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It's a juggling act: Nonprofit staff and their multiple roles

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Editor's Note: Looking for current information on compensation in the Canadian nonprofit sector? Check out the 2013 Canadian Nonprofit Sector Salary & Benefits Study.

"I'm a marketer. And a fundraiser. And a volunteer coordinator. And a case manager. And..."

Margot Cudmore is certainly a busy woman.

As the events manager for Knights of Columbus in Oakville, Ontario, Cudmore is in charge of sales, marketing, promotions, planning, volunteer coordination, health and safety, procuring liquor licenses, inventory and client management.

This laundry list of responsibilities is enough to induce panic in the calmest of employees, but Cudmore takes it all in stride.

"You're always kind of running under a crunch when there are deadlines looming," she says, "but I'm one of those project managers that likes lots of little projects and this is perfect for that. It's just the jack of all trades, every day is different. I absolutely love that."

While it may be typical for an event planner to do so many different things, Cudmore isn't the only nonprofit staff member who is wearing different hats. Many of those who work for nonprofits find themselves taking on more work, and that includes a scope of duties beyond what they were originally hired for.

The latest Sector Monitor Report from Imagine Canada says that the average number of paid staff at nonprofits has dropped slightly. This decrease is driven by nonprofits with less than four employees, as small organizations have been reporting fewer paid staff since 2009.

But contrary to what you might think, the trend of nonprofit staff performing multiple roles isn't necessarily due to the recent recession. While there was undoubtedly downsizing or restructuring as a result of the economic downturn, the human resources crunch at nonprofits has been developing for quite awhile.

Dr. Gillian Kerr, a psychologist and consultant specializing in performance management for nonprofits, says that nonprofit staff taking on more work isn't a new phenomenon.

"These are the same pressures that have been going on for the last 15 years or so," she says. "The push is to have fewer and fewer people doing more and more. It's common for everybody in the for-profit and nonprofit world, and it's a trend that's been going on for some time. And I don't think it's going to change."

Why is this happening?

While budget cutbacks and limited funding resources certainly contribute to staff taking on more responsibility, Dr. Kerr says part of the reason employees are forced to take on additional roles is because the nonprofit sector doesn't have a standard, objective system of measurement to prove the value of its work.

"You can't calculate cost effectiveness unless you know the effectiveness side. If the effectiveness is zero, or the effectiveness is meaningless, then all you're looking at is the cost side," she says. "And you can always show cost. Until you can show that a certain investment has a certain result, why not have caseloads of 350?"

We live in a culture that is pushing relentlessly towards lower costs. We love getting value for our money, and the nonprofit sector is no different.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters in Cranbrook, BC, Dana Osiowy isn't your traditional executive director. In addition to her organizational duties, Osiowy is responsible for case management, working alongside only one other part-time staff member and a co-operative student.

"People are often shocked to hear that there's only one full-time staff, how many matches that we have and all the things that we're doing with miniscule budgets," she says. "And then that creates unrealistic expectations, too, because people think, 'Oh, you're doing such a good job and you hardly have any money in your budget, you just keep doing that!'"

Challenges for staff working multiple roles

Wearing many hats can have a variety of consequences for staff, including stress, burnout and struggles with expectations. Many staff find it difficult to perform all of their job duties as effectively as they want to.

"The major issue is that it requires a bunch of different skill sets," says Osiowy. "When you're juggling so many different roles in an organization, you can't excel in anything. You're just always trying to catch up with things."

Sometimes staff feel working so many roles can restrict what they are able to accomplish, since one person can only do so much. At Success by 6, an early childhood development initiative by the United Way of the Lower Mainland, provincial projects assistant Cheryn Wong has a wide scope of duties to support the program's goals. She might be dealing with contracts one day, working on a printed resource kit the next, or managing a social media contest the day after that.

"When you come up with a project, there's only a few people that are there to support it moving forward," Wong says. "Sometimes it takes quite a long time for something to come together and we are unable to do more than we would like to, that would be the challenge."

That's something Vira Voroskolevska can relate to. As a service manager at Montage Support Services, her role involves overseeing residential services for adults with developmental disabilities (where she's on call 24/7), as well as participating in the organization's quality assurance committee and training other staff to better assist the community they serve. At times, she feels as if her work is never complete.

"I just think 24 hours is not enough in a day," she says. "The more you're involved in an organization, and the more roles you take, the more you realize how much more work needs to be done. And there is that internal conflict to get something done and still trying to do what you do well. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that it's the process that matters, and maybe not the outcome all the time."

Dr. Kerr believes that running around performing many different jobs inadequately leads to demoralized employees who feel they aren't making a useful contribution. For organizations, this kind of situation means that you're not using resources in a way that will get you where you want to go. And this will inevitably trickle down to the clients, who may feel unhappy with the services they receive.

"It's kind of like antibiotics. If you have a bacterial illness and you give the right antibiotic at a level that's too low, you end up making the whole system more resistant," she says. "So you'll have a community that gets more resistant to intervention, more angry at service providers."

Working multiple roles has its benefits, too

Despite the challenges, working multiple roles has many bright sides. Most of the time, these jobs are very dynamic. When every day is different, it's difficult to feel bored.

For Osiowy, all of her job responsibilities have allowed her to develop a deep knowledge of her organization.

"I get to touch on every single part of the job in every different area in the agency," she says. "As a traditional executive director I would have an overview of all those areas, but I wouldn't have the depth of understanding that I get to have being so connected to everything."

Taking on additional responsibilities has allowed Voroskolevska to expand her skill set.

"It's quite difficult to balance at times, but I find that it helps me find ways to grow," she says, "and it helps me to do certain things much easier."

Wong enjoys the interesting variety of projects her job provides, and the satisfaction of working for an organization whose work she believes in.

"The day-to-day administrative stuff can get kind of repetitive, but it's good to know there are strong goals, missions and principles behind what you're doing, especially on those days," she points out.

How nonprofits are resolving the issue of working multiple roles

Many staff at nonprofits aren't simply letting the mound of work consume them, and are reaching out for help.

At the Knights of Columbus, Cudmore (who is the only paid staff member), has been tapping into the organization's board and volunteers to lighten the load. She has some volunteers who are marketing and web savvy, so they have been working on the nonprofit's website and newsletter.

Osiowy is involved in her local social planning council, which is working on a model for social agencies to share resources with one another. She also spends a lot of time showcasing financial statements to funders and explaining why the organization's current staffing model is unsustainable.

"With all the things we're doing, it's completely not feasible that one person is doing all of it," she says. "There is a role for multiple roles within an agency, there's not a role for so much work."

Dr. Kerr says that staff shouldn't absorb more and more roles; rather, they should push back and negotiate their workload. To do this effectively, she says organizations should focus on setting minimum targets, rather than constantly striving for pie in the sky results that are out of reach.

"What is the least that you have to accomplish to not be a failure? You have to keep going back to your minimum and say, 'If I don't do this today, I'm not going to get to my minimum'," she says. "I believe that every nonprofit has to be able to boil down what they are doing to these minimum targets, and then monitor those. That's going to take pressure off them and their staff because what you've done there is prioritize."

How to cope with working multiple roles

Talk to your superior. If you're struggling, broach the subject with your manager and ask if you can take something off your list, reduce the time required for a task or find a way to be more efficient. A good manager will work with you to determine the best way you can get the job done without burning yourself out.

Prioritize. We all strive towards excellence, but we can't do everything under the sun. Recognize which aspects of your job are essential and which ones are nice-to-haves, then arrange your time accordingly. "That actually frees up a lot of energy," says Dr. Kerr. "It kind of says, 'Oh, okay, all of these other things that I'm doing, they're actually not critical. I can drop them'. So it clarifies things."

Be realistic about what you can take on. If you know you won't be able to complete a task to the best of your ability, don't accept responsibility for it. It's better to say no, rather than risk the stress of bearing more than you can handle.

Pad your deadlines. Plan ahead and allow for plenty of time to finish projects and meet deadlines. "However long you think a project takes, I've heard you actually multiply that time by two and a half," Wong suggests. And be generous — if you finish early, then that's simply a bonus. It's always better to underpromise and overdeliver, as opposed to the reverse.

Give yourself a break. You're only human. If you can't accomplish something or miss a deadline, forgive yourself and move forward. "Taking that pressure off of yourself will make you a much better worker and much better to your clients, coworkers and your sweetie at home," Osiowy points out.

Find a mentor. If you're taking on a new responsibility that's not part of your existing skill set, talk to someone with more experience in that area and pick his or her brain. You could also find a senior employee or board member who has a long history with your nonprofit that can guide you through any potential organizational landmines or sensitivities.

Devise your own organizational system. Writing a to-do list may work for you, or you might prefer to keep all reminders in your email program. Figure out what times of day you can be most efficient, and schedule the important tasks during those periods. You might find it useful to block off days where you can work interrupted. Whatever your organizational style, be sure to communicate this to your coworkers so they know how to approach you.

Celebrate the little victories. We all feel buried sometimes, so pick one small thing you can accomplish right away. "When I'm feeling overwhelmed, I pick one thing on the to-do list that I can tick off, and then celebrate that," says Cudmore. "My celebration may be a five minute walk, or I'll go for a coffee, or I'll actually jump up and down. I find it important to celebrate the little accomplishments and then the big ones will follow."

Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and holistic nutrition student. Find out more about her writing services at www.sondibruner.com, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and e-mail addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other web sites and e-mail addresses may no longer be accurate.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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donna@rethinkgroup.ca donna@rethinkgroup.ca
This is a great article - outlines benefits but also the challenges of doing multiple jobs. I have seen many changes in my 30+ years, not all for the better. Many studies (UPS) have demonstrated that a dedicated staff focused on volunteer engagement will be more successful in recruitment/ retention in order to meet the mission of the organization. Fundraisers are another example. How true - jobs we combine need different skills like vol. engagement and fundraising but are most often combined.
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paulette@solutionstudioinc.com paulette@solutionstudioinc.com
Very good article. Thanks for sharing.
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