the assessment

key findings

In 2023, the We Deserve Better Project team examined the 265 responses from the assessment and discovered eight key findings that help us better understand the challenges anti-violence workers experience, the resources needed to best support survivors, and changes that must be made in order to build anti-violence organizations that meet the needs of both advocates and survivors.

Based on our own lived experiences as anti-violence workers, we know that the issues identified via the assessment are not isolated to a few agencies, but instead demonstrate systematic patterns and are reflective of the culture of many anti-violence organizations across the country.

We recapped these Key Findings during Part 1 of our Summit—feel free to watch or listen here.
*We refer to the respondents of the assessment as “anti-violence workers” or “advocates.” For the purposes of this assessment, advocate is defined as anyone who recently had worked at or was currently working at a victim service organization. Advocates may work directly with survivors of violence, but also include prevention educators, volunteer coordinators, financial or administrative staff, etc.

TL/DR: Many people that choose to work in the anti-violence field do so because they have a personal connection to the work and because they want to make change.

We asked, “What inspired you to work in the anti-violence field?” allowing advocates to select from multiple options. Here’s how they responded:
- 82% wanted to advocate for others
- 78% wanted to help people
- 70% wanted to create systems-change
- 60% identified as a survivor of violence
- 49% have someone close to them who has experienced violence

Many advocates are survivors of violence themselves, or care about someone who is. While we can’t accurately conclude how many survey respondents are survivors of violence, we do know that 60% of advocates who completed the assessment identified their survivorship as inspiration to work in the anti-violence movement. Another survey of advocates conducted by RAFT found a similar figure, with 57% of participants indicating they are survivors of sexual or domestic violence. This is a strength of our movement – so many anti-violence workers are able to understand, relate, and provide support to survivors. An Advocate from Oregon shared, “Because the majority of us are survivors, we truly get what our clients are going through. Things like triggers, dissociation, shame, hypervigilance are not arbitrary to us, they are lived experiences.”

Advocating for change comes naturally to folx in the movement, which is why it’s no surprise that they go above and beyond to make sure survivors and their communities have what they need to thrive. As an Advocate from Pennsylvania shared, "There are a good amount of staff who are doing the on-the-ground work that are phenomenal and have a strong trauma-informed background, and a true heart for the work that they do. With these great folks on staff, the individuals we serve feel supported and seen, and that their needs are being met.”

TL/DR: Despite the daily and systemic challenges anti-violence workers put up with, they deeply love their jobs and are proud of the impact they get to make. Advocates shared that working at value-aligned organizations, changing roles or organizations, and receiving support from coworkers helps them stay in the field.

Anti-violence workers face a variety of challenges. The top two challenges identified were insufficient pay (69%) and experiencing burnout, secondary trauma and/or compassion fatigue (65%). We asked, “What are some of the strategies you have used to keep working within the anti-violence field over the years?” allowing advocates to select multiple options; about half (51%) said they pursue programs that align with their core values, which supports the idea that advocates would choose to work at agencies in which the organizational values aligned with their own personal beliefs. In fact, 35% of advocates identified “not having to compromise morals and values” as a reason to stay at their job.

A little over a third of anti-violence workers indicated they changed departments or roles within their agency (36%) and/or have worked at multiple anti-violence agencies (34%) as a strategy. This demonstrates the dedication and commitment that advocates have, and it supports our theory that anti-violence workers who have longevity in the movement do not often stay at the same agency throughout their career. In fact, when we asked about how long advocates had been involved in the movement, 18% reported being involved in the field overall for 15 or more years, yet only 4% had been working at their job for that same length of time. Lack of promotion may have something to do with it; 42% of advocates identified “opportunities for promotion” as a resource or support that would make them more likely to stay at their job, while 43% identified “lack of opportunities for promotion” as a challenge or reason they left.

The support that anti-violence workers receive from their coworkers and supervisors also makes a big difference. As an Advocate from Wisconsin shared, “We support each other and we remind each other that the work we do is important.” Another Advocate from Indiana makes a point to highlight that supporting coworkers might come natural to many advocates because of the skills required for the role: “I love the necessary skills of empathy, understanding, and compassion that tend to come along with this field. All of the folks that I work with possess these abilities and use them both with clients and with coworkers.”

TL/DR: Anti-violence workers are not paid enough to justify the demands of the job, resulting in high turnover. Many advocates want to continue to do this work, but cannot afford to pay their bills or take care of their health given the current wages and benefits offered.

We asked anti-violence workers about challenges or reasons for leaving their role and provided a list of options to choose from; 69% identified “insufficient pay,” making it the top response. An Advocate from Indiana supports this point by sharing, “I enjoy my job and I hope to stay in it for a long time. But, truthfully, at this wage I recognize that is likely to become impossible at some point.” Another Advocate from North Carolina emphasizes how low wages results in high turnover, “The turnover is so high due to such low pay. People can't afford to live off what advocates get paid.”

In fact, the average salary of a Domestic Violence Advocate is estimated to be around $32k, yet the wage needed to afford a modest 1-bedroom rental is closer to $44k. An Advocate from Indiana makes an important point that is counter to the goal of our movement, “If my partner was abusive I would not be able to afford to leave this relationship on my current wage.”

Oddly enough, despite not paying advocates a living wage, some victim service agencies prohibit advocates from having a second job, as an Advocate from West Virginia describes, “Salary is low and due to the erratic hours (24-hour on-call shifts, for example) we are not permitted to have a second job. We’ve been told that a second job then takes away our availability from on-call and that it wouldn’t be fair to ask other advocates to work around our schedule.”

When asked “What resources or support would make it more likely you would stay at your job?” the top three responses all had to do with money: 80% selected “better pay,” 61% selected “guaranteed economic advancement” which included an example of “consistent raises,” and 55% selected “debt relief” which included examples of “student loan assistance” and “help with home ownership.”

30% of advocates also selected “inadequate benefits” as a challenge or reason to leave their job. Similarly, 30% specifically identified “better paid time off” and 28% identified “affordable health insurance” as resources or support that would make them more likely to stay. An advocate from Ohio explains, “This field demands so much of you – both physically and emotionally with minimal support. The healthcare that is offered is so expensive with the worst benefits that therapy for myself is difficult to access and the flex time isn’t there to even attend.”

Advocates also requested access to benefits and resources like childcare, self-care, and higher education opportunities which would support work-life integration. As an example, 43% of advocates selected “investing in career advancement / continuing education” as a resource that would make them more likely to stay at their job.

To summarize, an Advocate from Nebraska articulated a critical pivot the field needs to take, “[We need an] increased focus on moving non-profit/ advocacy work from a volunteer and kindness of your heart work to a sustainable career deserving of respect.”

TL/DR: Anti-violence workers are exploited for their passion, which combined with being underpaid and overworked, leads to burnout. Agencies and funders have the ability and responsibility to stop exploiting workers, and instead provide resources that prevent and mitigate burnout.

65% of anti-violence workers reported experiencing secondary trauma, burnout, and/or compassion fatigue, which was the second most selected challenge overall. As an Advocate from Ohio shared, “Workers in this field are often exploited for their passion and personal connection to the work, with the onus of burnout maintenance on the individual and not on the non-profit structures that treat this work as a business, not a social good.”

On a positive note, 28% of advocates shared that their employer provides some meaningful burnout prevention measures like providing PTO and mental health days, remote working options, opportunities to set boundaries, and flexible schedules. Still, there is much space for growth. Nearly half of advocates (47%) specifically indicated that “affordable access to therapy and mental health resources” would help them stay at their job, while another 40% said “being able to work remotely” would help. An Advocate from Alaska provides an example of how employers can help prevent burnout by providing these supports: “My employer worked with me to adjust my schedule so that I can attend weekly therapy sessions. I also currently work from home. The combination of therapy and working from home has done worlds of good for my mental and emotional health.”

Over half of anti-violence workers (52%) shared they are challenged by the scarcity of resources. The lack of stable funding contributes to an unstable environment where there is not enough staffing. An Advocate from Ohio explains, “The primary cause of stress that results from low pay is the inability to retain a large workforce for long enough time to build trust and understanding between coworkers. There is no faith that anyone will stay long enough to make a difference in workplace culture, and widespread acknowledgement that one’s decision to leave is ultimately fully justified, if not encouraged, for their mental health.”

Funders can prevent exploitation by advocating for innovative funding structures that meet the needs of both advocates and survivors, including requiring burnout prevention measures and limiting unnecessary paperwork and documentation. An Advocate from Maryland explains, “Advocates are tasked with doing too much, with not enough pay - as such, there is too much staff transition/ turnover to keep up with, existing teams aren't big enough to meet the needs of both survivors AND funders (which means we often prioritize what the funder asks/needs/wants).”

TL/DR: Advocates are becoming victims of workplace violence, enabled, and even committed by leaders of their organizations. When anti-violence workers try to advocate for themselves and their peers, they are often met with retaliation.

While we don’t have a data point to share that directly correlates to this finding, we were overwhelmed by the amount of open-ended responses exposing the abusive dynamics that are pervasive within anti-violence organizations. As an Advocate from Ohio summarized, “There seems to be a particular dynamic in the anti-violence field where the workplaces themselves harm workers in ways that resemble the abuses and harms we respond to in our communities.” An Advocate from Pennsylvania shared a similar sentiment: “The system is also failing workers/advocates when we become the victims/survivors of violence in the workplace. Leaders who choose to power play ironically create hostile and traumatizing work environments within the walls of agencies whose sole purpose is to advocate for anti-violence.”

Anti-violence workers shared that they experience multiple forms of oppression and discrimination at their agencies. Nearly a third (30%) have experienced white supremacy culture or racism at their agency. We anticipate that number would have been even higher, had we received more responses from advocates of color. An Advocate from Pennsylvania shared, “[There is] an abundance of racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and overall institutional oppression. In my experience, truly dedicated and passionate advocates were turned empty by the time they had a chance to flee the toxic workplace. Nearly every advocate that left had been victimized by leadership in one way or another.”
- 23% experience homophobia or transphobia
- 19% have felt tokenized
- 17% experience ableism
- 15% experience misogyny
- 13% experience other forms of discrimination

Nearly 60% of anti-violence workers shared that they have challenged leadership and made attempts to hold their organization accountable. These interventions have taken the form of feedback loops and listening sessions, including 1:1 and small group conversations. These approaches often stop short of instituting any significant changes. One Advocate from Minnesota shared, “Our leadership is great at listening, but when it comes to taking action is where the issues come in.” Many advocates indicated that there were no changes made after raising concerns, and some advocates reported being met with resistance, defensiveness, and in some cases, retaliation. In fact, 27% of advocates shared they had been “targeted by leadership for challenging [the] status quo." An Advocate from Wisconsin illustrates this point by sharing “[We have talked] with our executive director about the lack of leadership from management. However, it seems that this leader finds out what is said and there is retaliation.”

When asked why they haven’t tried to hold their organizations accountable, advocate responses mainly fell into two categories: fear of retaliation, or advocates thought it would be unproductive or ignored. An advocate from Kentucky summed up this paradox, “We are taught to advocate for our clients but when it comes to us the rules seem to become unclear regarding how to stay safe while doing our jobs.”

Additionally, almost half (48%) of advocates cited “ineffective management” as a challenge or reason they left their job. But what does this really look like in daily practice? For starters, 49% shared there is a “resistance to addressing internal conflict,” while another 47% cited “lack of transparency from organizational leadership and boards of directors” as a challenge or reason to leave their job. As an Advocate from Ohio shared, “So long as our movement engages in needless power games and toxic management practices, we will be as traumatizing to one another as abusers are to their victims. We must make a collective sea-change effort to no longer tolerate this as a culture.”

In summary, we agree with what this Advocate from Pennsylvania puts forward: “The movement would be transformed when leadership…begins to treat those served with respect; when leadership is mandated to invest in staff and leadership training; and when microaggressions are no longer tolerated.”

TL/DR: Advocates would like to revisit old models and co-create systems and services that holistically meet survivors’ needs. Funders can support this by eliminating barriers to service and encouraging collaboration with other community partners.

Over half (52%) of anti-violence workers identified “lack of viable alternatives for clients and survivors” as a challenge or reason they left their job, and 43% said “opportunities to innovate” would make them more likely to stay.

One major pattern we observed from the open-ended responses was the desire to move away from carceral systems, including working with law enforcement. An Advocate from Ohio pointed out, “Anti-violence as a field is still rooted in the criminal justice system and that system is traumatizing to work in and send survivors to.” This is an even more important point when we recognize that so many advocates are survivors themselves.

Anti-violence workers also shared desires to provide additional holistic services to meet basic needs to provide space for healing. An Advocate from Wisconsin shared, “In many cases, there is no real justice for survivors. We need to help our communities meet their basic needs–food, housing, transportation, healthcare, and relationship-building.” Advocates would also like to see more culturally-specific and inclusive services for people with disabilities. An Advocate from Virginia shared, “[We need] more no-strings-attached funding for survivor needs, housing that is disabled accessible, and open to care attendants and interpreters.”

Nearly half (46%) of anti-violence workers identified “bureaucracy and red-tape” as a challenge or reason they left their job. An Advocate from Ohio explains, “Lots of red tape/requirements by funders/agencies/grants slow down [the] process of immediate assistance when needed and often deters survivors from seeking help."

Almost a quarter (24%) of advocates said “more transparency from funders” would help them stay at their job. As an Advocate from Illinois explains, “Extremely limited funding and grantors perpetuate power and control dynamics by requesting an overload of required documentation, monitoring of time, and audits while underfunding programs and having significant restrictions on how survivors can be aided with funds."

Anti-violence workers suggested that more community collaboration is necessary. While 29% of advocates cited “collaboration between domestic and sexual violence organizations” as something that would make them more likely to stay at their job, some also uplifted the need to work more deeply with a multitude of community-based organizations. As an Advocate from Louisiana explained, “[We need to] work with other organizations to teach life skills, environmentalism, financial literacy, cooking, home maintenance and non-violence. It takes a village! So many of our clients have a multitude of challenges and little education or social support. We need the whole community to be invested in the success of the population we serve!"

TL/DR: Anti-violence workers expressed the need to center survivors in all decisions, while equitably compensating them for their expertise and leadership.

33% of advocates shared that “using empowering survivor-led alternatives” would make them more likely to stay at their job, while 29% of advocates agreed that there should be “more resources directed towards survivor-led groups.” An Advocate from Minnesota summarized this point by sharing, “[We should continue] to center survivors and [make] sure that they are the ones making decisions about their healing and justice-seeking.”

There is a significant disconnect between the experiences of survivors and anti-violence workers in the field and the programmatic directions and decisions being taken on their behalf. As one Advocate from North Carolina shared, “Larger systems are not listening broadly to survivors or those who have experience in the trenches. Particularly institutions of higher education are filling their anti-violence positions based on [degrees] as opposed to experience.” An Advocate from New York builds upon this point, “[The movement] has to be decolonized. If white women, specifically those removed from the target population, continue to lead this field, it will not change. It has to be survivor led and way more diverse than it is currently. The field needs leaders from historically (and currently) marginalized communities and it needs to stop pushing them out under the guise of ‘cultural fit’ or using arbitrary standards that are mostly met by privileged white women.”

Advocates highlighted the need to change systems and laws, which would require additional policy activities to implement these changes. Giving space for more anti-violence workers to inform policy work, since they have firsthand knowledge of the needs, would be a start. An Advocate from Minnesota explains, “[We can] empower and create meaningful space for advocates to consult and give perspective on policy at every level. When we work in crisis daily, it leaves little room for us to have time to claim a seat at the table where decisions are made that we have first-hand knowledge on and witness in our work.”

Compensating survivors for their expertise is a critical issue advocates uplifted. An Advocate from Nebraska shared, “True commitment to survivor leadership [includes] adequate financial compensation for time and expertise.” An Advocate from New York adds: “Funders also need to be less voyeuristic. There is no need for survivors to share intimate details of their trauma for organizations to receive funding, and agencies should take a real stand against this practice, even if it means losing this type of funding.”

Many anti-violence workers observed that while survivors may feel empowered to share their stories or volunteer their time, organizations have for too long exploited their participation. Advocates recommend compensating this labor, which is both ethical and equitable. An Advocate from Virginia pointed out, “A lot of work is forced on unpaid interns or volunteers instead of paid staff.” We know from experience that many volunteers go on to have careers in the movement, though it can cause more harm, as an Advocate from Oregon explained “They are re-traumatizing the very population they aim to serve. I was valued when I was a survivor client in crisis, then I became a volunteer and started to get pushed beyond my capacity, and once I was a paid employee all the care went out the window. Survivors become disposable once we start to work for rape crisis centers because they have an endless pipeline of more survivors who are searching for ways to give their anger and grief and outlet and to create change.”

TL/DR: Advocates want the movement to invest in prevention and anti-oppression efforts that elevate those at the margins, divest from scarcity models, and lead to true systemic changes.

Anti-violence workers were clear that there is a need for more intentional and anti-oppressive practices, which would elevate BIPOC leaders and other advocates at the margins. 40% of advocates identified “support to address root-causes of violence” as something that would make them more likely to stay at their job, while 30% of advocates suggested there should be “regular anti-racism trainings for staff.”This also emphasizes the need to invest in prevention practices that truly address root causes of violence.

An Advocate from Illinois shared, “What's the point of doing this work if funding restrictions keep us from working toward real systemic change?” while another Advocate from Pennsylvania points out, “[Leadership] refuses to create internal change in a field that is all about culture change.”

More internal training is a place to start. An Advocate from New York shared, “[We need] deeper training for workers/advocates AND leadership to better understand how oppression (racism, white supremacy, ableism, etc.) creates a culture that makes it possible for sexual violence to occur." Advocates suggested we should then share our learnings with our community members and other decision makers, like an Advocate from Minnesota suggests, “We need to do more public education and local governments could help with that by giving us some recognition as important entities in the community, and maybe making anti-violence training mandatory in the schools and more training in the dynamics and effects of DV/SA for police, lawyers and judges.”

Funders play a role too. As an Advocate from Ohio shared, “Many rape crisis centers have a mission or vision statement regarding the elimination/eradication of sexual violence, yet many funders do not prioritize funding for prevention efforts. These systems are creating this hamster wheel that we will never escape from.” It’s up to us in the field to demand these changes occur.

In summary, as an Advocate from Ohio shared, “Capitalism and a commitment to white supremacist, ableist senses of urgency exacerbates burnout and leaves those most impacted by sexual violence out of the field. We cannot say we are committed to ending violence in all forms if front line workers are experiencing exploitation, wage theft, targeted discrimination, ableist policies, and scarcity models that force us to compete for systems-based funding while increasing barriers to community building and risk factors for more violence.”

Click to view plain text versions of this page and the entire project website.