Best Nonprofits To Work For 2016: It’s Fun, Games, Benefits And Serious Business

April 1, 2016       Mark Hrywna      

There was a significant reduction in force (RIF) at BoardSource three years ago, in addition to the departure of its chief executive officer. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to strengthen nonprofit board leadership, has been working hard ever since on its organizational culture.

“We had a very short timeframe to get staff together. It was traumatizing, for staff that was kept, too. Creating a good working environment and culture was the number one priority for us,” said Marci Sunderland, vice president of human resources. Two-thirds of current staff members were with the organization before the 2013 reorganization.

“We created an internal task force that looked at where we were as an organization, where we wanted to be, and how we get there,” Sunderland said. They used an internal survey to get feedback from staff members and then hosted brown bag lunches to drill down deeper and eventually put together an organizational culture statement.

It must have worked because BoardSource was among the first-time organizations to grace The NonProfit Times’ Best Nonprofits To Work 2016. With 30 employees, BoardSource ranked 12th among 18 nonprofits in the small category and 23rd out of 50 overall.

Click here to see the complete list of the 2016 Best Nonprofits to Work For and download the 10-page special report.

“One of the things we were aiming for was to be able to go through this process as a base year, and what feedback we got going through this process to see how we can make BoardSource better,” Sunderland said.

Among the many returning organizations from 2015 is Team Rubicon, which ranked second overall last year but this year took the top spot. The nonprofit has 44 employees, including 31 at its Los Angeles-area headquarters, to qualify in the small organization category.

The sixth annual report is compiled with the help of Best Companies Group, Inc., (BCG). The Harrisburg, Pa.-based firm conducts a thorough organizational assessment. It’s a multi-part process designed to gather detailed data about each participating nonprofit. The organization completes a questionnaire and then employees complete a confidential survey. Sources outside the organization also are contacted.

Collected information is combined to produce a detailed set of data enabling analysts to determine the strengths and opportunities of participating organizations. Workplaces are ranked based on this data and then the Employer Benchmark Summary is returned to each participating organization.

Managers at each nonprofit must complete the Employer Benefits & Policies Questionnaire (EQ), collecting information about policies, practices and demographics. The Employee Engagement and Satisfaction Survey consists of approximately 78 statements that employees respond to on a five-point agreement scale. Results are analyzed and categorized according to eight core focus areas:

  • Leadership and planning;
  • Corporate culture and communications;
  • Role satisfaction;
  • Work environment;
  • Relationship with supervisor;
  • Training, development and resources;
  • Pay and benefits; and,
  • Overall engagement.

Nonprofits on the list scored on average 90 percent on the survey compared with 76 percent by all nonprofits not on the list. The percentage indicates respondents who answered “Agree Somewhat” and Agree Strongly” to the 78 statements, such as “I would recommend working here to a friend,” or “I like the people I work with at this organization.”

The biggest disparities were found within the categories of leadership and planning (90 percent for nonprofits on the list compared to 71 percent for those not on the list) and corporate culture and communications (88 percent versus 71 percent). Nonprofits on the list did not score less than 85 percent in any of the eight focus areas. For those that did not make the list, the highest score was 84 percent.

There were 10 key drivers identified by BCG that were common among the 50 organizations:

  • I feel I am valued in this organization;
  • I have confidence in the leadership of this organization;
  • I like the type of work that I do;
  • Most days, I feel I have made progress at work;
  • This organization treats me like a person, not a number;
  • I like the people I work with at this organization;
  • There is room for me to advance at this organization;
  • I can trust what this organization tells me;
  • My job makes good use of my skills and abilities; and,
  • This organization provides the technology, equipment and resources I need to do my job well.

A good salary and benefits package will always be a good draw for a nonprofit, and the Best Nonprofits To Work are no exception. The overall average exempt salary was $74,351 among this year’s 50 nonprofits. Five organizations boasted an average exempt salary of more than $100,000:

Beyond a good paycheck, a common thread among this year’s Best Nonprofits To Work For was employee appreciation. Sometimes that included a monetary prize or bonus. Some 44 organizations have a formal program to recognize staff.

Top-ranked Team Rubicon last year instituted a quarterly award for staff called “The Teddy.” That’s on top of the existing, less formal and more casually named “Get Sh*t Done” award. The formerly quarterly accolade is now awarded monthly and includes a big mug and glass plate – “A cheers to you” – with nominations submitted by directors to human resources each month.

“The Teddy” was inspired by a famous quote in Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 speech, “The Man In The Arena” delivered in Paris. It embodies the concept of daring to be great, which sometimes might lead to failure, but daring with the best intentions always will have support.

Nominations can be submitted quarterly by staff members at TeamRubiconUSA.org. Anyone is eligible for nominations, which go directly to CEO Jake Wood. The winner receives a golden teddy bear, certificate presented by Wood, a profile on the organization’s career page, and a cool $100 in cash. Correctly answering some Team Rubicon trivia questions from the CEO could yield additional cash.

Team Rubicon revamped its employee recognition program to align with cultural principles that were codified earlier in 2015, according to Candice Schmitt, director of human resources. Putting it in writing was important after making 23 new hires, having almost one-third of its 44 employees working remotely and opening another office in Dallas for operations staff.

“We’re expanding a lot and have built up some support functions and added some capacity to HR,” she said. The bulk of it has been in full-time regional administrators that are remote positions and used to be all-volunteer.

The organization also transitioned to a new human resources system that has entirely paperless on-boarding, making the process of time cards and other benefits documentation much easier, according to Schmitt. “The more we can automate, the better we can support our growing remote staff and allow employees to focus on the mission and supporting our volunteers,” she said.

At BoardSource, “The Incredible Co-worker Award” is given away during the monthly staff happy hour. Employees nominate each other and the winner gets a trophy filled with candy and other knick-knacks, along with $100 to use anywhere within the organization. That can be used for anything from hosting a happy hour to bringing cake and ice cream or even hiring a temp if a department needs help. “The team is looking for more opportunities like that as well as thinking about how we’re recognizing service,” Sunderland said.

Employee recognition doesn’t always have to be a big production. During staff meetings, supervisors announce employee anniversaries and other milestones. “We’re really trying to formalize that and other ways to recognize staff,” Sunderland said.

CAP Tulsa (No. 19 overall) provides staff with “Core Value” notepads. Every time a staff member does something above and beyond, a colleague may give them a personal message.

Chief Operating Officer Karen Kiely sends a note to staff every two weeks, highlighting things like grants received and employees in the local news. The human resources team highlights achievements each quarter on the home page, such as degrees earned, promotions, certifications, and speaking engagements. Employees are quick to point out if they’ve been left off in error. “I love that because that means that they read it and they care,” Kiely said.

Children’s Home of Cincinnati (No. 44 overall) has a newsletter every other week and all-staff emails that update employees on changes. CEO John Banchy tries to keep his ear to the ground and work among employees to get their perspective on policy changes. There has been a focus on leadership training for every manager, director and executive, the idea being to create a culture of engagement.

“It’s an easy place to cut, but if our people are first, we’re not going to cut…It’s easy for directors and managers to say, ‘I’m too busy,’ but when they see us there, they know we are invested,” Banchy said.

Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association (No. 17 overall) focuses on the three Cs of making employees feel valued:

  • Communication is being transparent, updating staff on issues and direction;
  • Collaboration is engaging task forces, committees, focus groups toward steering direction; and,
  • Compassion is understanding that the employee’s life goes beyond work.

“We all know that employees bring home issues to work and work issues come home. Our leaders and co-workers understand the whole person,” said Kate Wollensak, vice president of human resources.

At Make-A-Wish Illinois (No. 18 overall), CEO Stephanie Springs said they actively work on the office culture. “We may not be at it every single day but actively try to live the culture. It comes through in how we approach the work we do, it comes through in social things we do, in performance management, and we try to reinforce and live the culture. I think that’s a big piece of why people like it here,” she said.

The organization has a merit-based com­pensation plan based on performance, and in addition, staff members are eligible for a “thank you” cash bonus if fiscal year goals are reached. If it’s been a good year and things have gone well collectively, the board will authorize the one-time payment to each employee. There’s also an incentive program for leadership employees. Specific objectives are tied to overall goals for the organization.

That’s the structured part of staff recognition. “The Wishys” are the unstructured – and one might say fun – part of that reinforcement. Each employee creates a unique award for another staff member to recognize the person’s achievements. “The concept was really for us to be able to recognize each other for some accomplishment for the previous period of time, whether the end of the fiscal year, or if you did it last night for our team,” Springs said. She encourages staff to “sprinkle in a little of their personality” and The Wishy usually aims to hit on something unique about that person and what they’ve accomplished, not a numerical goal.

“Sometimes it’s done in a funny way, sometimes in a serious way. It takes on the personality” of the person awarding it, Springs said. One employee might not know the other very well so discovering something about their work mates adds another dimension, she said. For instance, Springs recognized an employee for always doing an incredible job of showing gratitude to all the people she works with and being on lots of external event committees. The Wishys culminate with a presentation during the year-end celebration – in theater style, of course – followed by a happy hour and some networking.

“It’s probably one of the events staff members enjoy the most. It lets us see a dimension of a person and it’s also fun and communicates in a different kind of way,” Springs said.

Staff members are asked to participate and draw names to determine the individual for whom they will create The Wishy. The award could be a certificate, trophy, scrapbook or even a snow globe. “It should be created to honor the strengths of the individual. It’s the message and appreciation that are most important. Creativity is key; not a competition,” Springs said.

Best Nonprofits To Work make a point of bringing staff together to connect with one another and get to know fellow employees beyond the office. “We want staff get to know each other on a different level other than projects. We encourage those friendships,” BoardSource’s Sunderland said. “You’re seeing really different people just sitting and chatting about different things,” during the monthly happy hours. “It’s a way to build camaraderie as a team and appreciate them for what they’re doing,” she said. Different departments might host it each month, sometimes picking a theme and decorating the conference room, and organizing get-to-know-you games.

The Downtown Streets Team (No. 33 overall), another newcomer to Best Nonprofits To Work For this year, has a task force dedicated to it. More serious or formal meetings are handled by dedicated staff but the Feel Good Committee handles things like throwing a joint, all-gender wedding shower – which they did when four employees got hitched last summer.

“We’ve always done fun stuff together but formalized it in committee,” said Executive Director Eileen Richardson. Employees also participate in a variety of recreational activities, from volleyball and softball to fantasy football leagues. “There’s always something for everyone,” she said.

There’s also an all-hands meeting where staff members meet the first Friday of each month. Sometimes the committee will organize barbecues or a department might take a beach day together. Downtown Streets Team also shuts down for its annual holiday party, in addition to the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. “Everyone can get downtime on top of other vacation. We’re always dealing with complicated cases, sometimes working almost 24/7,” Richardson said.

Team Rubicon might cater an early dinner or appetizers to try to get people to socialize around the office some more. “The idea is to get the staff to connect to one another, get to know each other more personally,” Schmitt said. It was important to incorporate new activities, like movie nights on-site, to try to diversify the group as sometimes the same groups might attend happy hours. It’s also a chance for directors to connect with the rest of the team, as they can’t step out for a half-day to do a backpacking trip, Schmitt said.

The average paid number of holidays across the 50 organizations was 12.6, with a high of 35 (National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy) to a low of seven (Make-A-Wish Illinois and Soles4Souls).

Cinnaire recently established an unlimited vacation policy and has flex scheduling to allow employees to engage in volunteering opportunities. Staff doesn’t have to go in during the two-week holiday season toward the end of the year. “If your work is wound up, you don’t have to come in. We feel strongly about the strength of your family,” said President and CEO Mark McDaniel.

Some 33 organizations provide cafeteria, meal subsidies or daily free snacks and beverages. Results from BoardSource’s last employee survey indicated that staff members were interested in healthy eating and lifestyle, according to Sunderland, so a health and wellness task force was formed. The committee is tasked with distributing healthy living information but also bringing food for staff meetings. The initiative aims to make sure staff know about healthy options when it comes to food but also activities.
The task force started a scavenger hunt-like challenge to encourage people to take the stairs. Things are hidden in stairwells and employees can win prizes for finding the items.

All or part of employees’ costs for health club memberships or fitness or wellness programs is picked up by 13 organizations. Lansing, Mich.-based Cinnaire (No. 21 overall) goes even further, offering a full gym at its headquarters. In addition, dry cleaning services pick up and drop off weekly for its employees.

Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse (No. 34 overall) in Tucson, Ariz., offers 24/7 assistance. A local massage therapist has come in to provide pro bono help to mitigate burnout. Compassion-fatigue sessions conducted by clinic staff help direct service staff members.

“There is no magic solution. It is draining. With massage, compassion fatigue, or a general attempt to have a really active culture of fun in the organization we try so that not every moment is crisis,” explained CEO Ed Mercurio-Sakwa.

Brighton Center in San Antonio, Texas, (No. 5 overall) started the Energy, Drive, Goals, Execute (EDGE) program a year ago. Based on an online prize system within their insurance carrier, employees get points for things such as going to the gym and getting regular check-ups. Points can lead to prizes such as money toward a gym membership, Fitbit devices and wireless headphones. Some employees have lost 70 pounds through the program.

“It’s a win-win. Really the focus is bringing health and awareness. Everything we do, we try to have a lot of options,” CEO Kim Jeffries said. “We do incorporate Paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, so we are supporting eating habits.” NPT

To download the complete 2016 Best Nonprofits To Work For 10-page special report, click here.