Working Conditions and Perceptions of Workers for Nonprofit Organizations

Survey report by Social Canada Social, June 2020


Social Canada Social ( ran an online survey for nonprofit workers for a two-month period during the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis.  The goal of the survey was to get an snapshot of their working conditions and how the crisis was affecting their lives.  

The nonprofit sector employs about two million people in Canada and contributes almost $200 billion in annual economic activity. Sector activities are varied, including churches, recreation, hospitals, universities, social care and social services. Many employees in large institutions such as hospitals and universities enjoy collectively bargained working conditions on par with equivalent public service work. But many of social service and social care jobs predominantly employ women, pay well below similar work in large institutions, and provide fewer benefits and less security.  Employees in the sector are usually  as well educated as the larger labour force. Since their paid work is often supplemented by extensive volunteer work, the total value of the work is significantly more than the total payroll. 

Imagine Canada, an alliance of nonprofit organizations, notes: In 2017, average compensation per job in the nonprofit sector was $57,000. Employees of community nonprofits received approximately $42,500 while employees in business and government nonprofits received $54,400 and $63,000 respectively. In contrast, average compensation per job over the entire economy was $59,900. 

The Study

Through various social media, brought the survey to the attention of approximately 35,000 adults interested or engaged in nonprofit organizations, resulting in 1072 visits to the survey posting. However, the number of fully-completed surveys was well below this and the responses to several questions were incomplete. There appear to be several reasons that many abandoned or did not complete the questionnaire, including the request for information that could be considered confidential.  Therefore, and especially given the nature of an open online survey, our numbers are not large enough, nor selected in a way, to be statistically validated. We provide some figures below for illustrative purposes only. 

The survey data (for example, remuneration and benefits) was, for the most part, consistent with other published sources. More importantly, for our purposes, we received 142 extensive written comments about working conditions, work experiences and work situations. Combined with their individually-specific data, this provides valuable qualitative information and insight into the experience of working in this sector.

Response Summary 

Fifty percent of respondents were in Ontario. 

The balance were roughly proportional to the population of their province, with three responses from the northern territories.

Location of respondents
Forty-five percent were under age 44 

Thirty-three percent were over 55.

Eighty percent of respondents were women. This reflects information from other sources that the sector primarily employs women. Gender
Ninety percent of respondents have some post-secondary education, with fifty-four percent having university degrees. This is significantly higher than the averages for the workforce as a whole. It may be partly because women are more likely to complete a university degree today, as more men are attracted to occupations such as the trades. It could reflect those who choose to fill out this kind of survey.  It might also, though, suggest that pay scales relative to levels of education and training are tilted against the predominantly female work force. Education
Two-thirds of respondents were working in health and social services Work sub-sector
Twenty-nine percent were working in direct service delivery.  They were predominantly under age 45. Thirty-eight percent were supervisors or managers. Fourteen percent worked in research/analysis. Work Function
Sixty percent of respondents had been working in their jobs for less than ten years,  forty percent for more. Seniority
Seventy percent were full-time salaried workers.  The others were a mix of temporary, part-time and contract workers.

Fifty-two percent of respondents were on full time salaries of $40,000 and over, with another 16% salaried under $40,000. 

Twenty-one percent of respondents were receiving salaries over $70,000. This may reflect the fact that the respondent pool was somewhat biased in favour of management, supervisory and research/analyst positions.

Pay Status
Twenty-two percent of workers receive no fringe benefits. Twenty nine percent have a workplace pension, with another thirty-four percent receiving some level of contribution to their RRSP’s. 

The combined total is higher than the average of 37.5% for the Canadian work force. However, it is far below the average for public servants working in similar or related occupations (about 88%, most of which are defined benefit pensions with inflation protection).

Sixty percent of respondents do not believe they are paid enough, relative to the work demands, training and experience. required for their jobs. 

About half are satisfied that their work provides adequate career opportunity. Most of these are in supervisory, management or research/analysis positions.

Pay Satisfaction
Just under ten percent of respondents indicated that they worked in high risk situations and required personal protective equipment. Fifty percent of them had been provided with appropriate supplies at the time of completing the questionnaire.  

Twenty-two percent reported that they had made special arrangements to protect their families because of the risk associated with their work. Three percent of respondents contracted COVID.

Effect of Covid

How respondents feel about their work

Sixty-five percent of respondents felt that they are appreciated for their work.  Front line workers felt they were not well-paid, and often not appreciated.

Eighty-seven percent report that they receive personal satisfaction from the work they do. StatsCan reports that in 2016,  83.9% of workers in all sectors are satisfied or very satisfied with their work. That is a more comprehensive measure which includes pay levels and being valued.

Several comments indicated a feeling that the larger service organizations and the general  society do not appreciate front line workers, nor realize how demanding the work is. However, they do feel valued by their clients and their coworkers.

A few people reported that they had a right to paid sick leave, but that it resulted in extra pressure on their colleagues, or reduced service for their clients. This may suggest that no provision was made in the organization’s budget to provide an appropriate level of service during sick leave.

A small number of CEO’s shared concerns about their jobs. They point out that they have to meet expectations of their board, their clients, their staff, their community,  government funders and other funding sources. They are responsible for delivering important services, often to vulnerable people,  but they have also to be constantly searching to find funding to support their work.  

Managers reported overall the most satisfaction with their work, including their pay and overall working conditions. They appear to have integrated their work life arrangements and rely heavily on their work for feelings of value and accomplishment.

In a few cases, respondents pointed out comparable jobs that paid more. A PSW commented that her pay was only about half that of a nurse, while feeling that the actual tasks she carried out were “not that much different.”  

Several frontline workers felt that their wages were indirectly affected by movement in the minimum wage. In other words, that their pay was set to be two or three dollars above the minimum and would not move unless the minimum moved.

Food for thought..

Several comments referred to a lack of planning or clear policies for working in a pandemic situation. This may simply reflect the broad reality of a pandemic. However, any organization responsible for vital human services should have a plan for emergencies or sudden changes. It might include protocols for dealing with service interruptions, as well, for example, as the creation of reserve funds to use in such times. This would be a challenge for many nonprofits, especially when some government funders tend to react negatively to building in a surplus in contracts. The need for such planning and budgeting should be taken into account. 

There were indications that people tend to stay in this field of work. People working in the sector would probably point out that this is important in providing stability and continuity. It also contributes to the accumulation of knowledge and experience. Because of long work experience and volunteers who tend to be loyal and long-serving, nonprofit organizations become the keepers of history in their area of public service. It is not unusual to hear a nonprofit leader talk of public policy changes as happening in cycles that they can trace back over the years. There is an occasional chuckle when a government department announces a management “innovation” that they have seen in the past, as happens in any sector with long serving workers.

A number of respondents wrote about the value base of nonprofit services. A few also wrote about church-based activities. They point out that the religious roles of churches are diminishing, putting them under financial pressure, although there are many important church-organized services. More to the point, they suggest that the nonprofit sector has become a anchor of moral and social values.

The sector rests on a shifting base that reflects movement in values in the overall society. Religion and patriotism are less prevalent. Demographic change and increasing cultural and social diversity enrich our economy and our society, but they do present challenges to social consensus and to generalist models of service provision.

Add in the changing and diversifying nature of work, as well as government attempts to provide essential services at the lowest possible cost.  

So the sector tries to represent a caring and inclusive community, while also being faced with constant pressure to provide services for the least possible amount of money. When faced with price competition from private enterprises, which can view their service narrowly and be guided by the bottom line, they are at a disadvantage. There may be a hard lesson in sad experiences of the pandemic.

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