Implementing Trauma-Informed Care in Your Nonprofit

One hand being held by both of someone else's hands

Peter Gamache
Peter Gamache, PhD
Jackie Griffin
Jackie Griffin, MBA, M.S.

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Peter Gamache, Ph.D. and Jackie Sue Griffin, MBA, M.S., Turnaround Life, Inc. 

Trauma and the way we as nonprofit professionals approach it while delivering our services to clients still leaves a lot to be desired in 2019. It’s a widespread issue with many different possible causes, affecting people regardless of age, background, gender, or race and ethnicity.

Unfortunately, some processes currently entrenched in many nonprofits can re-traumatize the very people they’ve been designed to help.

Developing a comprehensive framework for trauma-informed care is, therefore, more necessary than ever. Let’s have a closer look at trauma and the process of implementing a framework to deal with traumatized clients more effectively:

Understanding Trauma and the Needs of the Trauma-Informed System

SAMHSA defines trauma as, “the result of an event, series of events or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting, adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

This means that events and circumstances that traumatize one person might not have lasting negative effects on another. And a client might not be currently manifesting trauma or might have already developed coping strategies such as substance abuse, which can make their recovery more difficult.

With these facts, it’s possible to understand how existing systems of care might re-traumatize our clients or beneficiaries even while trying to help them — by creating new traumatizing situations.

A trauma-informed system of care, then, understands the widespread impact of trauma and has mechanisms in place that help people on the road to recovery. It’s important for everyone working in a trauma-informed organization or system to be able to recognize signs of trauma, respond to them effectively, and work to avoid re-traumatizing the individuals that they’re trying to help.

Key Principles of Trauma-Informed Care

To create a trauma-informed care framework, your nonprofit must adhere to principles of promoting resilience and recovery for clients. In short, that includes encouraging family and community engagement and collaboration, as well as providing empowerment and choice to clients affected by trauma. Inspiring trustworthiness and helping the client feel safe in their environment is a goal for trauma-informed care systems.

Every aspect of your nonprofit’s operations will be involved in implementing this system, and the only truly successful nonprofits are the ones who enact trauma-informed care from top to bottom, educating, equipping, and expecting involvement by all staff and even volunteers.

  • Leadership — the board and executive leaders must lead and oversee the change efforts;
  • Financing — your organization’s financing should provide a structure that can support a trauma-informed approach;
  • Policy — your nonprofit should have an official trauma-informed care policy integrated into each of its practices;
  • Environment — your organization should ensure that its environment is inviting and poses no risk for an individual’s psychological or physical safety;
  • Engagement — individuals who are receiving services from your nonprofit should have a voice and be engaged in different areas of organizational functioning;
  • Collaboration across sectors — healing trauma is a whole-person process that often requires a cross-sector approach;
  • Additional services — beyond your basic services, your nonprofit should also provide access to trauma screening, assessment, and treatment services;
  • Training — all staff and volunteers should receive ongoing training to support all stakeholders (including staff, volunteers and clients) with a history of trauma appropriately, and the HR team and supervisors require training to make trauma-informed hiring decisions;
  • Assessment — your nonprofit should evaluate your success at implementing trauma-informed principles in everyday practice;
  • Evaluation — evaluation of your services should be performed with trauma-informed principles in mind.

Emphasizing the Importance of Understanding Trauma in Communities

While a nonprofit organization or system caring for clients who have experienced trauma absolutely can create a safe space for them, it’s important to understand that outside communities might not be as safe or as nurturing. Your organization has a role, then, in also educating the public and other organizations to facilitate a better understanding of trauma, as well as to provide resources for individuals afflicted by trauma and their families to mobilize their community and help them respond to the adverse effects of trauma.

In this way, we can begin to implement trauma-informed care systems and frameworks that will help not only the nonprofit but also the larger community move past re-traumatizing individuals who seek help and care.


Here at Turnaround Life, Inc., we aim to help organizations and programs that make it possible for people to turn their lives around. For more information about us, visit our website.

Peter Gamache, PhD, is a research, development, and evaluation specialist for health services  organizations, private foundations, and federally-funded public service organizations. His current research interests include disparities in health and mental health, integrated care, program fidelity, and program outcomes. He advocates for a collective understanding of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and culture to prevent and address marginalization of people living with disease, illness, injury, and disability.

Jackie Griffin, MBA, M.S., serves as the development director, systems analyst, and director of evaluation for Turnaround Life, Inc. She has more than 26 years of experience dealing with nonprofit management, overseeing operations, grant development, grant management, capacity building evaluation, and performance assessment. Ms. Griffin is a Certified Recovery Coach, and the former vice president of development of Operation PAR, Inc., and executive director of the LiveFree! Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Pinellas County. She earned her master’s with a concentration in nonprofit management and master’s  in Organizational Management and Leadership from Springfield College School of Professional and Continuing Studies, Tampa Bay campus. Ms. Griffin founded Jackie Sue Griffin & Associates, LLC in 2013 to provide nonprofit organizations, health and human services and government agencies consulting expertise and technical assistance in fund development and philanthropy and capacity building. 

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