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2015 NPT Best Places To Work: Mission trumps pay, although compensation does matter

By Mark Hrywna - April 1, 2015

Ask most any employee at a nonprofit why they work there and the answer will almost always come down to mission and believing they are making a difference. But what sets apart the organizations in the 2015 NPT Best Nonprofits To Work?

In David Letterman style, Best Companies Group (BCG) derived the top 10 key drivers in the NPT Best Nonprofits To Work study:

• I like the type of work that I do;

• I have confidence in the leadership of this organization;

• Most days, I feel like I have made progress at work;

• I feel part of a team working toward a shared goal;

• My pay is fair for the work I perform;

• At this organization, employees have fun at work;

• My supervisor handles my work-related issues satisfactorily;

• The organization provides the technology, equipment and resources I need to do my job well; and,

• I feel I am valued in this organization.

The overall survey average for positive responses in all categories of the Employee Benchmark Report in the NPT Best Nonprofits To Work was 89 percent for those that made the list compared with 77 percent for those that did not. The largest disparity within a category was in leading and planning (90 percent versus 73 percent), followed by pay and benefits (88 percent versus 73 percent), and corporate culture and communications (88 percent versus 74 percent).

The National Older Worker Career Center (NOWCC) was number one overall for the second straight year among the 50 organizations ranked in The NPT Best Nonprofit To Work. Created from the AARP in 1997, NOWCC is dedicated to promoting experienced workers 55 and older “as a valuable and critical component of the nation’s workforce,” according to its website

With only about 24 employees, it wouldn’t take very many staff leaving to punch up the turnover rate but even still, NOWCC only had an 8 percent turnover last year and no turnover the previous year.

NOWCC boasted the highest average annual salary for exempt employees, one of the few that reached six figures ($105,828). “We try to be competitive in our market,” said Greg Merrill, president and CEO of the Arlington, Va.-headquartered organization, with most employees in Arlington, as well as several others in Denver and Dallas. “You have to be competitive when looking for staff,” he said.

“We invest in our staff, which is also a contributing factor to low turnover. Folks are fairly compensated, and part of a very dynamic team that they believe in the mission, and make it happen,” said Merrill. “Compensation is one part of the reward for that. Other parts include working with people they like in a place that is comfortable, respects them, and gives them opportunity to engage and grow.”

NOWCC modified its internal performance review management process this past year, which was designed with the help of a team of about five employees. “They helped design it, explained it to colleagues, so folks would hopefully understand that it is focused on helping every member of the staff improve their professional development and their performance,” he said. Of course, management also was involved, with supervisors talking to staff and their peers. “The objective was to get to any areas that needed to be improved.”

Employees talked to their colleagues about what worked and what didn’t with the previous process, and what was confusing or not helpful. They compiled that feedback to help create a more responsive and effective resource to aid the organization by helping members of the staff, he said.

With only two dozen employees, Merrill aims to have a conversation with each member of the staff every year. “One of those questions was always historically about the performance review process,” he said, and he provided feedback he received, without attribution, to the team that helped revamped the review process.

“There’s a lot of qualitative input that goes into it,” he said of employee reviews and evaluation. “We discovered that over time, trying to put numbers on performance is very difficult, particularly if you try to compare a number or grade given by one supervisor, with a grade by another to another,” he said. However, if the focus is on improving the employee’s performance, Merrill said he thinks this resource is going to be very helpful.

The new process was implemented this past fall and the team that put it together already had identified a couple of tweaks by January, as the organization was approaching mid-year reviews. “It’s an evolving process, based on what works, what doesn’t, and potential sources of confusion,” Merrill said.

“We’ve got input from the supervisor level but also from the staff. We’re small enough that we can do that in a way that is not disruptive,” Merrill said. He thinks that a small staff makes a huge difference and contributes to the culture and community they try to create at NOWCC.

“We don’t need to do exit interviews very often,” Merrill quipped, although they are conducted when an exit occurs to gather valuable feedback.

While impressive health and retirement benefits go a long way toward making an organization a Best Nonprofit To Work, some of the most well-received benefits don’t necessarily cost much, if anything.

Team Rubicon in El Segundo, Calif., sponsors local Toastmaster membership for employees to encourage and improve their public speaking. To develop professional speaking and writing skills, employees also are required to write blog posts, as well as story-sharing and presentations.

Some 75 percent of the employees at St. Louis, Mo.-based Mission Continues take advantage of the organization’s pro bono partnership with Engaged Health Solutions, according to President Spencer Kympton. Every staff member has the option of having a personal coach, focusing on health and nutrition or professional life. There’s the one-on-one relationship but the company also periodically provides full team training.

“We’ve prioritized having very strong health, retirement and supplemental insurance benefits. It’s been a core to our benefit policy,” Kympton said. “It’s almost counterintuitive, saying to vets, ‘we still need you. We need you to serve at home, in doing so, help you transition home.’ But that’s without a handout or charity, more of a challenge or an opportunity to continue serving.”

Step Up has three offices nationwide, with four employees in each: Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, which also includes four within the national office located there.

The annual retreat in Los Angeles is a great opportunity for staff in Chicago and New York City to escape harsh winters. It always includes team-building activities, some of which get pretty creative, such as trapeze class, to improve and do anything that might get staff out of their shells. “The big thing is, what’s the shared activity going to be,” said Alissa Zito, vice president of communications.

In addition to a focus on providing flex time for employees, Step Up created what it calls its Staff Acknowledgement Strategy, to help with internal and intraoffice communications. An employee’s first day at Step Up, regardless of which office, would include an email from the managing director introducing them to employees, their desk set up with Step Up swag, on top of lunch with the entire team. Hiring anniversaries also call for an email from Chief Executive Officer Jenni Luke, a card from the vice president and acknowledgement on the monthly staff call.

Even on a birthday, they can expect a card from the CEO and an email from the managing director acknowledging the day, as well as a card from the regional team and either a team lunch or gift and snacks paid for by Step Up. Got a promotion? Expect an email from the managing director to all staff to acknowledge the move.

Angie Franchino started out as a volunteer at Step Up before holding a number of positions, and now is vice president, operations and fundraising strategy. The staff acknowledgements were always done informally but there was nothing documented that ensured the organization was doing it equitably. “It came to my attention that there wasn’t any structure around it; someone might get a call, someone might not,” she said. One value at the organization is celebrating success.

Anecdotally, there has been a shift in staff morale, Franchino said, citing a combination of factors dating back to last year. “We focused last year to make sure staff understand their part in the bigger picture, intentionally communicating in a way how their efforts are tied to the strategic plan,” she said. “I would like to think that’s helping them feel valued and that their role is really important,” Franchino. Feedback was received last year that there was a lack of clarity so efforts in the past year have focused on creating clarity, in roles and responsibilities.

“Play Your Position” was the theme of Step Up’s retreat two years ago, with the idea that everyone might have options, but trust your team member is doing their role, and do your role, Franchino said. “When we don’t, things start to break down, and we tried to draw attention to it: This is what happens when you don’t trust in teamwork, don’t play your position.”

Here’s the complete list.

Hear from six executives, in their own words, on why their organizations are some of the best places to work.


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