Five Ways Nonprofits Can Thrive as Remote Organizations

Nonprofits are increasingly transitioning to working remotely, in part to address longer commutes and tighter budgets. Virtual offices provide opportunities to meet these challenges as well as perks that nurture employee satisfaction and engagement. Healthy Places by Design and the Safe Routes Partnership have leveraged this structure to better serve our staff and clients. We recently connected to compare notes.

The Safe Routes Partnership formed as a remote, national organization nearly 15 years ago. It was founded on the vision of nationwide, collective impact, bringing together hundreds of partners working on Safe Routes to School at the local, state, and regional level. Since then, the organization has grown from a staff of three people to as many as 20 employees spanning four time zones and 13 states, all working remotely. The remote model has been critical in supporting employee engagement, ensuring the sustainability of the organization, and fueling diverse work across the nation.

Healthy Places by Design formed in 2002 as a strategic partner for communities and those who invest in them, helping turn visions of health into equitable and lasting impact. For 16 years, we had a central office space with in-office meetings. Recently, in response to the changing needs of our projects and life circumstances of our staff, we transitioned to a virtual team. Last year, we joined a co-working space. Some members of our team work remotely full-time, and others work remotely a few days each week. The success of the Safe Routes Partnership’s virtual structure increased our confidence to try it as well.

Both of our organizations have been asked how we make remote work work. We compared our approaches and found shared practices that we believe would benefit any organization, as well as differences that are unique to our organizations’ size, location, and internal culture.

Hire well.

Cass Isidro, Executive Director, Safe Routes Partnership:

We hired people who value our structure and the work. Through our position descriptions and job postings, we describe characteristics which are not only useful to the open position, but also to being a staff member in our remote work environment. During the interview process, we also discuss what it’s like to work flexible work hours, explicitly talking about distractions in the home and the motivation needed to start your day with potentially no peer, in-person interaction. Finally, we follow the “hire for attitude, and train for skills” mantra by ensuring that each staff member values the remote work environment, our mission, and will be a strong advocate for the work.

Risa Wilkerson, Executive Director, Healthy Places by Design:

We seek intrinsic qualities plus versatility. For our small team to function well, we’ve always needed people who can work well remotely, even before we went virtual. In other words, we hire people who are self-starters, life-long learners, and have the skills to work on a variety of projects and in different places. We look for people who are committed to building relationships, have strong communication skills, and are clearly passionate about our mission.

Establish core work hours—with flexibility.

CI:

We manage performance, not a timeclock. Each employee can elect how to schedule their work hours, ensuring they cover the required core work hours that cross time zones and meet their 40-hour work week (for full time staff). Beyond that, we manage for performance and regularly check in on deliverables as opposed to managing hours. We believe that employees will perform best when the objectives of their work are clear, and when they can truly have work/life integration to be the best parent, partner, friend, and the best staff person for our organization.

RW:

It’s not about the 9-5. Even though everyone on our team lives in one time zone, our project partners are in multiple time zones, and the rhythm of each project is different. We’ve seen how a rigid schedule doesn’t maximize impact. We followed Cass’ lead on this. Schedule flexibility increases employee agency and satisfaction, while core hours ensure that we serve our clients well. We first experimented with this as a step toward going virtual, and never looked back.

Use virtual project management tools that fit your needs.

CI:

We use Asana, a shared project management platform that keeps everyone up to date on deadlines and goals. It lets us map out each step of a project and connect seamlessly with our other remote apps, like Salesforce, Slack, and Google Office. Dropbox is synced to all staff computers, providing us a filesharing database. And Google Drive allows multiple people to work on the same document at the same time.  Staff are trained on these platforms and their use is expected for everyone.

RW:

We kept the shared server with IT support that we had in our physical office space, so we aren’t using public platforms like Dropbox as much. Our project teams are also small (typically less than four people) and our regular emails and calls with each other work well for project coordination. Our timelines with partners often shift to account for unexpected changes within communities, and we’ve found that our current approach offers the most flexibility for addressing those realities.

Establish communication channels and expectations.

CI:

We use a messaging app to reduce email. When working remotely, you can’t walk to a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question or dig into the details of a project. If all those messages were transferred by email, inboxes would quickly balloon. We encourage staff to use Slack for any internal communication, unless the email is necessary. At the same time, the staff isn’t expected to answer a message immediately. Slack allows you to set your status, so colleagues know if you’re attending meetings in the field or on a phone call, and won’t be able to respond right away. 

RW:

We still strive for face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversations. We use our shared calendars to see when team members have “open doors” and can take a quick call for questions. We also regularly schedule video calls for brainstorming conversations and project team meetings, which allows us to maintain the sense of being in person. Our team considered using Slack, but ultimately decided that we didn’t want another platform to manage.

Connect often and meet in person when you can.

CI:

Encourage camaraderie. Working remotely can be isolating, so facilitating connections is important. We have “Watercooler Wednesdays” on Slack where a different person posts a question (anything from “What’s your favorite movie?” to “If you were to be a fictional character whose name starts with M, who would it be?”) which gives staff an opportunity to connect with others who share similar interests. We also host quarterly videoconference coffee meetings, in addition to our regularly monthly staff meeting on GoToMeeting.

Connect often about work and life.  All supervisors talk weekly with their staff about work deliverables. These scheduled meetings are seldom canceled and even when there isn’t work to discuss supervisors often talk about life, the news, and so forth. These connections establish regular dialogue that supports team relationships in the absence of physical presence. While we greatly value the work-life integration that a remote model allows our staff, and the productivity it supports in our work, we also recognize that nothing can replace face-to-face time. We make every effort to leverage business travel to connect as many staff as possible, even if it’s simply a coffee together to nurture relationships and our culture. We also plan for one, in-person staff meeting per year, but in lean years have had to forgo this effort.

RW:

We’ve embraced Zoom as an important tool for connection.  We use it even for one-on-one check ins when feasible, and have also found that even “no-agenda” meetings are valuable. In addition to our bi-weekly Monday team meetings, we also have casual team lunches by Zoom every other Monday, during which we share movie, book, and podcast recommendations or talk about current events and personal updates. Many on the team schedule personal, non- work-related check ins with each other, which sometimes turn into brainstorming conversations that generate unexpected, creativite approaches to our work.

Because all of our team members work in NC and TN, we are able to meet in person at least three times a year. We are also intentional about using this time together for specific purposes that are more difficult to do long-distance—like strategic planning, workshops and trainings, or shared experiences like volunteer work.

In Summary

CI:

We don’t see the remote workplace model as “less than” the in-person office setup. We actually believe it’s better! And we don’t intend to make any adjustments beyond continuous improvement and growing our organization with staff from all parts of the country increasing our diversity, inclusion, and impact.

RW:

Although we’ve had to adjust to new habits and ways of operating, we believe that our internal practices to support a virtual team also improve our virtual learning services and supports for long-distance partnerships. Moreover, it encourages creativity and innovation, which feeds us individually and as an organization.