New Countywide Survey Shows Underinvestment in Human Services, Lack of Sustainable Wages in the Nonprofit Sector

By Leon Richardson, Director, Adult Services Division

Community-based, human services providers play a critical role in addressing the most pressing issues we face as a region—providing shelter and supportive housing, behavioral health treatment, legal system alternatives, and case management in King County. The pandemic, and the nationwide racial reckoning further underscore the integral role of nonprofit agencies in the community. Yet, nonprofit workers are not paid enough to live in the communities they serve, or make their career path sustainable. This mismatch is a problem we must address head on.  

In 2017, the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy committed to survey nonprofit employees to better understand wages and other factors that contribute to employee recruitment retention and satisfaction. More than 230 nonprofits that are based in and serving King County, employing more than 20,000 people responded to the King County Nonprofit Wage & Benefits Survey released last year with funding from the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy. King County partnered with 501 Commons to conduct the survey in order to better understand the array of influences – including wages – that contribute to employee recruitment, retention and satisfaction in the nonprofit sector.  

The survey results confirmed what we hear from providers and the broader community: Public and private funders must provide better compensation for nonprofit workers, especially as more is asked of nonprofits than ever before.  

Millions of people quit their jobs around the country throughout the pandemic, and King County was no different. Nonprofit employees in our region left their sector for more sustainable working conditions, higher pay, and better benefits. 

Instead of continuing to rely on resilience, a key trait of nonprofit work, we must come together and invest in the people who are on the “front lines,” the people who ensure a human connection in the toughest of circumstances. These are the people who improve our regional response to homelessness, behavioral health, and overreliance on the legal system. In many cases, these are the people who we depended upon to keep showing up in person to serve when many others were able to work from home. 

To solve a problem, you must first understand it. Reversing a decades-long undervaluing and underinvestment in human services doesn’t happen overnight, and this is not something King County can do alone. We are doing the work and putting in the effort to solve these inequities and we call on others to join the effort. Here are a few things the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) is doing to move this work forward:  

  • Contracting. Using the survey data as a guide, DCHS is exploring changes in contracting to better promote equitable workforce salaries and benefits. In addition, we are exploring opportunities to expand access to benefits. 
  • Allocating funds. As part of our annual review of allocated funds for the Veterans, Seniors & Human Services Levy, we plan to propose allocating an estimated $1.5M of unspent and uncommitted funds for a Staff Hiring and Retention grant program. 
  • More data. This survey will be recurring. We will build upon the initial survey and work with contracted partners to help further interpret the survey results and improve our understanding of pay disparities across King County. The next iteration of the survey will be launched next year.  

You can learn more and read the Putting People First: Wage & Benefits Survey report here. This is a problem long in the making, but we can address it in our time if we commit to working together and investing resources in the types of programs that can improve conditions in our community and region.