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Staffing and management

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Planning roles and responsibilities

  • Planning for the human resources needed to operate the shelter and provide direct services to women on an ongoing basis is critical. Staffing needs will vary depending on the size of the shelter, funding resources and the continuum of services that will be offered.
  • Providing effective shelter services requires a team of staff with a variety of roles and responsibilities.
  • For shelters which are accessible twenty-four hours a day, there should be trained staff present at all-hours, who are responsible for:
    • Emergency admission to receive and facilitate women’s (and where relevant, girls’) access to the shelter’s protection and accommodation; provide information and orientation to its services; and complete required paperwork for the intake process, in a manner which establishes trust with women.
    • Providing crisis intervention, as needed.
    • Conducting initial risk assessments and individual safety planning.
    • Facility security, by following specific safety measures or monitoring security in and around the facility.
  • In addition to the core staff roles above, and depending on the service model and resources available, daytime staffing may also be required for
    • Individual counseling
    • Therapeutic intervention, including diagnosis and/or treatment of trauma
    • Coordination and facilitation of support groups
    • Specialized services, such as legal advice or counsel; medical diagnosis or treatment (including through referral)
    • Outreach services and community liaison
    • Language interpretation or staff specializing in working with specific populations or groups (ethnic minorities; adolescents; children; women with substance issues, etc.)
    • Shelter management and administration, comprising:
      • Leadership and supervision
      • Financial management
      • Communications, advocacy and fundraising
    • Referrals and support for women to access various resources , including:
      • Legal assistance and accompaniment to court or related appointments
      • Financial advice and services
      • Affordable and secure long-term housing
      • Physical and psychological health services
      • Employment and educational opportunities
      • Follow up services after leaving the shelter

 Developing a staffing plan and managing a shelter schedule

  • Sound management and staffing practices are needed to ensure the quality and sustainability of services provided by shelters, particularly given the stressful and often insecure work environment, and limited resources in which most shelters operate.
  • Shelters are typically not able to hire staff with the qualifications and skills to provide all of the services above. Organizations should prioritize specific roles and qualifications based on the shelter’s vision and identified needs of the women it will support. To maximise the range of services that can be provided with limited resources, staff may be brought in on a case-by-case basis and/or staff with diverse/multiple skills may be sought. 
  • A staffing plan can help shelters ensure they will have sufficient staff to perform the services to be provided. The plan should consider the:
    • size of the shelter (number of women and children accommodated at a given time),
    • number and type of services provided, and expected number of women involved in each service.
    • organizational structure, including core functions and how they are combined (i.e. is the facility a dedicated shelter or does it provide additional support and off-site services).

Example: Sanctuary for Families in New York, USA

Sanctuary for Families is a non-profit organization operating in and around New York City providing shelter and related services to trafficking and domestic violence survivors and their children.  The organization has nine locations throughout the city and surrounding areas that serve nearly 10,000 women and their children from various ethnic backgrounds every year.  In addition to these direct clients, Sanctuary for Families engages with up to 20,000 other concerned community members, such as legal professionals and social workers.

In order to fully support these families with quality services, the organization employs roughly 150 full and part-time staff who cover more than 30 languages.

Learn more about the services provided: shelter, clinical, legal, economic empowerment, children’s and outreach/training/advocacy.

Visit the Sanctuary for Families Website.

In addition to planning for appropriate service provision, shelter management involves establishing and managing workloads, by hiring the volume of staff needed to match the work; monitoring staffing over time as services evolve and workloads change; and making staff or service adjustments as necessary (e.g. when sufficient funding is not available).

Key actions to facilitate management of shelter work schedules include: 

  • Identify one person to take responsibility for developing a duty roster or schedule covering service provision needs (including those for 24-hour coverage) and reviewing/finalizing the roster with staff.
  • Develop a protocol for shift change requests (i.e. requiring staff to request changes in their scheduled shift a certain number of days before their shift to ensure alternative staffing arrangements can be made) and creating a back-up staffing plan for emergency staff absences (i.e. in case staff are sick or other unanticipated absences).
  • Establish and distribute work schedules well in advance of the work period (e.g. monthly), with consideration of vacation days and special events.
Example:  Calculating the number of staff hours needed in a shelter (Europe) The following calculation is a guideline for the staff resources needed in a shelter offering the following services:
  • Places for 10 to 15 family units (possible accommodation for 25-35 people)
  • Operation of a 24-hour helpline
  • Counselling services and support
  • Public relations and networking
Working hours per week:
  • At least 200 hours to run the shelter and 24-hour helpline, of which at least 80-100 hours should be handled by workers with special skills to support migrant women (40 hours =1 full-time position, 200 hours = 5 full-time or correspondingly part-time positions)
  • At least 80 hours for counselling and support
  • At least 60 hours for child care
  • At least 40 hours for administration
  • At least 40 hours for management and public relations
A shelter of this size providing professional and effective support requires about 10 full-time staff. Note: the above recommendations are independent of the way the work in the shelter is assigned. In many cases each of the refuge workers (with the exception of the child care specialists) will take over several areas of work (helpline, admission procedures, counselling, shelter assembly etc.). These tasks will account for part of their working hours. The remainder of their time will be spent on individual counselling and support or on specific tasks. The above calculation method does not include personnel resources needed for specialized responsibilities–legal experts, accountants, communications experts and so on. In calculating staffing levels, it is important to remember that staff members will take holiday or sick leave and will attend further training. A shelter’s staff budget should include substitutes for the regular staff. Excerpt: Women Against Violence Europe. 2004. Away from violence: guidelines for setting up and running a women's refuge. WAVE.  Vienna.
In addition to paid shelter staff, facilities often receive valuable support from volunteers or at times, students.  Students and volunteers should be provided basic training and supervision and should not be responsible for providing professional services (i.e. counselling, legal assistance, etc.) unless they have specialized training in that role.
Supervision is a critical component of shelter management, which can assist staff to:
  • Prevent or minimize secondary or vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, which can be a result of working and dealing regularly with stories of violent experiences.
  • Reflect upon their own practice and how their thoughts, emotions and experiences may affect their professional actions. Developing a helping relationship with survivors of violence or their children can trigger strong emotions which can result in confusion, collusion or entanglement and reduce a staff member’s ability to maintain objectivity. The helping process can also be stalled if a staff person experiences strong emotions or memories of personal challenging experiences.
  • Develop awareness of effective approaches and issues that arise in their work and find ways to resolve challenges and improve their professional practice.
  • Have opportunities to plan, complete and evaluate their work, with feedback; as well as to attend training and develop their professional skills.
Staff often face a variety of challenging situations in shelters which should be supported through supervision, such as:
  • Experiencing challenging feelings when survivors choose to return to an abusive partner.
  • Responding to women who have broken shelter guidelines (e.g. confidentiality of other residents; anonymity of the shelter location, use of violence to discipline children, etc.); or enforcing such shelter principles while fostering an empowering environment that values/encourages self-determination. See also section on Rights and Responsibilities.
  • Developing and maintaining respect for the different roles of shelter staff.
Considerations in developing supervisory mechanisms include:
  • Making supervision mandatory for all direct service providers, which sets an expectation that shelter staff should reflect upon and seek to continuously improve their ability to effectively serve the women and children using their services.
  • Ensuring supervision is provided by experienced professionals working in the field of violence against women, who are sensitive to gender issues and are trained to supervise others in the provision of direct services. This includes the importance of supervisors being capable of maintaining professional boundaries/distance with those they supervise.
  • Supervision may be provided on an individual or group basis.
  • Methods for supervision may involve sharing, discussing and analyzing specific practice issues and related thoughts/emotions in order for staff to find productive and effective ways to advance in their work.
  • Supervisors may be internal (e.g. shelter line managers) or accessed externally (WAVE, 2004a).
Supporting staff development
While shelter staff are often advocates committed to ending violence against women, development of staff (and where relevant, volunteer) knowledge, attitudes and skills is essential to establish and maintain quality services and ensure implementation of safety and practice protocols.
It is important for all staff, and particularly those providing direct services to women and girls to have a strong understanding of key concepts on the issue. Specifically, staff should have knowledge of:
  • Forms of violence against women and girls occurring in the community, including the dynamics of each form (i.e. manifestations, risk and protective factors); and their consequences (i.e. physical, psychological, social, financial).
  • Root causes of violence against women, context and history of women’s oppression and an equality and human rights framework.
  • Relevant laws and the resources/services available in the community to address the various needs of women and girls fleeing situations of violence, including legal, economic, personal and social supports (Kelly & Dubois, 2008; Martins, et. al, 2008).
Specific skills are also important to develop among all staff to effectively support, advocate for and engage with women and children entering the shelter or using its services, such as:
  • Constructive communication, including clear verbal communication and positive body language, and listening skills, with the ability to respond empathetically to others.
  • Conflict resolution techniques (e.g. problem-solving, facilitation, negotiation and mediation) and related methods of responding to tensions involving staff and volunteers, women in the shelter, their children or others who are involved in programming (e.g. off-site service providers, local authorities, others).
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Working with culturally diverse populations, different age groups, and children affected by violence
  • Making appropriate referrals
  • Empowering women and girls
  • Maintaining professional boundaries, including self-care
  • Crisis intervention techniques
Individual staff will also need to develop specific skills for their distinct roles and functions within the shelter (e.g. managers/supervisors, counseling, and responding to trauma, coping and survival; or providing referral and advocacy supports).
  • Shelters may need to establish or review existing professional standards required for staff to ensure individuals providing services are adequately qualified and prepared for their roles. For an example of staff training and qualification criteria, see the Council of Europe minimum standards (page 30).
  • Capacity development among shelter staff can be supported through training, mentoring, and other opportunities for learning and professional growth. Activities that promote skills development tend to incorporate opportunities for demonstration and practice (such as formal training, supervision, or simulated exercises to practice specific skills).
Illustrative example: Arab-Danish Capacity Development Partnership A cross-regional partnership between the Copenhagen-based shelter Danner and Moroccon Union de L’action Feminine, a network of 15 shelters, has applied a dual approach to strengthen the capacity of shelter staff in each country. With support from Kvinnoforum, the organizations have developed a series of training seminars targeted at direct service providers (rather than just shelter directors), which promote specific attitudes (e.g. around listening to women and demonstrating appropriate responses) as well as skills (e.g. management-  developing a code of conduct, and protocols related to safety plans, risk assessment, and infrastructure; service provision; and working with perpetrators, children, families and the community). The seminars are conducting in rotating locations, which has facilitated participation of shelter staff from over 10 Arab states and use simultaneous translation to ensure language is not a barrier for participation. The trainings involve the same staff from each shelter to promote more in-depth learning opportunities and is complemented with an exchange programme for shelter staff to visit a shelter in another country to observe and gain practical experience in applying the skills developed during the trainings.                                                                                                                                                   Source: Outaleb Fatima and Henriette Hajberg. 2012. Presentation at World Conference of Women’s Shelters. Washington, D.C.
Case Study: Multi-Purpose Centers for the Protection of Women Survivors of Violence in the occupied Palestinian territory The Mehwar Centre is a specialized facility in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) that provides protection and support to women and children who have experienced various forms of violence. Women’s organizations and other civil society actors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have provided assistance to survivors, but the lack of shelter facilities has remained a challenge to ensuring holistic protection services are available to women. The first shelter of its kind in oPt, the Centre was established in Bethlehem (West Bank) in 2007, with funding from the Italian Government and support from UNIFEM (now UN Women). In September 2008, in partnership with the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Social Affairs, the Centre implemented an initiative to protect and reintegrate women and children who had experienced domestic violence, and increase awareness of the human rights of women and children within Palestinian society. Results: Since its establishment, the Mehwar Centre has invested in various activities to reflect on its experience and document lessons learned, which have been used to inform the development of a similar facility, the Hayat Centre, in the Gaza Strip. In particular, practices related to the shelter’s establishment, recruitment and capacity development of staff have been transferred from the Mehwar Centre, with key components of the model adopted by the Hayat centre including:
  • Formation and functioning of an advisory committee: comprised of local partners with technical support from UN Women;
  • A successful orientation process: drawing from Differenza Donna experts to assess potential staff capacity (following short-listing of staff) as well as perceptions and attitudes towards gender-based violence and women’s protection by utilizing innovative role play, coaching and group exercises;
  • Recruitment of qualified staff: 19 staff were recruited based on Guidelines and Terms of References adapted from the Mehwar experience; and
  • Establishment of a capacity development plan: developed with support from UN Women’s technical advisor and Differenza Donna.

See the full Case Study. See the Evaluation in Arabic and in English.

Source: UN Women occupied Palestinian Territory. 2011. The Mehwar Centre: Evaluation of Policies and Procedures.

Safety for outreach workers

Outreach workers do their work primarily in the community, possibly in the homes of women who are in abusive relationships and/or at high risk for violence. These workers also commonly work alone. These circumstances require that workers give specific attention to identifying risks and planning for their own safety. While the strategies that follow are based on the context of domestic violence outreach workers, they may be tailored to the contexts of addressing other forms of violence (Dozois, 2007):

  • Maintain awareness of their surroundings at all times when meeting with women in the community.
  • Carry a fully charged cell phone at all times, and having an emergency number programmed onto the speed dial.
  • Provide scheduled appointments for each day with a supervisor or colleagues.
  • Make contact with the office throughout the day.
  • Call a designated person immediately before each home visit to inform them of the address of the home being visited and the time that the visit is expected to end, then call to inform the designated person that the visit is completed.
  • Call the woman an hour before the visit to confirm the appointment and ensure that circumstances related to violence in the home and safety considerations previously discussed have not changed.
  • Wear comfortable and appropriate clothing (e.g. wear shoes that allow for moving quickly if necessary).
  • Arrange to conduct visits in public places (i.e. the shelter, coffee shops, community resource centres, malls) or conduct the session by telephone, whenever there are concerns about the safety of meeting in the home.
  • Have a co-worker attend the session if there are safety concerns.
  • Have a code word that can be used to indicate danger to a safe person.

Strategies that can be implemented by workers before the session:

  • Prior to scheduling a visit gather enough information to assess whether or not it is safe to  meet in the woman’s home, minimally including:
    • A description of the history of violence.
    • The nature of the relationship and living arrangements with the abuser.
    • Whether anyone else will be present at the visit to the home.
    • The predictability of the abuser’s schedule (i.e. is he likely to arrive home unexpectedly? Are there drug and alcohol issues? Are there any mental health issues? Has an order of protection been issued?).
    • Weapons, mental health issues, or addictions.

  Strategies that can be implemented by workers during visits to the home:

  • When approaching the home:
    • Look for indicators that the situation may be unsafe (i.e. an unexpected vehicle in the driveway, all of the curtains/blinds are closed);
    • Listen briefly at the door before knocking; and
    • Knock on the door and stand to one side.
  • When inside the house (or at an alternate location in the community):
    • Take note of all exits.
    • Keep car keys within reach, where applicable.
    • If the woman said she would be alone and there are others present, leave the home. This may help to protect the worker and also the woman, if she is being monitored by the abuser or someone with allegiance to him.
    • Make a mental note of behavioural indicators by the woman that might suggest that the situation is unsafe.
    • Ensure that access to the door is not obstructed so that you can exit quickly and easily if necessary (i.e. Position yourself so that no one is between you and the door).



Thinking Shelter (Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2008). This online course is for shelter staff and volunteers. It is organized into 3 lessons covering a background on shelters, and topics related to the empowerment of women in shelters, with a focus on ways to create a positive environment that shifts emphasis away from rules, based on the context in the United States. The self-paced online training provides eight hours of training and includes readings, activities and lesson quizzes as well as an evaluation. Available by registering for free in English.  

Training manual for improving quality services for victims of domestic violence (Logar, R., Zachar, A., Rösslhumer, M. (Eds.) & IMPROVE Project Partners, WAVE Coordination Office / Austrian Women’s Shelter Network, 2006). This manual offers training modules for shelter workers on understanding the problem of violence against, the role of shelters, how to set up a shelter, how it should be funded, what services should be offered, how to maintain a safe and secure shelter and information about the management of shelters, community life in shelters, public relations, networking and evaluation. Available in English.  

IOM Handbook on Direct Assistance for Victims of Trafficking (International Organization for Migration, 2007). This handbook is for practitioners, including shelter staff, working with women and child survivors of trafficking. The handbook includes an entire chapter on guidelines for establishing and operating shelters for trafficking, which may be separate or in conjunction with services for victims of other forms of gender-based violence. The chapter includes a section on management, training and professional development of staff working with survivors of trafficking). Available in English.    

Manual, Honour Related Violence: Prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls in Patriarchal Families (Kvinnoforum, 2005). Based on a three-year project involving input from various sectors, including non-governmental organization shelters, police, social services, judiciary, schools, health care and immigration, this resource provides training on “honour” violence divided into themes containing knowledge content and related exercises.    

Away from Violence: Guidelines for Setting Up and Running a Women's Refuge (Women Against Violence Europe, 2004). This briefing kit, developed by, is a resource for professionals intending to set up a shelter and may be used to support advocacy for improved policies and government support for shelters. The manual seeks to improve standards that may be applied across the various country-contexts in Europe and provides practical guidance on how to establish, organise, operate and manage a refuge (including the development of policies and procedures). Available in English (119 pages), Finnish, German, Hungarian, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Estonian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Czech, Lithuanian, Serbo-Croatian and Turkish.

Making our Shelter Strong: Training for Inuit Shelter Workers. This web portal that delivers a self-directed learning module based on the original training tool, user groups and a resource database. The workshop presents both the face-to-face training module and the web-based application of Making Our Shelters Strong. It covers the challenges frontline workers and shelters face to help make communication and learning more accessible to even the most remote communities, based on the context in Canada. The training aims to (1) Guide participants through the journey of the Making Our Shelters Strong: Training for Inuit Shelter Workers from concept to the internet. The workshop will guide participants through the process of concept development, community and stakeholder engagement, module development, piloting and refinement and how technology can be used to create increased access to training tools, peer support and resources for shelters located in remote locations or with limited financial and human resources. Available in English.     


Communication and Conflict Resolution 

Conflict Resolution Tools for Domestic Violence Shelter Staff (VAWnet, 2009). This collection of tools, by VAWnet, is aimed for staff working in domestic violence shelters. Based on the context in the United States, the website includes background guidance, training materials and resources to equip advocates with a contextual framework and practical skills to resolve conflicts among survivors that may occur in shelters. Available in English.  

Kit de formation sur les techniques d’écoute (Anaruz, 2006). The Anaruz Network in Morocco produced a training kit on listening techniques aimed at counseling centers for women victims of violence. The kit is available in Arabic and French.    

Rethinking Domestic Violence: A Training Process for Community Activists (Raising Voices, 2004). This manual was developed in Uganda for use at the local level and provides guidance on developing listening skills (page 72).  Available in English. 


Counseling, Trauma and Self-care  

See the health module sections on training and sensitization of staff and providing emotional care and support   

Helping an Abused Woman: 101 Things to Know, Say and Do (I) (Alison Cunningham and Linda Baker, 2008). This resource is a self-learning guide for advocates and others working to support abused women. The guide addresses different topics related to women's experience of abuse and its impact, and features a tool box of interventions that can be used for individual or group work with women. The guide includes short summaries of the latest research, and handouts to be used in programmes with women. Available in English by purchase.

Helping Abused Women in Shelters 101 Things to Know, Say and Do (II) (Alison Cunningham and Linda Baker, 2008). This guide is the second "Helping Hands" Guide on Skill Building and Tools for supporting women in shelters, safe houses, refuges or transition housing, based on the context in Canada. The guide provides a tool box of interventions with women, references to the latest research, ideas for discussion as a staff team, and handouts to supplement individual or group work with women. Available in English by purchase. 

Helping Ourselves to Help Others: Self-Care Guide For Those Who Work in the Field of Family Violence (Maria Cecilia Claramunt for PAHO, 1999). This guide is for supervisors, staff and trainers working with advocates and other service providers. It provides background information on secondary trauma and strategies for advocates and others working directly with survivors to maintain self-care and maintain their physical, mental and emotional well-being. The guide includes reflective exercices and testimonies from advocates in Latin America. Available in English and Spanish.