Strong Focus on Organizational Culture Drives Staffing Choices At the Best Nonprofits

A classic source of frustration in many workplaces goes something like this: An employee expresses an idea during a meeting. The boss hears that comment but lodges it in the back of the brain and weeks later it comes out as the boss’s idea, forgetting that the colleague started it.

“It’s classic that managers do this accidentally, deliver it as if it’s their own idea. Obviously, that’s frustrating for that employee,” said Charles Best, founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org, a 17-year-old nonprofit in New York City. “Whenever there’s a workplace where employees feel like they will be acknowledged and get the justified glory for being the one to come up with an idea, they’ll come up with kick-ass ideas,” he said.

“Giving credit where credit is due is one reason why people would want to be here,” Best said.

Recognition, trust and support — both monetary and otherwise — are among the critical tenants that make up a great nonprofit to work for, according to The NPT’s 2017 Best Nonprofit To Work For. The NonProfit Times partnered with Harrisburg, Pa.-based Best Companies Group for the seventh annual report, which ranked DonorsChoose.org as the No. 1 organization among medium-sized employers and No. 1 overall among the 50 nonprofits recognized.  DonorsChoose.org last made the list in 2015, ranking No. 3 overall after a No. 8 ranking in 2014.

The Best Nonprofits To Work For report is data compiled from a thorough organizational assessment. Each participating nonprofit completes a questionnaire along with a confidential survey completed by employees. Business partners are also polled. The information then is combined to analyze and rank the workplaces. The organizations were further categorized as small, medium and large. Explanations of the categories accompany those stories.

The NPT’s 2017 Best Nonprofits To Work For identified the top 10 key drivers for employees across 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;
  • At this organization, employees have fun at work;
  • I can trust what this organization tells me;
  • Overall, I’m satisfied with this organization’s benefits package;
  • There is room for me to advance at this organization;
  • I like the people I work with at this organization; and,
  • I feel part of a team working toward a shared goal.

The Employee Benchmark Report represents the average percentage of positive responses to almost 80 statements or questions spread across eight focus areas. The percentage of respondents represents those who answered “Agree somewhat” and “Agree strongly.”

For the most part, the same statements and questions scored highest and lowest in a category among nonprofits that made this year’s list and those that did not. The difference was in just how big a disparity there was between nonprofits. Organizations that made the list tended to score near 90 percent across all categories while those that did not scored anywhere from 70 percent to as low as the middle 80s.

Among the eight categories of questions, the largest disparity overall between organizations that made the Best Nonprofits list and those that did not was found within “pay and benefits” (18-point differential) and “leadership and planning” (16-point differential):

  • Leadership and planning, 90 percent compared with 74 percent;
  • Corporate culture and communications, 88 percent to 73 percent;
  • Role satisfaction, 90 percent to 81 percent;
  • Work environment, 89 percent to 83 percent;
  • Relationship with supervisor, 92 percent to 85 percent;
  • Training, development and resources, 84 percent to 69 percent;
  • Pay and benefits, 88 percent to 70 percent;
  • Overall employee engagement, 92 percent to 82 percent; and,
  • Survey average, 89 percent to 77 percent.

Within “leadership and planning,” the disparities among seven questions were in the double-digits, with the highest (18 points) on the statement, “There is adequate follow-through of departmental objectives,” and “The leaders of this organization care about their employees’ well being.”

Although statements and questions within the pay and benefits category most consistently had the largest disparities between organizations that did or did not make the list, the largest found in the survey overall was on the statement, “Staffing levels are adequate to provide quality products/services,” within the category of corporate culture and communications. Three-quarters of organizations on the list responded positively to that statement compared with barely half of those that did not.

Recognition is important to employees and not just at DonorsChoose.org but consistently across all 50 of the Best Nonprofits. One of the statements where Best Nonprofits diverged from others was: “This organization gives enough recognition for work that is well done.” About 84 percent responded positively to that statement compared with just 66 percent among organizations that didn’t make the list.

“You hear about places where employees can bring their true selves to work. It’s important, especially for younger people,” Best said. “We want to express a personal passion or intellectual purposes, or about current events. It creates a colleague who feels more connected to the organization, more committed to the organization, because they’re able to express all of who they are,” he said.

Best credits the implementation of a new instant messaging tool with helping to do that. DonorsChoose.org moved from Skype to Slack for intra-office instant messaging during the summer of 2015. He described Slack as a sort of “next-generation bulletin board” in which users can subscribe to particular topics.

“At first we transitioned because we simply thought it would enable group chat a little more seamlessly. Of course, it turned out do a lot more than that,” Best said.

The 550 Slack forums at DonorsChoose.org help nurture camaraderie as well as organize around projects. It allows for direct, one-on-one private conversations, dialogue within teams, and connections with staff across different personal interests.

Some teams use Slack exclusively for project management but the organization lets teams decide how to use it. Affinity groups have formed, ranging from cat lovers to fitness buffs to neighborhoods. “It’s a great way to get out organization-wide messages, instead of email or it might not merit emails,” Best said, adding that Slack has become the way that employee anniversaries are acknowledged.

“It’s created a greater sense of kinship, enabled colleagues to bring their true self to work,” he said, and know more about what they’re colleagues are up to yet without feeling overburdened or over-sharing.

“Slack actually conveys a lot more information to people than email ever did. Yet people are spending less time, or at least much more productive time, with their colleagues,” Best said.

The founder is confident that DonorsChoose.org has enough of a performance-minded culture — “everyone thinking like an owner culture” — that he doesn’t believe there’s an issue of employees spending more time on cat lover Slack channels than work.

Last year’s No. 1 organization, Team Rubicon, returns to the list this year ranked No. 3 overall after growing some 40 percent.

The Los Angeles, Calif.-based charity hired an additional head on the human resources team and initiated programs around growing and supporting remote staff, supervisory development and automated/real-time performance management that will roll out this year.

Team Rubicon saw improvement in communication across offices by implementing best practices that are now habitual behaviors,” according to Director of Human Resources Candice Schmitt. During virtual meetings with a meeting lead, a moderator monitors the chat bar, acting as a voice in the room for those dialed in or asking for a chance to speak. Even something as simple as rearranging all-staff meeting space to identify where speakers should stand and look to engage the remote audience has received good feedback, she said.

With about half of its staff in satellite offices or working from home, Team Rubicon put a lot of effort into making perks and fun employee engagements suitable for participation across all locations. The hope was that employees would feel included and “grow a strong sense of workplace culture regardless of where they sat, but it turns out they felt it was cheesy and a waste of time,” Schmitt said. This year, Rubicon will focus on reinforcing benefits of each location and recognizing and celebrating their differences versus trying to create a virtual office culture, she said.

The last time that The Center for Trauma & Resilience made the Best Nonprofits list, it went by a different name: The Denver Center for Crime Victims.

“We wanted something that was more positive and more directly reflected what we did,” said Kathi Fanning, director of training. “We deal with trauma all the time. We’re hoping to move people toward resilience,” she said. The former name left people identifying as a crime victim but not reflective of the progress that they make.

The name change helped to expand the circle of people the center works with, despite some initial hesitation and even unhappiness from peers in their community.

The center has a contract with the sheriff’s department to do trauma sensitive yoga groups with jail inmates. Fanning said that incarcerated people typically also have been victims at some point in their lives and cope with that stress and anxiety. Staff often want the assignment and have no hesitation because inmates are such an appreciative group, she said. “Folks in jail are really appreciative of someone coming in and taking the practice to heart,” she said, using the practice to calm themselves.

There is a sort of counter-intuitiveness to it — that a victim services group is doing service for perpetrators — but “we try to have a bigger lens than that. They had victimization in their life as well and that’s who we should be serving,” Fanning said.

“We look at trauma as a health issue not just a victimization issue. Look at both victims of crime and other service providers, and what impact trauma has on someone’s health,” Fanning said. “Trauma is more than just momentary psychological impact but affects someone’s entire health,” she said.

The center’s name change has helped to shift attitudes around that as well as empowered staff to be able to address trauma in a bigger circle, helping people increase social support, reduce the risk of health problems. “It’s brought to the forefront as a staff, health disparities and those kinds of more community and long-term impact of trauma, she said.

Click here for the 2017 Best Nonprofits To Work For report.