Significant change, like, say, a new chief executive officer, can have an impact on an organization’s culture, as well as other aspects of a nonprofit. Stability in the C-suite is usually helpful while consistent turnover at the top is not likely to enjoin success.
Among the 50 organizations in this year’s NPT’s Best Nonprofits To Work For report, the highest ranking official or CEO has been in the position for almost a decade, more than two years longer than the average among employers that did not make the list.
The national office of Communities In Schools (CIS) welcomed a new CEO, Dale Erquiaga, in November 2016, but he’s only the third CEO in the organization’s 40-year history. It’s one of a few data points in this year’s study where CIS bucked the averages. That didn’t stop it from garnering the top spot in the 2018 Best Nonprofits To Work For.
The Arlington, Va.-based organization has been climbing the rankings for years. CIS ranked 15th overall in 2015, moved up to 10th in 2016 (fifth among medium organizations both years), and placed second overall and first among medium organizations last year. This year, it finally lays claim to the No. 1 spot in the eighth annual Best Nonprofits To Work For, a partnership between The NonProfit Times and Harrisburg, Pa.-based Best Companies Group (BCG). CIS works directly with 2,300 schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia to help at-risk students from dropping out of school.
The average tenure of a CEO at one of the 50 organizations was consistently nine years or more among the three categories, with the largest disparity found within small organizations. Among small organizations that did not make the list, the average tenure was less than four years.
Dawn Godaire joined the organization a year ago as vice president of human resources. “It’s neat for me to see, CIS has built such a strong culture, we’ve been able to continue to stay strong, even through significant times of change,” she said.
Erquiaga was tasked with developing a new five-year strategic plan for the organization. What he did was unique, according to Godaire, with every one of the 58 employees provided an opportunity, if they wanted, to help create and build the five-year plan.
“We formed working groups on a variety of strategic topics,” she said. That helped bring people onboard much quicker through a period of change but also provided individuals the chance to build strategic planning skills. “It speaks to the culture we have,” she said, while also serving as a professional development opportunity. Most people don’t get to do that until they are further along in their career. “It’s a great activity to do more cross-collaboration work,” she said.
That’s not to say that every idea was incorporated into the strategic plan. “The CEO has to make that call and take it to the board but it allowed the plan to be much richer, with organizational buy-in,” Godaire said. Despite crafting a new strategic plan and restructuring under a new chief executive, CIS still managed to have an engaged, active workforce, she said.
Professional development, training, communication and confidence in leadership are among a number of things consistent across this year’s 50 organizations. The Best Nonprofits To Work For study identified 10 key drivers among organizations that made the list:
The Best Companies Group’s Employer Benchmark Report tracked positive responses — “agree somewhat” or “agree strongly” — to 85 questions across eight categories. The overall average for the 50 organizations that made this year’s report was 90 percent, compared with 74 percent for organizations that did not make the list.
Best Nonprofits scored at least an average 90 percent in six of the categories while those that did not make the top 50 had a high mark of 85 percent in one category, breaking 80 percent in four categories. The difference between organizations that made the list versus those that did not ranged anywhere from 7 percent to 16 percent among the eight categories:
The biggest disparity among organizations was revealed on the question “I’m satisfied with the tuition reimbursement benefits,” within the pay and benefits category. Organizations not on the list averaged 45 percent positive (the lowest of any of the 85 questions, and the only one that scored less than 50 percent) compared with 77 percent for Best Nonprofits.
Another question that scored low for both groups of organizations was within corporate culture and communications: “Staffing levels are adequate to provide quality products/services.” While Best Nonprofits saw positive responses of 74 percent, those not on the list only saw 52 percent.
The lowest scores for Best Nonprofits came in a series of questions within training, development and resources, the only category that saw more than one question fail to crack 80 percent. Best Nonprofits scored only 72 percent on the statement “There is room for me to advance at this organization,” and 73 percent on “I trust that if I do good work, I will be considered for a promotion.” Still, those averages were signifi- cantly greater than organizations not on the list, which scored 54 percent and 55 percent, respectively.
Every organization has areas where it could improve, Godaire said. Whether it was a telecommuting policy or offering parental leave, for CIS the key was hearing from staff that it was being consistent around policy and practices. “It’s just doing a better job of defining them and sharing that information. That’s a communication issue,” she said. “At the end of the day, staff feels like they are heard.”
When the new CEO got on board, a culture committee was formed that is run by staff members who volunteer with human resources staff providing guidance and coaching. “It’s an organizational group that puts forth ideas for enhancing our culture,” Godaire said.
Some of what CIS instituted in the past year was based on feedback from employees, such as a telecommuting program that allows staff to work from home up to two days a week.
“Part of the feedback we heard from employees as we did focus groups was that some didn’t know we had a policy, some were doing it all the time, and some felt like they couldn’t do it at all,” Godaire said. “What we were able to do was understand what was important to employees and put forth a standard policy with clear guidelines,” she said.
One of the big asks from its fairly young workforce was for paternal leave benefits for parents who just had a child or adopted a child. CIS is large enough to fall under family medical leave and short-term disability only pays a portion of costs. Parental leave allows for two full weeks of pay during the period that employees are out, she said.
“We started having conversations with people. I wasn’t expecting that, but that was the number one staff issue across the board; it was really important to them,” Godaire said. It wasn’t so much an employee perk as much as for organizational culture. “We have a lot of individuals at that stage of life where they’re starting to have families or thinking about having families. To hear what was important to staff and provide that benefit really added a lot of value,” she said.
Jacksonville, Fla.-based Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) also saw a change at the top though it was more abrupt than the one at CIS. Mike Linnington will mark his second year as CEO this summer, joining after a firestorm of criticism about spending practices that led to a number of executives leaving the nonprofit.
Wounded Warrior Project ranked No. 2 in this year’s report and first among large organizations, returning to the Best Nonprofits top 50 for the first time since 2015. Widespread criticism of spending practices and employee complaints to news outlets swirled as the 2016 Best Nonprofits went to press and an editorial decision was made to pause its participation in that year’s report. Previously, WWP ranked No. 1 in 2011 through 2013.
Linnington joined amid strife but also financial woes, as revenue plummeted following the widespread media attention and even Congressional scrutiny that spring.
“All the changes that we made were made in the spirit and culture of transparency and openness,” Linnington said. “Everyone in our organization knew everything; we over-communicated it,” he said, crediting the many new communication techniques that keep staff informed – – weekly newsletters, all-staff calls, chats with chiefs and vice presidents — and collaboration with other organizations for returning to the Best Nonprofits list.
Like CIS, WWP incorporated input from staff during a two-year planning process for its five-year strategic plan. “Everybody knows where we’re going through 2022,” Linnington said. “We’re committed to being more collaborative and transparent with all our partners,” he said.
“Uncertainty is the death of a lot of organizations,” Linnington said. “It’s why we’ve put such a high premium on absolute, open and clear and transparent communications. It starts with me but goes through the whole organization.”
Linnington declared as in the past the period of uncertainty of early 2016. WWP downsized from about 615 employees in May of that year to about 550 later that year. He expects to be closer to 700 by the end of this fiscal year (September). Financially, WWP is in much better shape after another decline in revenue this past year.
“The last six months of 2017 were much more positive than the last six months of 2016,” Linnington said. “That’s what’s allowed us to grow the number of teammates focused on program delivery,” he said, adding that it could be a year or two before they return to the high water mark of 2015.
Linnington hosts an open conference call with all staff every other week, where employees are encouraged to ask tough questions. “That spirit of collaboration and openness helps us improve,” he said.
“What we were able to do was understand what was important to employees and put forth a standard policy with clear guidelines.” — Dawn Godaire
The calls usually run about an hour, featuring an overview of activities the past couple of weeks and highlighting success stories. After Linnington explains his priorities for the next month or two, specific areas are addressed by those particular leaders and then it’s opened to questions. Employees can send questions anonymously through an instant messaging-type system used for the call, or email questions during the off week of the call that will be answered live on the next call. Questions are read and answered by Linnington or a leader responsible for the area being asked about.
“It’s collegial but a no holds barred kind of forum,” Linnington said. “I kind of enjoy that,” he said of the open calls, which also might address rumors. “When tough questions aren’t asked, that’s when you have a challenge. If we don’t know, we say so and follow up at the next meeting or by email,” he said, adding that a running ledger keeps track of questions to address. “It’s important for others to know they’re valued…stay engaged from top to bottom.”
The all-hands calls have paid dividends, according to Chris Toner, who as chief of staff has oversight of human resources, shared services and IT. “Teammates really feel connected to the organization, they feel like they’re part of it,” he said. Surveys reinforce those aspects and staff can provide solutions to the organization from their own viewpoints. “It’s the most collaborative environment I’ve been in,” Toner said, adding that staff at the lowest levels can make an impact on the whole organization. “I’ve seen it in my 14 months here.”
Questions raised during the call have led to at least one change: a new sick leave policy instituted last year allows for four days annually. “It’s not a big deal but for employees who have their cubemate coughing all day, that’s a big deal,” Linnington said. Employees previously would have to use paid time off (PTO).
The idea for an all-staff call was spawned from an employee survey conducted at the end of 2016. “We published results of that survey, addressed every area,” Linnington said, identifying areas where they can improve and what can be sustained.
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