Nonprofits Get A Kick For Collaboration

October 1, 2009       Mark Hrywna      

Employees from a handful of local nonprofits gather at a park in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., every Tuesday night for a game that they probably haven’t played since their elementary school gym class: kickball.

Several nonprofits in one Washington, D.C. neighborhood started a weekly kickball league this past summer to promote camaraderie and employee morale.

“In this economy, finding ways that boost morale and make working at community organizations more fun is just a godsend,” said Lindsey Buss, president and CEO of Martha’s Table, a social service nonprofit that started the league.

The organization, with a diverse staff of about 70, holds its share of holiday parties and picnics. But, operating 13 hours each day of the week makes it challenging to find ways for people to get together outside of work and spend time to get to know each other in a relaxed atmosphere.

Martha’s Table joined a softball league last summer which “suddenly worked like a charm,” Buss said. There was representation from all seven departments within the organization and a wide variety of employees. “More people were coming to watch than were coming to play, and they were bringing their kids,” he said.

Buss wanted to hold on to the camaraderie and good energy built among the staff through the softball league, but the league was expensive and the site was a little far away. The league had dues of $865, including a $10 contribution from the 21 players, for a cost of $655 to the organization.

Nearby Harrison Park wasn’t quite big enough for softball, so they decided to try kickball. Buss emailed executive directors of other nonprofits in the area, and COOL: Kickball was born. Five nonprofits in the Columbia Heights neighborhood got together to form the Community Organization Outreach League: Kickball (COOL: Kickball). In addition to Martha’s Table, participating organizations are the Sitar Arts Center, N Street Village, Latin American Youth Center and Urban Alliance. The Community Foundation for the National Capitol Region was a sponsor and paid for team shirts and a trophy.

Veronica Nolan, executive director of Urban Alliance, said 10 of her 12 employees participate, including a high school intern, and it’s been a great experience. “Folks who don’t have the opportunity to hang out together on a daily basis or have collaborative projects were able to bond in a fun manner,” she said, and her staff was able to meet employees of other nonprofits. “Sometimes in the nonprofit arena there’s a danger of working in silos but this gave us the opportunity to get to know one another which will translate into working well together as a united community,” Nolan said.

Ron Allen, community outreach coordinator for the teen program at Martha’s Table, serves as commissioner of the league. The organization already had kickballs for its youth programs, so there was virtually no cost.

“The key to making it happen was really Ron’s time,” said Buss. Allen estimates he spends less than 90 minutes a week coordinating team schedules, email updates, and upcoming game reminders. “Beyond that, really, the league runs itself,” he said. “It’s really taken on a life of its own,” said Allen, including an occasional kickball social where team members get a chance to know one another off the field. “It really allows us to get outside of our own departmentÉand hang out outside work,” he said.

In the spirit of competition, teams will loan players to short-handed squads, since a minimum of seven players is needed. “We’re competitive and we want to win but we keep the bigger picture intact,” Allen said.

“The idea is to really get to know other nonprofits,” said Buss, adding that all the players introduce each other before each game.

A huge fan of sports, and particularly ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” Allen writes a colorful recap of the week’s games. “It provides something for people to gather around,” he said, using descriptive language and even throwing in made-up quotes from the mayor or president on occasion.

Buss sees no reason why they won’t continue the league next year and, if there’s enough interest from other nonprofits, even expand. NPT