Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Why are we flying blind?

Lack of data about our nonprofit sector threatens RI’s future economic sustainability

Photo by Richard Asinof

Nancy Wolanski, Director of the Nonprofit Resource Center at United Way of Rhode Island.

By Nancy Wolanski
Posted 10/30/23
The failure to provide accurate, real-time data about Rhode Island’s nonprofit workforce has undercut the prospects of the state’s future economic prosperity.
Which college or university will step up to the plate and generate an annual index of Rhode Island’s innovation economy that includes data on its vital nonprofit sector? What is the correlation between burn out in the caring professions – nursing, social work, long-term care – and the failure to invest in increasing Medicaid rates for providers? How can CommerceRI invest in better data collection on the nonprofit sector in Rhode Island, perhaps by employing the Rhode Island Longitudinal Data System? How can storytelling be utilized as a tool in workforce development to create a better narrative about the nonprofit sector?
There is a important truth in Stephanie Land’s recent essay in The New York Times, talking about her struggle to navigate getting a college degree while caring as a single parent for her 6-year-old daughter, in which she wrote: “As a country, we rely on low-wage work to make everyone else’s jobs possible.” Land, the author of “Maid,” which became a dramatic miniseries on Netflix, seemed to capture the essence of the new American class divisions.
Those class divisions are becoming reinforced by the failure to recognize the vital work that is involved in caring for others – and the artificial distinction between for-profit and nonprofit work. The recent branding exercise being suggested by Brown University and Lifespan to encompass the state’s largest health care system fails to address the bottom line when it comes to sustainability of the health care enterprise. It won’t show up in the results of the latest R.I. Life Index and perceptions about health and well-being in our state, to be unveiled on Wednesday, Nov. 29. Nor will it address the causes of burn-out and fatigue in the workers within the hospital enterprise.
And, it certainly won’t address the growing connection between toxic stress, changes in infant brain chemistry, and the dramatic decrease in life expectancy.

PROVIDENCE – In 2021, according to the Department of Labor and Training, Rhode Island’s total private sector employment grew by 5 percent as the state began to recoup the jobs lost during the COVID-19 crisis. However, the nonprofit sector’s recovery was much less robust, adding just 559 jobs over the year, a gain of less than one percent.

Did that gap continue in 2022, or did nonprofit hiring increase? Good question. If we knew the answer, we would know if the sector still needs additional support. Unfortunately, we don’t know.

Which types of nonprofit organizations have struggled the most to rebound and rehire after the pandemic?Another excellent question. If we knew the answer, we could invest in specific worker pipelines and increase targeted training. Unfortunately, we don’t know.

What is the current wage gap between nonprofit and for-profit jobs in Rhode Island? It’s an important question; if we knew the answer, we could think through recruitment and retention incentives or explore ways to increase the availability of affordable benefits for community-based organizations. Unfortunately, we don’t know.

How do nonprofit hiring and retention issues in Rhode Island nonprofit organizations compare with workforce trends in Massachusetts and Connecticut? That would be really helpful to understand, especially with higher minimum wages in our neighboring states. Unfortunately, we don’t know.

Why what we don’t know will hurt us

There is much we don’t know about the nonprofit sector – one of the largest and most important employment sectors in the state. In 2021, there were 66,914 non-profit jobs in Rhode Island, accounting for 16.5 percent of the state’s private sector employment.

One of Rhode Island’s best-kept secrets is that in 2021, the nonprofit sector provided jobs for nearly one-fifth of the state’s private sector workforce – and its workers took home some $4 billion in wages. Why? Because this vitally important sector is left in the dark when it comes to data. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “It’s all about the data, data, data…”]

Virtually every industry sector in the country receives up-to-date wage and employment data through the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages [QCEW] produced by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS]. From manufacturing to goat herding, you can get current information on wages and employment trends across the country, like clockwork, every three months.

This allows policymakers, business leaders and economists to develop informed strategies – and interventions, if things aren’t going well – in real time.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for the nonprofit sector. BLS only releases wage and employment sector data every five years [emphasis added]. The sector is still working off estimates from the last release – in 2017 [emphasis added]. That’s before COVID, before inflation, back when the term “hybrid” only referred to cars, not jobs.

The consequences have been dire:

  •             This means that nonprofit job pipelines haven’t been created to respond to the exodus of skilled, experienced workers who burned out providing years of crisis-level care to their communities during the pandemic.
  •           This means that we don’t know if the programs to train for crucial care-giving jobs are resulting in a bigger pool of skilled workers for Rhode Island’s assisted living and nursing homes, or if there is a “brain drain” of workers crossing the state line to work in a neighboring state with higher reimbursement rates and wages.
  •           This means that there are long wait lists for essential services like Early Intervention, and programs supporting people with developmental disabilities can’t get fully staffed.
  •           This means that state’s economy has been slower to recover from the pandemic because there aren’t enough staff for childcare and after-school programs, so parents haven’t been able to go back to work full-time.

Translated, this is where the lack of data and what we don’t know can really hurt us.

Taking action to improve the data flow
It is critically important to Rhode Island’s economy that we understand the staffing challenges facing our nonprofit sector. In the decade before the pandemic, every other state in the country enjoyed the benefit of significant employment growth in their nonprofit sector. But Rhode Island was the only state in the country that missed out on that growth, and instead experienced a loss of nonprofit jobs.

Sen. Jack Reed and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse have been leading the effort in Congress to include nonprofit wage and employment data in the QCEW. We need a similar statewide effort to include data on nonprofits in our economic research enterprise – to rightly recognize the critical role nonprofits play in not only job creation, but also in preparing future employees through workforce development programs, and to provide the supports necessary for parents and caregivers to be part of the state’s workforce.

While there is much we don’t know, we do know that this vitally important “industry” is the only one in Rhode Island that we know we can count on, no matter what the economy does. Jobs caring for our vulnerable neighbors, strengthening our communities, and enriching our quality of life cannot be outsourced overseas, or move to a more “business friendly” state.

However, without research and data, we will not be able to ensure that these essential organizations have the qualified staff they need to provide the programs and services on which our communities depend.

Nonprofits are crucial to the state’s economy, but their resilience and sustainability are far more than simply economic indicators. Each nonprofit contributes to our shared goal of a stronger, more equitable state where all Rhode Islanders can thrive.

That goal requires us to better understand and invest in “social profit” organizations, not just for-profit ones. And that means better data, available like clockwork, in real time.

Nancy Wolanski is the inaugural director of the Nonprofit Resource Center at United Way of Rhode Island. 

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