Strengthening the Nonprofit Sector: Why Paid Family Leave Matters

Much of our careers have been devoted to working in human services agencies, also called social services providers. These organizations directly serve individuals and families, providing everything from medical care and housing, to meals, mental health services, and spiritual resources. In our time working for human services nonprofits, we have become convinced that these organizations cannot fully live out their missions to empower individuals and families if they are not honoring their own employees’ roles not just as employees, but also as family-members and caretakers.

Nonprofits that provide human services, both secular and faith-based, are often under-resourced in both human and financial capital.  This often leads to a missional disconnect of sorts. Nonprofit employees advocate for and provide supportive services to beneficiaries so that they can thrive in different spheres of life: education, vocational training, employment, physical and mental health, spiritual development, financial literacy, parenting, and family stability. Yet, ironically, these very same nonprofit employees often lack the supports themselves to fully honor their diverse roles as students, employees, spouses/partners, parents, financial providers, spiritual beings, and more.

This creates a real tension for mission-oriented human services providers whose organizational purpose is to empower individuals to thrive in their personal and professional lives. On the one hand, nonprofit services organizations work hard to have the necessary financial resources to fully advance their missions.  On the other hand, if these nonprofit organizations struggle to provide their own employees with a living wage and the support they need to balance their work with other roles, then mission advancement becomes harder.  Nonprofits ought strive for missional consistency, starting with their own employees.  And some nonprofits are succeeding.  According to the National Study of Employers, formal workplace flexibility, as well as child and elder care assistance, are more likely to be found at nonprofits. But this is often easier said than done.  

For example, last year the U.S. Department of Labor proposed new regulations that would have significantly expanded the number of U.S. workers eligible for overtime pay by upping the salary at which employers must give overtime pay to employees from $23,660 to $47,476.  This rule was ultimately blocked by a federal judge, yet at the time nonprofits expressed internal conflict over this rule. Chad Audi, President and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, stated that the proposed rule would increase his organization’s administrative costs by 25 percent, and could result in a reduction of services. Michigan Nonprofit Association President Donna Murray-Brown captured the internal and missional struggles nonprofits were facing with this proposed rule, “Many fear the added costs will lead to layoffs and fewer services, [but as nonprofits] we all understand the importance of a living wage to the people we employ as well as the people we serve," she said

 Honoring the Whole-Person Needs of Employees

Human services providers recognize, often in their very missions, the centrality of providing for the various, complex, and often intersecting needs of the whole person when it comes to their services recipients. Yet, too often, the same human services agencies fail to recognize their employees are also individuals with multiple roles to carry out beyond being an employee. This is not done intentionally or with malice, it is a systemic challenge in a field that is often chronically under-resourced in both money and human capital.  

Despite the challenges, human services nonprofits, both faith-based and secular, have found innovative and creative ways to advance their missional callings to honor and serve the needs of the whole person by starting with those that are tasked with embodying that mission on a daily basis: their employees.  These nonprofits recognize that their employees are also called into other responsibilities in other areas of life. In “From Having It All to Honoring Both: Policies that Make Space for Family and Work, Rachel Anderson emphasizes, “[Employers] can fulfill their own calling to public justice when they treat employees as full and whole persons, with callings and responsibilities to caregiving as well as to paid work.” Although all employers would ideally recognize this calling, it is especially important that mission-based organizations that exist to empower individuals in all of their varied capacities in different spheres of life begin by honoring the plurality of roles their employees also take on: as neighbors, volunteers, members of a political community, creators and consumers of art and culture, and, perhaps most significantly, as family members and parents.

This is possible for human services organizations of all sizes. In Southeast Washington, DC, Columbia Learning International Ministries  (CLIM), a small, almost entirely volunteer-run faith-based human services organization that provides housing and other direct services to the working homeless. CLIM found a way to support a young woman in her capacity as both an employee and a new mother. This young woman, also a resident of CLIM’s housing program, needed a way to both earn an income and to care for her infant child. CLIM’s founder, Angeloyd Fenrick, hired the young woman to provide reception and administrative support in CLIM’s offices, located in the same apartment building that she resided in.  The young woman was able to bring her baby to work with her and the commute was only a few minute walk down the stairs.

This creative solution, although not possible in every workplace, took into account the different callings, as both a worker and parent, on this woman’s life and strove to honor both callings.  In providing the opportunity for this young woman to earn an income while still taking care of her child, CLIM further advanced its organizational, faith-centered calling to “help the working homeless support and reunite with their families.”

Through the guidance and mobilization of AWP (Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community), over 100 Jewish organizations have also adapted family-supportive workplace policies: paid family leave and/or formalized flexible working policies.  AWP describes their purpose in recruiting these Jewish organizations, including many human services organizations, to adopt family-supportive policies, “as a catalyst for making healthy work-life policy the norm in our community. Our ultimate goal is to make these same standards the norm throughout the nonprofit sector and American society.” In“Balancing Career and Family in Jewish Communal Services,” Cindy Chazan lays out a vision that could be adopted by the whole faith-based  and secular nonprofit sector. “I hope we can create organizations that encourage articulate personal priorities and to recognize them as whole people without competing but complementary priorities...In this way I hope we can re-emerge as an open-minded field of Jewish communal service, one that is supportive and caring, and will enhance the quality of saner Jewish lives for us and our children’s children,” she said.

Many of us in our twenties and thirties care deeply about doing meaningful work that reflects our faith and animating values.  This draws many Millennials and Gen Xers into the nonprofit sector, and specifically into human services.  We believe that for faith-based and/or mission-based organizations to fully progress their missions to empower individuals and families, they ought first recognize that empowerment starts at home, with the very people that represent their institutions in the world.

-Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Equipping at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of the Center for Public Justice. She holds a JD from the University of Michigan and is a licensed attorney by the State Bar of Michigan. 

-Joshua Bombino has worked with young adults in the behavioral health field for the past 10 years. He will graduate in May with a MSW from the University of Maryland School of Social Work.