COVID, DEI, Response To Civil Unrest Set These Best NPOs Apart

It’s not all puppy dogs and ice cream, even at the Best Nonprofits. The United States Tennis Association Mid-Atlantic Section (USTA MAS) rarely has any voluntary turnover among its 21 employees. But like at many nonprofits, the pandemic forced difficult decisions at USTA MAS. The Herndon, Va.-based organization laid off about one-third of its staff this past July. It was among 10 of the Best Nonprofits reporting laying off or furloughing staff during 2020

Still, USTA MAS not only made The NonProfit Times’ Best Nonprofits To Work For list again, it ranked No. 1 among small nonprofits and No. 1 overall in the 2021 edition.

As part of the Best Nonprofits To Work For process, The NonProfit Times works with Harrisburg, Pa.-based Best Companies Group (BCG). Participating nonprofits go through a battery of surveys, including employees, managers and outside vendors. There are 78 questions within eight categories that make up the Employee Benchmark Report (EBR), which compiles the percentage of responses that were “agree somewhat” and agree strongly.” On average, the 50 Best Nonprofits often score higher among those categories than organizations that don’t make the list.

Medium organizations, those with 50 to 249 employees, accounted for almost half of the 50 Best Nonprofits, with 24 honorees. Small organizations, considered those with 15 to 49 employees, nabbed 20 of the 50 spots (40%), including No. 1 and No. 2. There were six large organizations, those with 250 or more employees, that made the final cut.

Overall, Best Nonprofits scored highest relative to their counterparts that didn’t make the list in the categories of Leadership and Planning (+11%), Pay and Benefits (+11%), and Culture and Communications (+10%). Best Nonprofits scored highest in the areas of Work Environment and Overall Engagement, both 95%.

After months of working through the pandemic, Tara Fitzpatrick-Navarro, CEO at USTA MAS, sent each employee a package last October with a personal thank you note for their contributions and extra efforts during the pandemic. The package included a branded mask, Yeti coffee mug, a hooded sweatshirt, T-shirt and tennis ball chocolates.

“I can’t tell you what a giggle it brought to everybody,” Chief Operating Officer Beth Twomey said. “It’s a way for staff to know that she’s thinking of them, and that her door is open, and she’s available, and she’s here to make their life a little bit sweeter,” Twomey said.

“Compassion and a desire to meet a person’s needs permeates the entire organization,” Twomey said. Recognizing that 2020 was a challenging year, Fitzpatrick-Navarro wanted to make sure she could do her part in taking that stress away, even if it was temporary. “She is always looking for ways that she can personalize her outreach to know that each person means something to her and their values and their desires,” Twomey said. “Everything she does is very, very employee centric.”

At Musicians On Call (MOC) in Nashville, Tenn., there’s little turnover and that goes for volunteers as much as it does staff. And, why not? Volunteers get birthday cards and personal calls from President & CEO Pete Griffin and the team. There’s a two-year waiting list to volunteer with the organization, which ranked No. 9 overall and 4th in the small category. “One of our biggest challenges is that our volunteers don’t leave. It’s not only because they love our mission, but how you’re treated as a volunteer,” Griffin said. He estimated he’s sent almost 1,000 personalized videos since the pandemic was declared, short, 60-second thank yous to volunteers or donors.

Videos don’t always come from staff, either. In the midst of the pandemic last year, Griffin sent his team a Cameo, a video-sharing service in which celebrities can send personalized video messages to fans. One was from Brian Baumgartner, who played Kevin on The Office, as well as another from the early pandemic Netflix hit, Tiger King.

Griffin was trying to be supportive of his team but wasn’t gaining much traction. “I was trying to figure out things that can just take people away from the monotony of the Zooms,” he said. "And honestly, the (videos) aren’t expensive to do but it means a lot to people. It tells the team that we’re thinking about them and we just want to enjoy life as best we can,” he said.

“The reality is we spend more time with each other than we do with our families in most cases,” he said. “This is our lives and I tell the team they should come to work every day feeling excited, trusted, respected and challenged about what they’re doing. During the pandemic, it’s no different.”

Griffin said that he realized early in the pandemic that everyone’s experience is unique. Staff living alone have a very different experience than those who are married or have children. “Realizing that, we have very frequent check-ins, every week talking about it, talking about it with each person, not some blanket thing about how we’re handling the pandemic. It’s regular and individualized. And, it’s ongoing. It’s not just put forth as a policy to say we’ve done our part,” he said.

Fun And Games

Flexible hours and working remotely have been stalwart aspects of the Best Nonprofits To Work For during the past decade. Since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, 2020, however, many organizations shifted to a remote work environment where possible to protect employees.

On average, 87% of organizations offered the option of working remotely and half of the Best Nonprofits had 100% of employees working remotely. Once the novelty of living the reality of your favorite science fiction stories by video conference wore off, many Best Nonprofits emphasized not overdoing it. Even science fiction forefathers of  Buck Rodgers and Star Trek took a break and didn’t spend all day on video calls. is headquartered in Claremont, Calif., but it’s been essentially a virtual organization for much of its almost 20 years, with staff working remotely from all over the country. So as far as the pandemic, working from home was not a big shift.

“It was business as usual for us. We didn’t miss a step,” said Executive Director Abbie Moore. “We spent a long time learning from trial and error and how to function really well when we’re not in the same room,” she explained. “It’s kind of an art to building a culture and making people feel part of something.” Adopt-A-Pet ranked 15th overall and 5th among small nonprofits.

“We really make a point of building in opportunities for people to socialize and do things in a way that feels organic,” Moore said. “We need to trust each other and make people feel vulnerable together. That’s what cements relationships,” she said. There can be drawbacks to working from home, like no opportunity to run into colleagues in the hallway, for instance. “We’ve worked hard to create opportunities for people to just get together and sometimes asynchronously.”

There’s Fun Fact Friday, a Question of the Day in Slack channels, and every other Friday is Game Day, where staff play a game online. “In that way, we learn fun things about each other,” Moore said, and it’s more organic than going around to each person and asking how they’re doing. “That felt a little stilted,” she said. “We’ve learned that it’s really conducive to have organic fun and conversation. We make sure we build fun into everything we do.”

Fun and games via Slack, happy hours and virtual parties on Zoom, Webex or Teams was a staple among Best Nonprofits this year. At the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) in St. Paul, there’s an open Zoom for coffee breaks most mornings from 9 to 9:30 a.m. Some staff log on pretty reliably and like that social time, CEO Kathryn Hoffman said.

Staff meets as a complete team once a week for 45 minutes and fun calls take place about monthly. “It’s nice to get together once in a while and not have a work agenda,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said she encourages staff to block off time on their calendar to specifically not take meetings and move away from the computer screen. “I encourage them to log off email, Slack, things like that if you want to get focused work done,” she said, and transition one-on-one and small meetings to phone calls rather than Zoom calls. “You don’t have to be staring at a screen.”

Hoffman has tried to create a culture of people taking breaks during the day, whether that’s from the computer screen or work generally. One employee goes cross-country skiing most days from 1 to 2 p.m. “We don’t want to be stringent, ‘Oh, you can’t do that, it’s work hours,’” she said. “It’s a signal to all employees that says, it’s okay to take a break during the day.”

Employee well-being is emphasized, and not just from a screen or health perspective. The organization hired a consulting firm to examine salaries and benchmark them against similar positions in national markets, she said. “What we want to do is make sure we’re at least at the median, if not above,” she said.

Subject matter and longevity matters at MCEA, according to Hoffman and she would rather support employees through life changes and avoid costly turnover. That’s why the organization added a three-month paid leave policy, to deal with life changes like an illness or parental leave, in addition to bringing up salaries. MCEA ranked No. 26 overall and 12th among small nonprofits.

“No meeting Wednesdays” at the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) in Denver, Colo., is typically when staff get together for what they call their “Bear Caves.” It’s a focused day of work to avoid back-to-back meetings and constantly changing gears to ensure employees have space they need to have that thinking time, according to President & CEO Tiffany Grunert.

“Bear Caves” is dedicated work time using the Pomodoro Technique, basically a to-do list and a timer. It’s done at MAF about once every other week, usually for two to three hours with breaks. After the 45 to 50 minutes, staff report to colleagues what progress they’ve made and then take five minutes to refill their water or coffee or take a bathroom break. All of this occurs via Zoom.

“One of the things we’ve missed is simply working together, not necessarily a meeting and working on a problem but simply being in the same space,” Grunert said. “It’s really about having focused work, settling down and being very thoughtful about what you need to achieve next. Then working in silence side by side with your colleagues, then taking a break. You just leave your camera on and it just feels like someone’s in the office next to you.”

Brass Tacks

Within culture and communications, all organizations regardless of size score highly on the statement, “Staffing levels are adequate to provide products/services.” Overall, Best Nonprofits posted 86% positive responses compared with just 66% at organizations that didn’t make it. Across Best Nonprofits of all sizes, the margin was at least 16%.

Jackie Didio started as executive director of The Children and Family Networks in February, 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was ramping up. The early childhood education provider in Alexandria, Va., ranked No. 33 and was 16th among small organizations. Amidst the pandemic, Didio said they looked at employee benefits to provide a boost to the team, “even if it meant digging into the budget.”

The 60-day waiting period for employee benefits was waived for new hires to make sure people had insurance. Teachers got two weeks of spring break instead of one, not only as a mental health break but also finding substitutes has been so difficult, Didio said. They also received an extra $500 per month while other employees got a $1,500 “work-from-home stipend.” All staff received unlimited time off for COVID-related illness and five extra days off as mental health days. “We recognized that it’s a very stressful time,” Didio said.

The organization is conducting a salary compensation review to potentially adjust salaries “to make sure we’re above average,” Didio said. She plans an overhaul of employee benefits, too.

One of the first things Grunert said she did when she became the boss at MAF was to consciously change the culture. It’s paid off. Staff turnover dropped from 38% in 2018 to 19% in 2019 and 8% in 2020. MAF was No. 35 overall and No. 17 within small nonprofits.

“There were a lot of changes in leadership at the time, a lot of turmoil. The foundation didn’t have any core values,” she said. Grunert set about to implement core values along with the HR team and followed that with a total rewards program. “Basically it spells out how you’re going to behave at work, what the expectations are, and we held people accountable,” she said.

Most people said during exit interviews they left because MAF was not competitive with salary and benefits, she said.

“Culture is something you need to value and nurture, just like any relationship. As we’ve done that, we’ve seen so much value in productivity, again lowering the turnover. It’s been a wonderful investment,” Grunert said.

MAF also changed vacation leave and created a pay-for-performance model that incentivizes staff with annual goals, sets and reviews pay ranges based on job descriptions to remain competitive with other organizations, whether nonprofit or for-profit.

Overall, 36% of Best Nonprofits paid 100% of medical coverage premiums compared with 18% of employers not on the list. Employee bonus and incentive programs are widely popular at the Best Nonprofits Some 88% of Best Nonprofits offer bonus and incentive programs compared with 61% of nonprofits that didn’t make the list.

For all the initiatives and groups that organizations put together to keep their employees happy and productive, sometimes it just comes down to the bottom line. So, it’s not surprising that pay and benefits scored highly on the Employee Benchmark Report. Within that category, the statement “My pay is fair for the work I perform” was greeted with positive responses far more at Best Nonprofits, particularly large organizations. The payoff isn’t always immediate.

At the American Arbitration Association in New York City, 97% of eligible employees are satisfied with retirement benefits. With a company match and discretionary deferral on the retirement plan, the average employee is saving 17% a year, according to Eric Dill, senior vice president.

The association, which ranked No. 12 overall and 2nd among large nonprofits, is focused on helping staff prepare for retirement. Dill said they’ve increased education about retirement savings, promoted the 403(b) plan, boosted the match, covered administrative fees and provided an annual 4% discretionary contribution.

The association set a goal last year to have 95% voluntary participation and an average employee deferral rate of 9%. They hit 95% participation but 8.3% on deferrals.

Then there’s always cold hard cash. At Century Housing Corporation (CHC), employees receive a certificate and cash awards on their service anniversaries every two to three years and sometimes surprise gift certificates. Employees who become U.S. citizens receive an American flag -- and a $1,000 cash gift. That’s occurred three times during the past four years, according to Fern Hendrickson, vice president, human resources. “It’s another way to reward our employees with cash but also recognize those people who step forward, take the test and become citizens,” she said.

CHC, based in Culver City, Calif., is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and ranked No. 21 overall and No. 10 among medium organizations in this year’s competition.

Within Training, Development and Resources, questions about initial and ongoing training, as well as encouragement to explore growth and advancement opportunities, scored at least 10% higher or more among Best Nonprofits versus those that didn’t make the list.

Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida is in the midst of an eight-month leadership program for managers, directors and supervisors. The Orlando-based legal aid nonprofit ranked No. 10 overall and 6th among medium organizations.

A thought leader in the area of leadership is invited in to speak every fourth Thursday, according to Nadia Soulouque, director of human resources. A week before the class, small group meetings are held with leadership to discuss material and get prepared. “Our goal for that is to have leadership courses trickle down to staff once it’s done with leaders,” she said.

The current cohort has 27 employees and that includes anyone who is a director or functions as a manager of a department that has staff reporting to them or a supervisor or has supervisor duties.

One module focuses on power and influence while others target transformative leadership in disruptive times, and leading with emotion.

“Employees are looking for mastery, autonomy and purpose. As months go by, we delve into more leadership topics and the goal is really to have our leadership look at their personal leadership plan,” Soulouque said.

Before the cohort started, Soulouque said 360-degree evaluations were completed on each participant with the results sent to all leadership so they know how they’re perceived by their peers, the boss and subordinates.

“One of things that I noticed, I couldn’t get enough traction from leadership on, a lot of people who were in management roles were kind of ‘battlefield promoted,’” President & CEO Jeff Harvey said.

“My background -- primarily military -- is rooted in the art and science of leadership,” Harvey said. “I could see a lot of problems the organization was struggling with, that we didn’t have people who knew how to practice in the art,” he said.

Wage increases and more compensation are always a plus for employees but Harvey also emphasized giving staff the opportunity to grow as people and learn skills that are applicable anywhere.

“There’s just some things you can’t fix with a webinar,” Harvey said. Most leadership are promoted from within or are lawyers and they do their jobs well but it may be their first leadership position. “It’s important to have something like this to help them build on that side of the position,” he said.

Back In The Office

 Like many Best Nonprofits, CHC would typically have a number of employee gatherings in person throughout the year, whether it was a summer kickoff barbecue, Thanksgiving feast, celebrations of birthdays or service anniversaries. “We miss all that since the pandemic,” Hendrickson said, and leadership has promised the biggest party yet once it’s safe to do so.

To protect employees after the pandemic outbreak, CHC staff who could, worked remotely. Some staff are back working one to two days a week in the office but others -- particularly those in supportive housing developments -- cannot work remotely because they’re considered essential, Hendrickson said.

“More people are working remotely because we have learned that we can do this and meeting our obligations,” Hendrickson said. Even those who might not be able to work remotely -- like essential staff in supporting housing developments -- have shifted their work environment.

Leaders at CHC have allowed them to swing to a four-day work week. “People are under a great deal of pressure during the pandemic. This allows them time to take care of Zoom school, and parents and grandparents,” she said.

Some of the changes could be permanent. “We probably are never all going back to the eight-hour day,” Hendrickson said.

The Travis Manion Foundation (TMF) in Doylestown, Pa., has been a Best Nonprofit for three consecutive years. This year it ranked No. 22 overall and 9th among small nonprofits. It’s not uncommon to have most of its 49 employees working at numerous locations around the country and with varying schedules. Still, even before the pandemic, employees would gather a few times a year for events or conferences.

Chief Operating Officer Josh Jabin said they’ve learned that they don’t need to be in an office every day from 9-to-5 but it’s also about finding the right balance with remote work. A common theme among recent staff surveys, however, is that they’re looking forward to getting back to in-person and spending more time with teammates and members they support.

“There’s middle ground there we need to find,” Jabin said, and relationships and camaraderie have taken a hit since the pandemic. “You do the best you can under the circumstances but it doesn’t replace in-person, face-to-face interaction.” NPT


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