transportation challenges across large geographic areas, and increased isolation. The group was initially made up of 25 participants from social service providers, who identified they were limited in their ability to scale up and adapt to new ways of working. 

As a next step, the lab engaged 75 people from businesses, service clubs, and others who were keen to help their neighbours but needed guidance. 

Together, the lab leaned on new people and their areas of expertise to streamline meal preparation and delivery, community gardens, and emergency grocery and restaurant card delivery to people in need. By enlisting other frontline workers (doctors, restaurants, art therapists, etc.), they reached the right people without building brand new responses. 

Through community innovation grants, Lisa and her team looked to the community to provide solutions to the social issues that had been exacerbated during the pandemic. By helping the community understand the issues, and receive training to be part of the response, it also relieved pressure on the social services sector. 

Lisa Deacon Datafest Ottawa
Lisa Deacon

“We need to foster more informed and enabled partners. Expanding who we’re training, who we’re educating and how we're bringing them into the work in the longer term.”

For Lisa, incentivizing collaboration and inspiring networks to act will be part of the ongoing solution to the capacity challenges facing the social services sector.  

Collaborating to address historic mental health and addictions needs 

Mark MacAulay, Executive Director of Ottawa Salus (a supportive housing provider for adults with mental illness), is a member of the Ottawa East COVID-19 Mental Health and Addictions network’s Human Resources Working Group.  

Alongside other local agencies in the mental health sector, the group has a mission to tackle the human resources challenges that threaten mental health services.   

In its Ontario budget submission, Addictions and Mental Health Ontario (AMHO) outlines that 40 per cent of their surveyed members cite staff retention related to compensation as their number one challenge. Twenty-six per cent ranked retention related to workload, stress or burnout as their number one challenge.  

In addition to frontline staff experiencing burnout, the compounded challenges facing the mental health sector are leading to exhaustion among agency leaders – showing that all levels are vulnerable right now.  

The impact on the sector includes: 

  • Interruptions in service and program closures. 
  • Complex client needs leading to exhaustion and vicarious trauma for staff.
  • Increased wait times, resulting in increased severity of challenges among clients (e.g. Increased overdose and opioid-related deaths, increased hospitalizations, multiple disorders, etc.). 
Mark MacAulay

“We have a multi-year problem that only has intensified with the pandemic. The cracks were there in the system, but it has intensified those cracks. Now we have this historical moment, and we need additional help.”

Locally, Francophone agencies face additional pressures in attracting French-speaking experts. Rural organizations struggle to recruit staff. Women are over-represented in the sector, increasing strain on their ability to manage homelife, parenting, schooling and more, on top of the elevated work pressures.  

Mark outlines how local solutions lie in collaboration: 

  • Francophone agencies are eager to work together on a strategy for HR sharing to increase recruitment and retention.
  • Working group members are committed to proactive solutions that mitigate more complex challenges.
  • Equity, diversity, inclusion and integration of newcomers is a way to address staffing challenges. 

The local mental health and addictions network supports AMHO in their call for an eight per cent increase in base funding to mental health and addictions agencies. He also wants a focused recovery investment in local, community-based organizations to improve recruitment and retention; integration of newcomer staff; organizational recovery planning; commitment to staff wellness; service quality; and more.  

Modernizing, organizing, and innovating to maintain resilience 

United Way Centraide Canada has submitted its interest in serving as one of the national funders for the Community Services Recovery Fund: a forthcoming $400 million investment from the Government of Canada to help charities and nonprofits adapt and modernize as they recover from the pandemic. Timing on the funding is to be determined.   

What we know is that we cannot wait for the government to make the first move. Our sector continues to lead in building a stronger, healthier future for our communities and for the social safety net that supports us all. Despite the amplified strain on organizations, we continue to find collaborative, innovative solutions. Closing our doors is not an option.  

As it has been since before the pandemic started, at United Way East Ontario, our work is grounded in the principles of collaboration, partnerships, and innovation to address the greatest needs and have the greatest impact for the people who need us most.   

In a year that will see both municipal and provincial elections, we will work with all levels of government, across political lines, to invest in and support the charitable sector, the people and infrastructure that power it, and the communities we serve.   




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The Government of Canada tabled its 2024 budget on April 16, 2024. Read our analysis on what it means for social services and people in need across East Ontario.

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