In preschool, my children learned the “life rules” of respect, responsibility, honesty, and kindness. These rules offer a pathway to a life well lived—and they ring as true on the playground as they do in the boardroom. After 19 years in nonprofit executive director roles, I’m convinced that when an organization embraces these tenets, it results in a culture of care that can yield dedicated staff and volunteers; superior-quality work; and high impact, mission-driven outcomes. In a culture of care, an employer's commitment manifests in meaningful ways, including compensation, investment in professional development, and uplifting rituals and traditions of appreciation. A culture of care motivates individuals to be their best professional selves, which in turn delivers better results. The bottom line is that how we treat people matters.
Faced with limited resources and competing priorities, nonprofit leaders often wrestle with how to create this culture. Here are some of the ways that our organization—with a 19-person staff and an annual budget of $2.1 million—fosters caring without compromising work quality.
1. Start with recruitment. A culture of care should be evident from a person’s very first encounter with your organization. A unique component of our hiring process is an all-staff “meet and greet”—a 30- to 45-minute, informal session where job candidates can talk candidly with employees without direct supervisors or the executive director present. This exercise also allows current staff to meet prospective hires. In addition, I meet individually with every new staffer within her or his first month to get better acquainted; talk about organizational culture; and discuss Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements, a gift that we ask each new employee to read.
2. Establish organizational rituals and traditions. Maya Angelou once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” At Safe Shores, we take these words to heart. We are intentional in our efforts to establish traditions and foster morale:
- We budget a modest amount (less than $1,500 annually) to support staff morale. The “Treat Yo’ Self” Committee, a voluntary group of staff members, organizes social activities that take into account the diverse interests and life stages of our staff.
- We host an annual holiday luncheon, using credit card points to keep it affordable. We also celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries, where we give greeting cards signed by the entire staff.
- Each spring I organize a staff-appreciation celebration, during which employees enjoy breakfast, notes of thanks from board members, and a gift bag with novelty items and gift cards (donated by board members).
- Bi-weekly staff meetings provide an opportunity for connection, updates, and shared learning. Leadership responsibility rotates so that different staff members have ownership of the agenda, refreshments, and group learning or self-care activity.
3. Make meaningful investments in people. We invest time, energy, and money in:
- Generous benefits. In addition to sector-appropriate salaries, we offer generous annual and sick leave; birthday comp time; quality medical, dental, and vision insurance (partially underwritten by our organization); short- and long-term disability; and a flex-spending plan. After one year, the organization contributes to each employee’s 403(b) plan. We also have a small gym on site to promote health and wellness. To stay current on employee needs, we conduct an annual poll to solicit opinions and suggestions about benefits and organizational rituals and traditions.
- Professional development. Our annual budget affords every staff member the opportunity to attend at least one conference or training, purchase books, and/or participate in classes that will advance the goals they develop with their supervisor.
- Ongoing mentorship. Managers invest in the success of new hires and the continued professional development of those they supervise. They schedule regular check-ins on a biweekly basis, though informal meetings happen informally throughout each week.
It’s important to note that these benefits and policies, and the highly capable staff that we can attract and retain through them, would not be possible without an engaged, supportive board of directors that understands how our organization works, respects staff, and appreciates the impact we can make.
4. Hold people accountable with care. Professionals drawn to our organization hold themselves to high standards, but we are all human. When someone makes a mistake, our response is constructive and solution-oriented. We once lost some funding because of an internal error, and the staff member responsible for it felt terrible. Instead of blame, my response focused first on reassurance and understanding, and then on the teachable moment. The pertinent question was, “What can we learn from this?”—and we both identified ways to prevent repeating the same mistake.
Caring Really Does Work
Fostering a culture of care strengthens our organization. We see this in our recruitment efforts—current employees call Safe Shores a great place to work and refer new job applicants. Clients and other visitors consistently comment on the kind and helpful nature of our staff. People tell us that in spite of the difficult work we do, they get a good feeling from the moment they enter our building—their reception is welcoming, genuine, and professional.
Fostering a culture of care is a constant work in progress, but a recent email from a colleague suggests we’re on track: “I am so grateful for the way my life is coming together. As we spend the majority of our time at work, I truly believe the incredible environment I’m so lucky to work in is a huge part of that. ... I want to thank you all for promoting and sustaining a culture of self-care and care for others.”
To leaders who want to build an organization where staff members approach work, colleagues, and results with engagement, diligence, and optimism, I offer this advice: Follow the “life rules” as you build your organizational culture. They work just as well for adults as they do for kids.