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Vandella McKenzie works as a child protection worker at the Catholic Children's Aid Society in Toronto.

Jennifer Roberts for the Globe and Mail/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Terry Daly had an overworked, stressed-out staff that didn't earn as much as others doing the same job when she was hired as the personnel manager of the Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto in 1985. A whopping 25 per cent turnover rate meant that many employees left before they were fully trained, leaving children and families falling through the cracks.

Creating a work environment that has the agency ranked among the GTA's Top Employers for 2011 has taken Ms. Daly longer than expected.

"I thought I could do it in two years," Ms. Daly, who's now the director of human resources for the agency, says. "It's still happening today."

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How some charitable and non-profit agencies such as the CCAS and the YMCA of Greater Toronto - also among the GTA's Top Employers - are able to recruit and keep top talent provides a lesson for others.

The 115-year-old CCAS has 600 staff spread over four sites. One of 53 Children's Aid Societies in Ontario and four such agencies in the GTA, its mandate is to protect children, from investigating cases of neglect and abuse to offering counselling, care and supervision.

Front-line workers in child welfare face long, unpredictable hours and are exposed to potential danger and public scrutiny, Ms. Daly says. Levels of education are high yet salaries are relatively low, although the personal compensations are considerable.

"People come here because they want to make a difference and they want to support others," she says. "They don't want to make a million bucks."

Nevertheless, Ms. Daly's efforts over the past 25 years have included closing the wage gap between the CCAS and other children's aid agencies through pay-equity programs. Introducing compensatory and flex-time policies, eight family days a year, a compressed work-week and generous leave provisions have also allowed staff to "take more control" over their hours of work and balance their personal lives, she says. Today the turnover rate is a manageable 8 per cent.

"It's about flexibility and supporting people to be able to deal with life situations when they're in a demanding job," Ms. Daly explains.

On the job, there are caseload caps, hirees are coached and mentored, while periodic retention surveys and forums give staff a voice. Benefits focus on wellness and prevention. Confidential peer and pastoral counselling ensure a nurturing atmosphere. "We have highly skilled people who are dedicated and work very hard," Ms. Daly says. "They deserve support."

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Vandella McKenzie, 57, a senior child protection worker at the CCAS, came to the agency in 2004 from a managerial position at Bell Canada because she wanted a more meaningful job. Her position is challenging, the hours are long and she isn't paid as much as she might be elsewhere, having just gotten her masters of social work, she says. But she appreciates the responsibility and diversity of the CCAC.

"I have been able to make a difference in the lives of a lot of families, and that brings me joy," she explains. When she wrote a one-page essay last year to apply for a promotion within the CCAS, she didn't discuss the salary. "It really wasn't about the money."

The YMCA of Greater Toronto has similar challenges and a similar culture to the CCAS, says Melanie Laflamme, the agency's vice president of human resources and organizational development. "People come to the Y to get a sense of meaning in their work and to make a valuable contribution."

Many of the 3,350 employees at the Y have had earlier associations with the organization, she says, for example as immigrants in newcomer programs, volunteers in fitness centres or graduates of a camp or child care program. "They're part of the Y family," Ms. Laflamme says. "It's important for us that people don't just join the Y because it's a job."

Annie Rao, 41, a data coordinator and team leader in the Y's Newcomer Settlement program, learned about the Y when she got language and employment assistance there after immigrating to Canada from China in 2001. She soon became a Y volunteer, and in 2002 she was hired. She's paid less at the charity, she says, but the working culture, compensation package and opportunities for personal development are what she's looking for.

"It's like a big family, everybody cares about each other," she says. "It's more than a job, it's your life."

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More and more employees are looking for this kind of environment in a job, says Maurice Fernandes, a strategic recruitment initiatives consultant at Ceridian Canada Ltd., an HR outsourcing company. He says that non-profits de-emphasize compensation in finding and keeping staff, because increasing numbers of people are more concerned about job satisfaction.

Brutal hours and heartbreaking work should not be "sugar-coated" in recruitment campaigns, he says. Regular communication with staff about their needs and importance is critical. "People must understand how the work they're doing contributes to the overall goals of the organization," Mr. Fernandes says.

While private companies don't necessarily have the altruistic roots of non-profits, they can emphasize things like corporate responsibility and green initiatives, which humanizes them, Mr. Fernandes adds.

Ms. Laflamme of the YMCA says that employers should treat staff with respect, make them feel their contribution is noticed and "value their uniqueness." This means reinforcing relationships among peers and managers, encouraging teamwork and creating a supportive environment.

Ms. Daly says the CCAS has learned to hire and retain staff that share her organization's philosophical belief, and provide them with an equitable, caring workplace. "That doesn't have to cost a lot."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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