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Top Workplaces: What makes a nonprofit a rewarding place to work?

Kristen Prommel, pictures, is a gardner at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. The organization is one of the 22 Washington-area nonprofits that made The Washington Post’s Top Workplaces list. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

At first glance, nonprofit organizations can be indistinguishable from their for-profit counterparts. Just like in a business, nonprofit managers have to plan projects around a budget, answer to boards of directors and keep track of paperwork.

But even though nonprofits usually don’t have the same compensation resources as their for-profit counterparts, 22 Washington-area nonprofits made The Washington Post’s Top Workplaces list nonetheless.

Without the same ability to hand out generous bonuses and pay increases, nonprofit managers have to find other ways to keep the wheels turning. The most obvious answer: orienting employees around the company’s mission.

“We’re motivated by a different bottom line — the impact you’re making on the community,” said Allison Kokkoros, executive director and chief executive of the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, an adult-learning charter school with campuses in the District.

How exactly does a mission statement make its way into the office culture?

At Carlos Rosario, getting employees to buy into the mission happens through face-to-face interaction with the people they serve. Carlos Rosario’s students, ranging in age from 17 to 84, are often in the same stage of life as the people educating them.

“We see our adult students really gaining skills and getting better jobs. You see them buying homes, you see them getting their high school diplomas,” Kokkoros said. “Everybody at the school sees that and touches it.”

But even setting aside the mission and intrinsic fulfillment, many of the things that keep nonprofit employees happy around the workplace aren’t too different from those in other companies.

“We attract highly qualified individuals with advanced degrees, and we retain them,” Kokkoros said. “The way we do that is by offering multiple opportunities for professional growth.”

The school has dedicated professional development people who work not just with clients but also with staffers, sitting down with employees at all levels and devising individualized growth plans. Teachers are encouraged to step outside their traditional roles to publish their own work and attend conferences alongside their teaching duties.

Shannon Leftwich, human resources director at So Others Might Eat (SOME) a charity that provides food, clothing and health care for the District’s homeless, said the mission replicates itself in office culture by setting norms for how employees interact with one another.

“We treat our clients with respect and dignity, so we have that same expectation of all our staff,” Leftwich said. “It’s a workplace where you don’t get to be a jerk.”

The company’s employee handbook has a line cautioning people about “creating discord and lack of harmony in the workplace.” SOME does not have specific definitions for what that means, but Leftwich says it is one of the organization’s most important policies nonetheless.

“In a client-facing department, you can’t have negativity among staff and have clients be a part of that,” said Leftwich. “We have certain expectations about treating people with respect.”

At George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, the organization’s mission of storytelling and historic preservation is modeled even in employees’ dress. The company employs about 600 people with hundreds of job titles — everything from gardener to archaeologist to blacksmith.

"They're not dressed like blacksmiths, they are blacksmiths," said Rebecca Aloisi, Mount Vernon's vice president for marketing, when asked whether employees mind staying in character.

During the past two years, the nonprofit organization has made a push to go high-tech, launching two iterations of a mobile app that visitors can use to enhance their tour or pay a virtual visit online.

What do employees gripe about? Not the historical role-playing. Instead, the organization’s push to go digital confuses some employees, squeezing them between two eras.

“I think we’ll always have tension between preserving the past and moving towards the technologically advanced future. Our folks are out there trying to preserve 1799, so the new technology may not resonate with them,” said Megan Dunn, Mount Vernon’s human resources director. “I don’t think anyone is anti-tech, but I don’t think anyone wants to think that technology is being preferred over playing their role.”

More from Top Workplaces:

Imaginative perks keep workers engaged

Meet the 150 companies that employees love the most in the D.C. area

How some top D.C.-area workplaces hold on to their top workers

Companies take a broader view of employee wellness programs

How D.C.’s happiness at work compares to the rest of the U.S.

Maintaining company culture after an acquisition