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Best Nonprofits 2022: Amusement Breeds Exuberance

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88% of workers at medium-sized NPOs ‘have fun at work’

Increased donations to certain silos of nonprofits notwithstanding, 2020 and 2021 were solidly awful years. Professional and personal stresses skyrocketed, whether due to heightened demand for services, uncertainty about some nonprofits’ abilities to be going concerns, family issues or any of a number of other troubles.

These stresses might have been why, when leaders from the best medium-sized nonprofits discussed their employee strategies, their conversations often included a word that didn’t previously occur to them: fun.

According to The NonProfit Times’ Best Nonprofits To Work For, employees at 88% of the best medium-sized nonprofits (those with between 50 and 249 employees) agree with the statement: “At this organization, employees have fun at work.” That’s seven percentage points greater than the medium-sized nonprofits that didn’t make the cut.

Leaders at the American Kidney Fund in Rockville, Md., underwrote virtual breakfasts by sending employees cash cards that allowed them to eat “together” while on a morning video call. They also held virtual events and contests that, while they did not directly speak to the organization’s mission, affirmed tenets such as its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

“We had an observance for Black History Month,” President and CEO LaVarne A. Burton said. “We came together on a Wednesday afternoon and played a game with questions about Black history.”

Like leaders at most of the best nonprofits, Burton understands the value of DEI initiatives. Employees at 92% of all nonprofits on the Best Nonprofits to Work For list believe their organizations enable a culture of diversity, compared with only 85% of nonprofits that did not make the list.

The best medium-sized nonprofits, however, lagged both their larger and smaller counterparts on this score, with only 91% of employees agreeing with the statement, compared with 93% of the largest nonprofits and 95% of the smallest ones. The best medium-sized nonprofits similarly fell behind larger and smaller organizations when employees were asked whether they agreed with the statement: “This organization makes a strong effort to minimize discrimination.” Only 93% of employees at medium-sized organizations agreed, compared with 94% of those at the largest organizations and 96% of those at the smallest.

Game-based celebrations, such as the ones hosted by American Kidney Fund leaders, offer one way to bring healthy dynamics into an organization in a fun manner. Other organizations imbued work-beneficial activities with a similar sense of fun. A book club that has existed for several years at Cure 4 The Kids Foundation in Las Vegas alternates pleasure reading with business and group dynamic offerings, such as Cy Wakeman’s No Ego.

Cure 4 The Kids Foundation also hosts Spirit Weeks, which mix a serious topic, such as employee training, with family-friendly events.

“It brings levity to the work we do,” said Founder and CEO Annette Logan-Parker. “When we do a Spirit Week with Infection Control Week, we focus the training that needs to happen with the clinical staff, patients and parents along the week’s theme. Then we have fun.”

CAF America offers ongoing diversity training and frequent seminars on implementing a culture of diversity.

Spirit Week activities include door decorating contests, Disney Day, ice cream socials, costume parties or Talk Like a Pirate Day, in which participants receive pirate accoutrements and Pirate’s Booty snacks.

At the Morris Animal Foundation in Denver, Colo., leaders use “bear caves” to bring a sense of camaraderie, team spirit and renewed focus to remote workers, especially those who have had difficulty to working outside of an office.

“Folks have a lot of distractions at home,” President and CEO Tiffany Grunert said. “A bear cave allows everyone to work in a Zoom setting. You have a leader who sets the tone — sometimes they use fun music, and they usually kick it off with a fun question like ‘How do you get into focus mode? What are the songs you like?’ Some employees create Spotify playlists for the bear caves.”

Employees announce the tasks they are working on, and then everyone does a 45-minute “sprint” in which they focus on their assignment. They then take a break, update the others on the call on their progress, and return to work for another 45-minute sprint.

“It’s a little more structure for when you can be really distracted at home,” Grunert said.

Camaraderie among dispersed workers is boosted by the fact that many of these employees like working with each other. Within the best mid-sized nonprofits, agreement with the statement “I like the people I work with at this organization” stood at 97%, compared with 93% for those who competed but did not make the list. Given that one toxic co-worker can make an otherwise pleasant work environment untenable, that’s a big jump.

The Travis Manion Foundation, where 71% of the executive team is female, makes a habit of being a Best Nonprofit To Work For.

For some nonprofits, a healthy organization culture starts before the hire. Several leaders from the best medium-sized nonprofits described multi-step pre-hire processes. These included meeting employees from other teams and personality tests to determine whether an individual is a good fit for an open position. Cure 4 The Kids Foundation’s Logan-Parker was only half-joking when she said her organization’s process put a lot of effort into deterring people from joining it.

“We do behavioral-based advertising [for open positions] so we’re attracting people who want this type of environment, because it’s not for everyone,” Logan-Parker said. “We’re in childhood cancer and rare diseases, which is one of the more heart-wrenching departments within healthcare. We almost try to talk people out of working for us because we tell them the good, the bad and the ugly. Then we say, ‘Are you interested in continuing the conversation?’ Ironically, some of the people who have declined to continue the interview process have become donors because they love what we do, even though they knew it wouldn’t be a fit for them.”

Once the best nonprofits have employees, they work hard to keep them well. While 93% of employees at the best medium-sized nonprofits said organization leaders care about their well-being, that percentage lagged the 98% of employees from the best small nonprofits who agreed with the statement and was only slightly better than the 92% at the best large nonprofits. Still, 93% means most employees at the medium-sized nonprofits do not feel slighted, and leaders at these organizations often mentioned initiatives implemented during the last two years that focus on mental health.

At Girls Who Code, a New York Citybased nonprofit that seeks to close the gender gap in computer science, leadership gave workers an extra week of paid time off for rest and recharging purposes. They also provided access to three meditation or wellness apps.

“Headspace was probably the most well-known of the apps but Shine and Liberate were apps created by women of color,” said Vice President, People & Culture Jana Chandler-Ligon.

Leaders also instituted wellness checks, in which members of the people and culture team and executives scheduled virtual coffee breaks with employees. That practice will continue even as Girls Who Code returns to an office-based workforce.

Girls Who Code’s leadership also acknowledged that its primarily female workforce faced additional challenges during the past two years. “The pandemic has been challenging for working parents,” Chandler-Ligon said. “We offer 12 weeks of paid parental leave in addition to any parental leave provided by [an employee’s] state. At the start of the pandemic, we created a Parent Connect Slack [intra-office communication network] channel for parents and caregivers to share photos, resources, best practices and childcare recommendations. We also created quarterly coffee chats for them, and we have age and stage breakout conversations.”

Among the medium-sized best nonprofits, increased attention to staff well-being is having a positive effect. Several representatives at the best medium-sized nonprofits noted internal satisfaction rates have been increasing even amid the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff at Kinexus Group like to find ways to have a monster of a good time.

One factor in the satisfaction uptick might be that employees appreciate being freed from the downside of office life, such as rigid schedules, commuting and greater opportunities for micromanagement. People appreciate the greater flexibility,” said American Kidney Fund’s Burton, adding that with schools closed, flexible schedules were especially important to parents. Those with very young children especially liked being able to give their kids time during the day while making up work in the evening.

Another reason why internal satisfaction scores have risen might be that organizational leaders had an opportunity to tangibly demonstrate their concern and support for workers. “We immediately went into personal protective equipment acquisition mode, and we never went without appropriate safety measures,” said Cure 4 The Kids Foundation’s Logan-Parker. “We started having a commissary and feeding [staff] so they didn’t have to go out. Satisfaction increased because they realized that when times got tough, we were in the fight with them.”

Others acknowledged the road was bumpy, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. “We definitely did see some dips in satisfaction when we went fully remote,” Morris Animal Foundation’s Grunert said. “We had to change things overnight. We did a lot to alleviate communication and workload issues — everything from reformatting our meetings and bringing more clarity to our all-hands meetings to creating No Meetings Monday, which is a great way to get ready for the week. The satisfaction and communication ratings are really improving.”

Perhaps the best measure of what makes a best nonprofit at which to work is the premise marketing guru Fred Reichheld stated in his 2006 book The Ultimate Question: a company’s health is best measured by its customers’ willingness to recommend it to others who could use its products or service.

If this is the case, at least one medium-sized best nonprofit fits the bill. “At Girls Who Code, we conduct employee engagement surveys twice a year,” said Chandler-Ligon. “We are very proud of our current level of employee engagement, which is based on how strongly employees agree with the statement that they would recommend Girls Who Code as a great place to work, that they rarely think about looking for a job at another company and they are proud to work at Girls Who Code.”

Unfortunately, the best medium-sized nonprofits lag their larger and smaller brethren on this measurement. Employees at 90% of the best medium-sized nonprofits said they would recommend their workplaces to friends. But among employees at the largest of the best nonprofits, 92% agreed with the statement, as did 95% of employees at the smallest organizations. What makes this measurement even more disturbing is that, among the larger and smaller nonprofits, the differences between the best and the rest is significant. Both the largest and smallest Best Nonprofits scored 12 percentage points greater than the nonprofits in their size category that did not make the best list.

Among the medium-sized nonprofits, however, there was only a six-point difference. Assuming Reichheld is correct, the best medium-sized nonprofits have their work cut out for them in examining why their ratings for this key attribute are lagging.

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