organizational culture

The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of FSG

Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


Denver: Much of the breakthrough thinking has occurred in addressing the most vexing social issues that challenge global society has come from an organization by the name of FSG. And that is where we will be going to this evening! To 1020 19th Street North West in their Washington DC offices. I asked members of the FSG team about working there and this is what they had to say.

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Hayling: So what I love about FSG is that there’s one part of my brain that views a lot of these, frankly, social justice issues as market failures, so I’m able to layer on my grad school rigor lens on issues that I care about from an ethical and moral perspective. But then also engage with those who are hopefully beneficiaries of the work and create a vision that makes sense for their work.

Rahfin:  When I think about what stands out for me at FSG, it’s that every piece of work, every project we’re on has a clear line of sight to the world and the impact that it can generate

Ursula: I will also say in that same vein of having no hierarchy… instead of having traditional sort of bosses, if you will, managers, FSG does not take that approach. People have what we call PDLs — professional development leaders. And because we are, by and large, generalists working on different projects across different geographies, people have that constant PDL who help to coach their professional development, help them understand how they can sort of engage in projects that would satiate them in the most satisfying of ways. But it’s not a traditional boss, and the absence of that boss I think again, contributes to a spirit of camaraderie and co-creation that you really don’t find in any other places.

Neeraja: I’ve really seen the magic and the power of the work that we do through this particular work that we’ve been doing over the past few years. We’ve had people who are so steeped in the technical expertise say to us, “We’ve never thought about this this way. You’ve helped us tremendously. You kind of helped us figure out how to move forward.” You’re actually facilitating progress in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to do. And when that happens it is both humbling, exciting, and a little bit surprising because you’re sitting there with people who’ve had expertise in these areas for so long. But it’s having someone to be able to bring the strategic lens, helping bring the facilitation skills to actually help people pull up from all of the expertise that they have and make sense of everything that they’re working on.

And this has really kind of have come to life for me on some work that I’m doing right now on helping to support accelerating the market introduction of new HIV prevention products in South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe. And that work has really had us entering rooms full of people with MDs, PhDs, longtime experts on HIV prevention, longtime advocates on HIV and I have to admit there’s a lot of trepidation when you walk into those rooms wondering if you almost have a right to be there, if you can really help push this issue forward with people who have been working on it for decades and to have all the technical expertise that comes with these topics in global health.

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The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of Feedback Labs

Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


Denver: We have visited many organizations with thousands and thousands of employees and discussed issues of work culture with them. Most nonprofits, however, have just a few employees who are often asked to wear many hats. And this evening, you will visit one of the very best of that breed, Feedback Labs. We’ll start with Dennis Whittle, who was a guest on the show recently, and then hear from the other members of this lean and multi-talented staff.

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Dennis: I’m pleased about several things about this team. One is that any of us—not just me, but any of us can be photocopying one moment and at the White House co-hosting a meeting the next moment. We can be at the World Bank, the White House, a major foundation, leading that meeting and then reassembling back here and preparing for the next one. And what I like best about the team is almost anybody on the team can interchangeably perform those functions. Many teams are very hierarchical where only the top person does it and everybody else serves him or her – that is not the way we operate.

Megan: So there’s still a culture of working hard, but I appreciate the role modeling of “You have other parts of your life. They’re important, too. It’s up to you to figure out how do you work hard and do what’s expected of you, which is a lot, but also figure out the rest of your life and have room for that.” So I appreciate that.

Meg: I think the culture of excellence that Megan touched on also relates to me of the way in which all of us on the Feedback Labs teams do relate to each other, and that the fact that there’s an expectation of excellence in all of the work that we do enables us to have high expectations for ourselves, which enables us as a team to support each other and cut each other some slack when that needs to happen.

And so I think there have been several examples of times when I know I will beat myself up over something I didn’t get in in time. Or if there’s something that I need some help and didn’t realize I was going to need the support that I did, where Sarah and Megan and Dennis and Jordan – everyone is willing to jump in and are able to do so very willingly and graciously without making me feel like I am slacking on that bit of excellence, that we all kind of hold ourselves to such high standards and we all know that each [other are] doing that. And because of that, we have this culture where we respect each other, we know the work is getting done and therefore we’re happy to jump in where we can. And that’s really, really meaningful to me because I know we’ve all had opportunities where we’ve needed that and it just happens without needing to ask for it, and that’s great.

Sarah: To reflect Dennis’ excellence point, we accomplish the work of a 50-person organization with a 4-person organization, and that’s just because we think we can and we go out and do it. And I’m really proud of that fact. But I also think that we are realistic and we take care of each other and that’s how we can continue to do the amount of work and the quality of work that we do.

And so we have the opportunity to be really small, really agile, and spend some of our time thinking really critically about the extra-curricular parts of our job. So whether it’s editing or whether it’s copying or whether it’s graphic design, who really likes to do that thing? How can we shift our work around so that our job is pleasurable and not only sort of effective? But I do think still that bringing your full self to work is critical when there’s only four of you because you don’t have time for interpersonal friction. You just have to kind of lay it on the table, deal with it and move past it.

Dennis: Part of the requirement is to create magic. And I say this quite often – we can’t succeed as a small team in changing the world if we don’t create magic for the people who come into contact with us. So we don’t even do all the work. A lot of people do the work with us. And they do the work with us because whenever they come into contact with Feedback Labs, they feel good. They feel that we are helping make them productive; that we are helping them project their values and the change that they want to see into the world. And so the experience that we create is one thing that I emphasize over and over, probably ad nauseam to everybody, but I’m really proud that the team, that all of us combined create a sense of magic, whether it be at the Summit or whether it be day-to-day work with the people that we come into contact with or with our 200 and some organizations that make part of the feedback network.

Megan: This drumbeat of interacting with the wider 200-plus organization network that really is Feedback Labs, I think keeps us asking: What do the people – the feedback champions who we’re here to support – what are they trying to do and how can we support them to do it? And then how do we bring magic to doing that?

I think the fact that our focus is always there and that we’re asking ourselves how do we do that with excellence, I think keeps us focused on the right thing.

Denver: I want to thank Dennis Whittle, the Executive Director of Feedback Labs and the other who participated in this piece: Sarah Hennessy, Megan Campbell and Meg VanDeusen. You can get this audio, transcript, and pictures just by visiting denverfrederick.wordpress.com.

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The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of Meals on Wheels America

Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


Denver: If you take the Blue Line out of Washington, it will bring you to Arlington, Virginia, the home of the oldest and largest national organization representing local Meals on Wheels programs, Meals on Wheels America. We’re going to begin with their president and CEO, Ellie Hollander and then you will hear from the dedicated members of the Meals on Wheels America staff. 

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Ellie: We have four staff who work off-site.  We’re very supportive of flexible work arrangements, but we never want to lose sight of them. And so, literally, whenever we have staff meetings, we actually have cutouts–which you could see if you wanted to look, Denver–of our four team members and we bring them into the room and always have them sitting around the table. We have cutouts of their faces, glossy, so that they’re always present because we believe that we’re all in this together and we don’t want to ever forget there are colleagues who are sitting with us around the table.

Patrick: I’ve been here for just over a year and I started in April. My birthday is in early June, and I recall something that made an impact on me very early on. It was I came in on June 7 and I had a voice mail, and at that point, a lot of people weren’t calling me because I was pretty new. And the voice mail was someone singing “Happy Birthday,” and it was Ellie, our CEO, calling and leaving me a message singing “Happy Birthday.” And that’s really made an impression on me about people caring for one another here.

Sopha: Every Friday, we try to do what’s called our Friday Jam, which is around 45 minutes until the end of the work day. We try to gather together and we pick someone to create a playlist and play some jams and we just chill out and discuss our week, discuss what we’re doing for the weekend and just try to mingle with each other and chill out.

Jenny:  So I think something that keeps us really connected to our mission is the fact that we volunteer with local Meals on Wheels programs in the area. We have a route every month and two employees can sign up to go and deliver meals. So while obviously that’s—we work for Meals on Wheels and it’s something we’re connected to, it’s really helpful to stay connected to the actual boots on the ground mission, why we show up every day. And co-worker bonding, you maybe get paired with someone you don’t work with all the time so it’s great for bonding. You get to drive around and meet a lot of really cool seniors. So I think the fact that that volunteering part is instilled into the entire organization is really great.

Emily: I’ve been with the organization for just under 10 years at this point, and it’s been an absolute blast seeing the organization grow but also seeing how my career has grown over that timeframe and how Meals on Wheels has invested in me and allowed me to go to conferences—and not just the local ones—and learn so much about so many different topics and has allowed me to explore new fields. So I have actually transitioned from one department to another, started a whole new career path that I never expected to see myself on, especially with the college degree that I got, I’m now doing technical stuff, which I never would’ve thought. And it’s exciting. It’s a challenge every day and I love it. It’s really fun challenge.

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Antonette: But we try to make it a life of not just work but also fun. We try to make it exciting and other thigns to do for us to have an opportunity to get together and just be together and have fun as opposed to just working.

Jenny: I’d like to speak a little bit about how we kind of break down silos. Our annual conference is a really great time each year. I like to prefer to it as it kind of feels like summer camp and everyone kind of takes off their role/hat and bands together and does things across all departments and really just pitches in, whether it’s carrying boxes around or staffing one of the training sessions or anything like that. People don’t care like “Oh, well, I’m on the leadership team, I’m not going to help out here” or anything like that. It’s three days of really intense—it’s hard work but we really bond during that time. So it’s conferences that time every year where every one really comes together.

Ellie:  So four times a year, we actually will be providing feedback as managers to our staff and as staff to our managers, and have the ability to automate peer feedback like a 360 but for development purposes and in real time. I think that’s really important because all of us are committed to doing the best we can, and we have an annual staff retreat where we do review the results of our employee survey and we don’t let ourselves get off the hook.

Crystal: And one of the things that I love about Meals on Wheels America is that we did kind of like a work style assessment and it’s called DISC. And it’s been really helpful for me in this work environment to realize oh, yes, not everyone has a work style like myself, but then when I’m thinking about “Oh, okay. I’m going to work with this person. How should I approach them and how should I think about working with them to be an effective colleague?” So I really like that.

Antonette: What do you brag about to friends and family about working at Meals on Wheels America? I would like to say I think I work with the best group of people that I think I’d ever worked with in my career. We enjoy being with each other and that counts a lot.

Patrick: I think it’s worth noting how our office space really reflects not just like the culture of the organization but also the mission. So we have a very open concept with our workspace. We have sort of cubes but not wall cubes, so everything is very open, everyone can see other and speak with each other. But the walls are very colorful. They have our brand colors. We have bright greens and blues. We have wide windows that let in the light. So the whole environment is very light and cheerful, but it’s also…it’s modest yet uplifting. And I think that’s what Meals on Wheels America and our local programs across the country are all about.

Ellie: The other special week I like to spotlight is Spirit Week. You heard a little bit about our annual conference. We do send our employees – all of our employees – to conference because it’s the only chance they get to actually see our members. And we’re a membership organization so we want to never lose sight of who we’re here to support and the seniors that they serve. But there’s so much work that goes into even before we get to conference site. So there’s at least a week or 10 days where we’re meeting every day, we’re pulling together programs, we’re doing name badges, we’re doing whatever. And to keep the spirit, we call it Spirit Week, and each day, we vote on a different way you can dress. So my favorite day is Pajama Day. Every year, I vote for Pajama Day and they let me have it.

Denver: I want to thank Ellie Hollander for opening up their offices to The Business of Giving and to all the others who participated: Jenny Bertolette Young, Emily Persson, Crystal Espy, Antonette Russell, Patrick Bradley and Sopha Sar. Come to denverfrederick.wordpress.com for this podcast, transcript and pictures of the participants and the offices of Meals on Wheels America and hey, while you’re there, listen to my full interview with Ellie Hollander

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The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of Oxfam

 

Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


Denver: And we’re off to visit the offices of Oxfam which are located right next door to the TD Garden in Boston where both the Celtics and Bruins play their games. For those not familiar with Oxfam, it was founded in 1942 and it’s a global movement of people working together to end injustice and poverty. And as you’re about to hear, the people who work there find it to be a very special place indeed. 

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AndreaIf you’re creative and ambitious, you can do whatever you want here and try all kinds of different things here and still feel like you have a culture that supports youI’ve had many managers over the years and the culture of Oxfam has been the same that you work hard, you do your job, you support your colleagues and you go home to your life. And at the same time, what we’re doing here is contributing, you feel everyday like you’re doing something that’s helping people

EmilyI’m a boomerang Oxfam, Oxfam where I left and I came back, because it really is a unique place to work and it has a really welcoming environment that people here we work really closely together and because of that passion I think we feel really united and that there is a family aspect to it, we joke about calling at the Ox family. And there is that sense of unity here that I think doesn’t exist in other workplaces that we’re in it together, we’re fighting, sometimes really terrible issues, humanitarian crises, people who were literally on the edge of life and death and we’re in it together. And I think that is what’s really big about this workplace.

Oliver: One of the things that’s been consistent about my relationship with my managers is the freedom and the autonomy that they’ve given me to do my job and at the same time the support that they’ve given me. When I need help, when I need support, when I need assistance, struggling through a difficult problem or a difficult situation, they’re always there. But if that isn’t the situation, they back off and give me the freedom to go out and do my job and trust. They trust that I will go out and get my job done when it needs to be done and in the way that they expect it to be done. I’ve worked in a lot of organizations that have managers that tend to micromanage and I would be constantly reporting back about every single thing that I did, and that is not the case here

Bridget: I never worked for an organization where I felt like all of me, my whole person was able to be expressed in the organization and I think that’s what’s unique about working in a social justice organization, I think it’s what’s unique about working in a human rights organization that is working in so many diverse places in the world is that I was able to come in to the organization with all the skills that I’d build in the private sector, all of my education. But actually I was able to bring into Oxfam my activism, which I’d never was able to express publicly in the private sector. I wasn’t able to even express really effectively publicly in some of the other nonprofits that I was involved in starting. And that is actually I think what makes from many of us, what makes it unique to work in a place like Oxfam is that I’m able to be–I’d like to say, I’m a Lesbian woman, I’m a Mother, I’m an Activist, I’m a Manager, I’m a person who’s deeply, deeply interested in culture and people all over the world and all of those things come together for me at Oxfam

VinodSo one of the things that I’m extremely grateful for in terms of Oxfam is that Oxfam–and this is something that I always reiterate to newcomers, you will always be given an opportunity. So for me Oxfam is always the land of opportunity, if you have enough agency, if you have an idea, if you seek to desire change and you are resilient, you will be given the chance

IMG_1767Oliver: One of the things that I really appreciate about Oxfam is the accessibility and transparency of our Board of Directors. I’ve worked for another organization that had a board that felt very remote and little bit scary to staff and really was disconnected from staff and that’s not the case here. It starts with the fact that there is a staff-elected member of the board which is rotated on a brand new basis every few years. So the voice of staff is brought into discussions among the board of directors and each time the board meets, our board chair comes in along with that staff member to talk to staff in a wide ranging and open conversation on any topic that anyone wants to raise for an hour or hour and a half without management and executive leadership presentAnd I really appreciate that and look forward to those sessions as a way not only to raise concerns that I see about what’s going on, but also to hear directly about what the boards working on, what their priorities are in any given time.

Emily: I think there is probably no one here who doesn’t feel empowered to share their opinion, which can sometime lead to very impassioned meetings, but I think I’ve never once felt like I need to hold back what I think about something, what I feel is the right thing to do or how we should approach something and I’ve never been reprimanded or made to feel like I shouldn’t give lend my voice to a topic. I think that is a big part of Oxfam program, but it’s a really big part of our culture here that everyone feels empowered to use their voice, whether that be in your one on one with you manager, in you team meetings or in a lunch meeting with the board member. People feel that they can raise their hand and ask a question and question authority empower, and I think that’s really powerful in it, it has helped democratize the organization.

BridgetIt’s a strange thing, we love each other. I don’t know, it’s like the weirdest thing. We actually love each other, does not mean we don’t have conflict, it does not mean that we don’t sometimes have issues that break down and there are issues that come up. But honestly we love each other and that’s why we say we come back to the organization, but in fact we never leave.

Vinod: How that manifest itself on a concrete basis is when we do an inclusion and diversity group, there is staff that actually took the lead to organize a group to talk about spiritual and religious values that are attractive to Oxfam, and I participated in one of the incredible conversation about people’s personal journeys and why they come to work here. It is just mind boggling, the wealth of experience we have and what makes people work here. I don’t want to get into people’s personal stories, but you have very, very moving and inspirational stuff, and you don’t get that and nobody told them to do it

Andrea: I feel like I’ve always felt like it was a privilege to work at Oxfam, because we work on poverty, and poverty is a life long struggle, but people who come and go will work on here. But in this moment, I think people feel really privileged to come into this building and feel like they are doing something to make things better at a moment where a lot of people don’t know how to make things better. And I’m conscious of that and I think that that’s something that a lot of people feel right now in this moment.

Vinod: We have a mechanism called the spotlight of art word by anybody in the organization can say a public thank you to anybody else. So I have done it in the past, where I’ve asked people for favors or request and people have turned it around after office hours at the short deadline, because I needed to send something to the board, and I needed the backup information. So I will ride them, I will give them a spotlight of art and then that is publicly displayed in our lobby later, so that other people can come to know that people are going out of their way to help each other. And it doesn’t cause money, there is no money associated with it, but people do feel wonderful about the work they do, and it leaves you with a good feeling when you get a thanks back for saying “Hey! Thank you for that nice nod”

Denver: I want to thank both Sarah Mandel and Alissa Rooney who helped to organize my visit and to those who participated: Andrea Ferrera, Emily Bhatti, Bridget Snell, Oliver Gottfried, and Vinod Parmeshwar. If you’re interested in hearing this again, reading the transcript or for pictures of the participants in the Oxfam offices, just go to denverfrederick.wordpress.com and it will all be waiting for you there.

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The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of Root Capital

Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


IMG_1815Denver: And this evening, we’re going to go up to Cambridge, Massachusetts and to the offices of a truly exceptional organization called Root Capital. They are an agricultural impact investor that grows real prosperity in poor environmentally vulnerable places in Africa and Latin America. And for this segment, in addition to the staff in Cambridge, we will be joined on the phone by team members from Senegal and Costa Rica.

Will: So our staff try to live by five principles of leadership which are empowerment, equity, transparency, integrity and service. And every month, the person who carries the leadership torch – so the person who was selected as exemplifying one of those five values – will pass the torch on to one of their co-workers in another region, so if you’re in Latin America, you’d pass it to someone in the United States or Africa who’s exemplified a different value and someone in a different department. So, it kind of fosters this culture of recognizing your fellow colleagues for their accomplishments, it bridges gaps between different departments, and it bridges gaps between different regions as well.

Briana: And I think we especially see that and maybe more so in the small ways, because I have a more back office type of function, where I’m not always in the field, I’m not always on the frontlines with our clients. But my team definitely has a–I feel that we always have a hand in making improvements for the better of the whole organization.

Claire: So we’ve setup an open floor plan. We have one standing desk that is available for use, and more on the way. We’re about to start a nap pod from recent research that I’ve been looking at that shows that if you can find a quiet, secluded space where people can go and just take 10-, 15-, 20 minutes and shut their eyes, that you actually increase productivity, so that’s an exciting thing on the way. We have a lounge area with the puzzle table that’s been getting a lot of great use. We started a little kitchen garden where we just grow sprouts and can add them into snacks and things that we have when we have communal meetings.

IMG_1811Laura: Like in Root Capital you can go whatever, you can visit any of our offices, and people actually care about who you are, what are you doing, how are you doing. That’s what makes Root Capital so special. It’s like a really big family spread all around the world, but all of us somehow make it to always being in contact, always care about others. We are always sharing news, sharing our efforts, sharing our challenges, sharing everything one to another, one country to another and one team to another. So that’s something that makes me really feel committed and feel that Root Capital is the place, the place to work in, in fact.

Salif: The organizational culture is an open one where people discuss ongoing work so that they can have better suits that the work everyone does with the open communication between people from different departments. We have, in my office, someone that will be in credit admin next to someone that will be in lending, writing, and someone that would be business development. So we sort of communicate right one next to the other about what are the present issues, what can we do to better service our clients.

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Claire: And so we came together and just had about 10 minutes of singing songs of peace and freedom, and it made such a difference with how everybody felt. And I think really kind of showed that a lot of times when we sing together, it’s fun or even silly or just a nice icebreaker to having a serious meeting, but this was the time that just really pulled us all together and gave us a lot strength.

I think one thing about being an international organization that’s multilingual and there are some of us that can communicate very well in all the languages that we speak and others of us that are learning or maybe will never learn, but music is one thing that connects us all and I think that it’s a very powerful tool that has helped bring our Root Capital community together.

Will: And we’re multilingual. Multilingual in a sense that we’re operating in several different countries. Our staff speak probably a dozen languages between them, both here and the Cambridge headquarters, and in our regional offices in Latin America and Africa. But we’re also multilingual in the sense that we’re ideally just as comfortable communicating with our clients and the farmers we serve in whether it’s Nicaragua or Senegal or Kenya, as fluent communicating with them as we are in the boardrooms of a potential donor or investor’s office in New York or Washington D.C.

Denver: I want to thank all those who participated in this piece Will McAneny who also organized my visit, Briana Woods, Claire Kozower, Laura Ramirez and Salif Diop. Come to denverfrederick.wordpress.com for the podcast, the transcript and the pictures.

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The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving/.