It can be the little things that add up to become one of the Best Nonprofits To Work For at the small organizations in this year’s study.
The United Way of Southwest Michigan (UWSM) has a policy that employees get their birthday as a day off to celebrate and have fun. “It’s nothing huge but some of those things…it does help morale. We try to have fun,” CEO Anna Murphy said.
The approximately two dozen employees at the St. Joseph, Mich.-based affiliate also take part in health and wellness programs, not just for fun and taking care of themselves but to also get to know their communities. A recent parks challenge aimed to get people outside, visiting the abundance of state and local parks, and discovering new places, according to Murphy.
UWSM tries to do something monthly but it’s not mandated. In March, it was yoga and pilates, other times they focused on movement and exercise challenges, or how to be more environmentally friendly in the office. “Health and wellness is really important for us and having something to learn from,” Murphy said. “Those are things that carry over to staff, meetings and the board,” he said.
The United Way affiliate ranked No. 4 overall, and No. 3 within the small category, in The NPT’s 2020 Best Nonprofits To Work For. There were 17 small organizations — those with 15 to 49 employees — among the 50 Best Nonprofits, or about one-third of those recognized.
Where small organizations were distinguished in particular against the counterpart small groups that didn’t make the list was within culture and communication, as well as training, development and resources.
The Employee Benchmark Report (EBR) compiles 88 questions across seven categories, with the percentage of respondents who answered positively (agree somewhat or agree strongly). Among small organizations, the percentage of positive responses from Best Nonprofits versus those not on the list were:
• Leadership and planning, 93 percent versus 80 percent;
• Culture and communications, 92 percent/77 percent;
• Role satisfaction, 94 percent/84 percent;
• Work environment, 91 percent/83 percent;
• Relationship with supervisor, 94 percent/88 percent;
• Training, development and resources, 87 percent/73 percent;
• Pay and benefits, 91 percent/77 percent; and,
• Overall engagement, 94 percent/79 percent.
At the New York City-based National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP) casual dress Fridays evolved two years ago into “casual summers,” when staff can wear flip-flops and jeans. Just last year, they started “casual December,” according to CEO Cate Brennan. “It’s a fairly light month. There’s a lot of people taking vacation time and not a lot of visitors. I think that sort of thing keeps people happy,” she said. “It’s just the recognition that it’s a tough city to get around,” Brennan said, with most people commuting by public transit, exposed to the elements.
In its first year participating, NAPNAP ranked No. 29 overall and No. 14 among small organizations. (The extra A in the organization’s acronym used to stand for Associate Nurse Practitioners but that term went away, according to Brennan, and the acronym NAPNAP was so well loved that it stayed on when the organization rebranded some 20 years ago.)
“Anything you can do to make your people more comfortable, and not worry about random things, I think that’s important,” Brennan said.
Like a lot of small organizations, there’s not a lot of room for promotion and so they try to be more creative with employees. “I’m not a micromanager, and none of the senior staff are either. We just let people come up with ideas,” Brennan said, whether that’s determining a better way to do things or a new product that might be helpful to members.
“You just have to be aware of your people and what they need,” Brennan said. “Treat them like the whole person. Yes, we’re here to do the job but I also recognize and advise people, if you’ve got some flexibility, there’s so many people who are in the sandwich generation, or dealing with other family issues. Or even if they’re in an advanced field of study, trying to get a master’s degree or certification, try to be flexible with them,” she said.
“It doesn’t cost anything to say, ‘Oh, you really need that time.’ It reduces staff stress so much and it really returns,” Brennan said.
Brennan said her biggest challenge as CEO is striking a balance between wanting to do everything the board and members wish and not overwhelming the 17-person staff. “Like any CEO, I’m like the firewall,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to go back to either side and say, ‘I can’t do this, we’re at staff capacity,’ or conversely, go to staff and say, ‘this is really important, we’ve got to work on this.’ Getting that balance is always a challenge. With any nonprofit, there’s always more good work we can do,” she said.
The Best Nonprofits report provides an Employer Benchmark Summary, comparing Best Nonprofits and those not on the list by types of benefits and other offerings by the organization.
Among the widest gaps between small organizations that were recognized as Best Nonprofits and those that were not was in the area of tuition reimbursement and assistance.
Almost half of small Best Nonprofits provided tuition reimbursement for advanced or post-graduate degrees but not one small organization that did not make the cut did the same. Small Best Nonprofits were even more generous for other programs, with 76 percent for certifications, 88 percent for business education workshops and/or conferences, and 71 percent for formalized programs and practices for succession planning.
By comparison, small organizations that were not Best Nonprofits didn’t come close to those levels, at 40 percent, 60 percent, and 29 percent, respectively.
The National Older Worker Career Center (NOWCC) ranked No. 1 overall and No. 1 among small organizations for the second consecutive year. The Arlington, Va.-based NOWCC this past year implemented a new learning and development platform, according to Caroline Espree, vice president, human resources & administration. Each staff member can participate in a variety of cloud-based educational services. The organization also provides a structured tuition reimbursement program.
Each employee can take a course and NOWCC will pay 100 percent of the cost, for example, in project management. “It’s a skillset that helps all of us. We encourage a person to take that kind of course, a variety of courses from business management, accounting, all the way to advanced Microsoft courses,” Espree said.
President and CEO Cito Vanegas makes it a point to go to lunch with each new staff member. “That sets the standard in regards to welcoming new employees to the organization,” Espree said. “That’s where it really starts, with leadership.”
Promoting a culture of collaboration is vital, Espree said, noting a new payroll system that included the involvement of a cross-functional team of employees who worked closely from the beginning stages, as early as the Request For Proposal (RFP). “It impacts everyone in the organization. When you have special projects, you realize people’s different skills and talents,” said Espree. The new system helps in succession planning, she said, because it tracks people’s skill sets.
More than 70 percent of small Best Nonprofits had formal programs and practices for succession planning compared with less than one-third of those organizations that participated in the survey but didn’t make the top 50. Overall, the average was 68 percent among Best Nonprofits versus 41 percent among nonprofits not on the list.
The Gulf Coast Community Foundation (GCCF) in Venice, Fla., implemented a program last year that awards credits toward future tuition costs not only for employees but also their children and close family members, like nieces and nephews. The credit is awarded and the employee can use it in the future for any one of those family members. It’s a credit-based program that’s not earmarked for any particular person.
“It can accumulate for a long period of time, especially those with little ones,” Veronica Thames, senior vice president for administration and chief operating officer, said. The foundation ranked No. 22 overall and No. 8 among small nonprofits.
Sprinkled throughout the year are development opportunities beyond employment related topics, such as, personal defense and resilience, according to Thames. There’s a lot of focus on the employee as a whole, not just the educational component of staff development but more personal, individual, family and team development.
After salary and benefits and marketing, the largest budget item at UWSM is staff development and talent management, according to Murphy. “I believe in investing in my team,” she said, “though some board members just don’t get that we need to invest” the same way that the for-profits do. Cost can be a challenge sometimes, she added.
“You have to find those things that cross over multiple staffs so that we can then cross train,” Murphy said. With one certified SHRM human resources employee, they have access to free webinars that a dozen employees can watch rather than one person attending an off-site training.
UWSM uses a variety of ways to get people more and new information, Murphy said, using a “cross-teaching approach” so fundraisers have a better idea of what’s going on in the impact world and others having a better sense of what marketing is up to.
Flexibility when it comes to schedules is also a big plus at small nonprofits.
UWSM leaders recently rewrote the policy on flexible time and telecommuting to be a little clearer, eliminating some confusion, according to Murphy.
The affiliate doesn’t have any staff who regularly work from home but the flexibility to do so is there. They also eliminated sick days and vacation days, instead following a trend of combining all those days into a general bucket of Paid Time Off (PTO).
The office closes during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and has half-days on Fridays in the summer. “There’s a ton of flexibility in working hours. All of our jobs by nature require us to do something a little different; there’s not one thing that fits everyone,” Murphy said.
UWSM now has about two dozen employees after adding two employees as part of a recent merger. Murphy said the office has made a point to make sure employees at a satellite office in Paw Paw are included in team-building activities and other things they do. “What we’re doing now, we’re helping them integrate. We kept an office open because it’s an important piece to that community,” Murphy said, but the two new employees also will spend at least one day each week at the main office. “If you’re not part of the team, you can’t become part of the team. If you’re out of sight out of mind, it doesn’t work,” she said.
Murphy has been with the affiliate for 22 years, the last 14 as president. “My philosophy is family first. I believe in each of us taking care of ourselves, our families first, so we have a lot of policies and flexibility in how we work, so that we can do that, we can take care of ourselves, our family members, our kids, whomever,” Murphy said. “I think that that adds tremendously to a really strong working team, and they work well together, and they have really high regard for each other,” she said.
Among small nonprofits, pay and benefits also played a part in separating the Best Nonprofits from those that did not make the cut.
At GCCF, employees get significant contributions to their 403(b) retirement plans and typically much sooner in their tenure. The first 3 percent of contributions is matched at 100 percent, plus 50 percent of the next 2 percent of the employee’s contributions, ultimately reaching 4 percent. On top of that, there’s a discretionary contribution that can vary but historically has been as high as 5 percent.
Thames said the generous package can be a tool to retain and attract employees. It’s a great measure that can attract job seekers but it’s reputation and mission that really drives that.
“It’s state-of-the-art compared to other organizations that we know of. I can tell you though, anyone who applied or considered applying, has an affinity to our mission,” Thames said. “It’s truly 100 percent of our staff that feel 100 percent committed to mission,” she said.
“It’s easy to be focused on strategy, tactics and deliverables but culture is what will forever differentiate us, and make us the best we can do,” Thames said.