In our new roundtable blog series, we ask a handful of contributors to provide their points of view on complex topics or unsettled questions. We hope that this approach will help us to integrate and learn from multiple perspectives on animal advocacy.
ACE takes the promotion of a healthy work environment to be vital to the success of effective charities. That’s why, when we evaluate charities each year, one criterion we consider is whether the charity “has a healthy culture and a sustainable structure.” We’ve written previously about the importance of having a healthy culture and how we identify charities with healthy cultures, though we continue to update our evaluation process each year.
In this roundtable post, we asked animal advocates at different organizations to offer their advice for promoting healthy work cultures. The following people contributed to this post:
- Aryenish Birdie, Encompass
- Sofia Davis-Fogel, Animal Charity Evaluators
- Cameron Meyer Shorb, The Good Food Institute
- David Soleil, Compassion in World Farming USA
We think that each of our contributors brings a unique perspective to the topic of workplace culture. For example, David and Cameron help to promote healthy work environments in very different contexts. David works with a relatively small animal charity based in Atlanta and Cameron’s quickly growing team at GFI works remotely. Aryenish’s contribution is informed both by her experience working at animal charities and by her experience consulting with organizations in her role at Encompass. And our own research editor, Sofia Davis-Fogel, shares what she learned from our 2017 charity evaluation process, when she interviewed more than twenty-five animal advocates about their experiences working in the movement.
Please feel free to discuss our contributors’ thoughts—and to share your own—in the comments!
Founder and Executive Director, Encompass
Aryenish Birdie is founder and executive director of Encompass. Prior to Encompass, Birdie was a federal lobbyist at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She was part of a four-woman team instrumental in reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act to ensure that animal protection language was integrated into the law. Birdie completed her Master’s degree in Public Management from Johns Hopkins University.
This is one of the most important questions leaders and HR staff should regularly reflect on. However, a healthy work culture is often seen as a “nice to have” and not a must have—but our movement’s people are its most valuable asset, so investing in a culture that sustains them is critical.
First, organizations must be intentional about creating healthy work cultures. A positive culture does not casually fall into place because we hire talented people; it requires constant attention, dedication, and resources.
Through my experiences and discussions with countless other animal advocates representing a broad swath of our movement, I’ve come to realize organizations with the best cultures espouse these two philosophies:
Feedback is a gift
One of the key features that sets great organizations apart from the rest is how much they treasure feedback from their staff. One of my graduate school professors regularly told his students that the best CEOs create cultures in which feedback is genuinely viewed as a “gift.” Without this mechanism in place, addressing other work culture issues may fall short. Senior managers should personally and actively solicit feedback from newer hires and others not in management positions and take action on this feedback. In these conversations, we should be prepared to receive information that may be difficult to hear and refrain from a defensive reaction. This is challenging, but we should maintain trust that this information is coming to us out of a place of wanting the organization to be better. Trust is another key feature of organizations with successful work cultures.
Equity is a core value
The best—and most holistic—organizations are ones that take equity issues to heart. It’s vital to recognize that people with identities on the margins may have different needs than those who don’t. Specifically, with respect to racial equity—which is what Encompass focuses on—it’s important for organizations to recognize that advocates of color face unique pressures in our movement in part because there are so few of us and because the people we work with often don’t understand the nuances of the challenges we face. People of color often come to this work more worn down than white folks because we bring with us the exhaustion that comes with feeling the lifelong effects of everyday racism from the rest of society. Because of this, we don’t want to face those same struggles when we do activism for animals. Organizations that support their staff of color will reap the rewards in the short- and long-run, but first organizations must participate in difficult conversations to learn what inequity looks, how it arises, and how to combat it.
These are just two of a number of issues I’d like to explore. Other topics include: cronyism, recognizing that good advocates may not make the best managers, investing in managers, the importance of creating a healthy culture for remote staff, having generous benefits packages which include paid time off, higher pay, paying interns, organizational transparency, and more.
I am eager to further engage on this important topic with anyone who is interested and I’m grateful ACE sees the value in exploring this too.
Research Editor, Animal Charity Evaluators
Sofia joined the ACE team in December 2015. As Special Programs Manager, she organized ACE’s first EAA Research Symposium. In early 2017 Sofia moved to the research team, where she now works as ACE’s Research Editor. Sofia received her B.A. from New York University and was among the first students to graduate from their Animal Studies Initiative.
Last fall I spoke with more than 25 animal advocates about the work culture at their respective organizations. These interviews were a part of ACE’s 2017 charity evaluation process, and provided some insight into the factors that influence advocates’ job satisfaction and well-being. The below suggestions are based solely on my observations throughout that process, and are therefore not meant to be official recommendations from ACE. They are also not exhaustive—there are many important ideas I was unable to cover here. Regardless, I hope this content will inspire further consideration of the topic.
Both staff and leadership benefit greatly from feedback. It’s important to have clear, accessible, and expedient avenues through which staff can raise issues and communicate their ideas, and staff should be made to feel that their suggestions will be well received. One organization has non-leadership staff elect an employee representative who acts as a liaison by passing along anonymized comments.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that feedback includes positive recognition as well: Some organizations recognize individual staff members’ successes by doing things like giving shoutouts during staff meetings.
Facilitate autonomy and individual growth
Staff are more engaged in their work when they can participate in projects that interest them and use their skills well. At one organization, two staff members were given the authority to divide their department’s work between them in whatever way they felt was most in accordance with their complementary strengths. This allowed them to come up with the distribution that best utilized both of their skill sets, enhancing their satisfaction with their respective roles. Some organizations grant staff members a portion of their work hours to pursue passion projects that will enrich their work in some way.
Additionally, several organizations I spoke with provide funding for professional development.
It’s important for charities to foster a sense of community within the organization. One group uses a buddy system to match each new staff member with a more experienced one in order to help them get acclimated. Another organization does one minute of meditation together each week. Remote teams sometimes need to take even bigger steps to build community; many hold all-staff or departmental retreats.
Invest in the next generation
Young interns and volunteers are the future of our movement. Make sure internships are accessible to everyone (this includes offering paid positions for those who cannot afford to do unpaid work). Additionally, involve interns and volunteers in a variety of projects, and actively solicit their feedback (and respond accordingly). Strike a balance between teaching interns new skills and giving them opportunities to contribute by using their existing knowledge and talents.
Make policies clear and inclusive
Put policies in place to help anticipate and address issues, and be sure that handbooks are adapted to be legally and culturally appropriate for each country in which your organization operates. Always be clear about the legal risks that may be entailed with any advocacy your organization might do or endorse, and be sure that staff, interns, and volunteers do not feel pressured to take any actions with which they are not comfortable. This is especially important for people of color and/or immigrants, who often face greater risk in such scenarios.
Stay updated on best practices
The dominant thinking on these topics evolves as new research emerges. For example, anonymizing job applications might not help as much as you may think. Additionally, there is some research to indicate that harassment and discrimination training may have no effects or even adverse effects. Stay informed by seeking out and utilizing external expertise. This could take many forms, including bringing in outside speakers or consulting with groups like Encompass.
Evaluate your own policies
Make sure that the policies you implement are actually benefiting your staff. One organization I spoke with recently experimented with giving staff unlimited time off. Although it was popular overall, a number of interesting sources indicate that this policy may actually cause staff to take less time off than usual, which has detrimental effects on their well-being. The organization has decided to keep the policy in place, but has now instituted a mandatory minimum vacation of one week per staff member per year.
Cameron Meyer Shorb
Team Expansion Leader, The Good Food Institute
Cameron holds a degree in biology with distinction from Carleton College. He has interned and worked for several nonprofit organizations, including Animal Charity Evaluators and Citizens for Farm Animal Protection, a project of the Humane Society of the United States. Cameron enables GFI to achieve its mission as rapidly as possible by finding the best talent to grow their team.
GFI is one of a growing number of entirely remote organizations. We don’t have a central office–or any office, for that matter. Most staff work from their homes, some prefer coffee shops, a few have chosen coworking spaces, and one works from an RV (more on that later). When we get the whole gang together for one of our biannual retreats, it feels more like a family reunion than a work obligation. As for the rest of the time, here are a few ways we’ve built a geographically decentralized work culture that thrives!
We write our own adventures
Traditionally, companies rely on positive and negative incentives to give their employees external motivation. But as Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive, these practices can actually crush internal motivation, which is far more effective at producing results. Remoteness adds logistical steps to doling out carrot and sticks, and it requires staff to depend even more on internal motivation. Fortunately, the source of the problem—autonomy—is a large part of the solution. That’s why we’ve elevated autonomy from a simple logistical reality to a core pillar of our work culture. We involve the entire staff in setting goals and provide a lot of autonomy in building plans to achieve them. Rather than asking people to work, we ask them to truly own what they work on. Add in the inherently motivating power of our mission, and the rest takes care of itself.
We stay away from email
Communication is key, but it doesn’t have to be constant. Inspired by Cal Newport’s Deep Work, we place a high value on working without interruptions. That means actively discouraging a culture of hyper-responsivity to emails. We encourage staff to schedule time to check email one to three times a day, and to use Inbox Pause to remove distractions in between. We also strongly encourage everyone to set aside one day a week (preferably Fridays) as a “project day” free of meetings and email. Project days are a time to work on high-importance, low-urgency projects, particularly those requiring focus and creativity: drafting a manuscript, planning a project, interpreting a new dataset. When everyone’s on the same page, stepping away to focus becomes surprisingly easy. Thanks in part to these efforts, in our most recent GFI staff survey, more than 70% of GFI employees reported being able to focus on short-term objectives without losing sight of long-term goals all or most of the time.
We balance our work with our lives
Remote work allows exceptionally creative combinations of work and life. We can schedule dreaded errands as welcome breaks. We can work on the move. It’s easy to follow a business trip with a visit to a faraway friend’s house and work from their living room for a day or two. Senior Scientist Liz Specht took her whole life on the move: she lives in an RV with her husband and two dogs, roaming the country in search of good weather and beautiful scenery.
We also don’t have to choose between working and parenting. Some staff spend the afternoons with their kids and make up the hours at night. Children, cats, and puppies frequently guest-star on our internal video conferences. GFIers agree: the embarrassing thing about Robert Kelly’s BBC interview was not that his kids sauntered into the room, but that he didn’t immediately hoist them onto his lap.
In so many ways, GFI’s work culture is shaped by the richness of our out-of-work lives. In a field plagued by burnout, we give employees time and space to lead lives that leave them fulfilled and excited to work. Puppies on Skype is a price we’re willing to pay.
Operational Enabler, Compassion in World Farming USA
Dave Soleil works to ensure the integrity and efficient functioning of Compassion as a nonprofit organization and a leader in the advancement of welfare standards for farm animals. Enabling operations not only includes compliance, finance, reporting, and other behind-the-scenes support, it also includes team development and effectiveness. Dave holds an MPA in Nonprofit Management and is the former Chair of the Leadership Education group for the International Leadership Association.
Set your mission aside (for a change)
Organizations should recognize that an admirable mission does not equate to a healthy work culture. Often, employees at nonprofits push aside their well-being, citing their sacrifice as dedication to the mission. The result is a work culture that demands participation in the “Martyr Olympics”: Who is willing to suffer the most in service to the cause? This mindset is toxic and competitive, rather than supportive and collaborative, and it leads to high rates of burnout and employee turnover.
Ask the whole team
Be intentional about crafting, implementing, and sustaining a healthy work culture with your entire team. Lead open, honest discussions about the workplace characteristics your employees want to feel comfortable and thrive in their roles—then brainstorm collaborative strategies that will allow you to follow through. Building a healthy work culture is not something the Executive Director can dictate or delegate; it is a team effort that all employees must create together and embrace.
Put shared values front and center
When discussing what a healthy work culture means to your team, your employees will inevitably arrive at a discussion about your organization’s values. Again, this is not about your mission—it’s about people. What workplace values do you and your coworkers share? Is honesty important to your team? Trust? Integrity? Fun? Respect? And what do those qualities look like in a day-to-day work environment? Do not make any assumptions that others on your team necessarily value the things you value. Finding shared values must be a collaborative effort.
Lead by example
Managers and directors set the tone for the rest of the organization, and having a discussion about healthy work culture will be worthless if the person leading it works 60-hour weeks, takes no vacations, disrespects others, and thinks the discussion does not apply to them. Intentional or not, the hypocrisy will be easy to spot. As a manager or director, it is important to live up to the collective values of the team and recognize that you are not exempt—in fact, it’s now up to you to take the lead.
Hold each other accountable
Collaborating to create a healthy culture also means that team members can and should hold each other accountable to organizational values, especially now that you have established a shared language and set of expectations. And once it’s built, your new system will require ongoing communication and attention by everyone on the team to flourish long-term. This active participation by staff at every level is what differentiates a healthy culture from empty rhetoric.
Strong, healthy work cultures do not happen at random or by accident. Transforming the workplace for the better requires consistency, thoughtfulness, and intentional efforts to define and live up to the values and expectations of the team. But if you approach the process with an open mind and a commitment to building trust, you will set your team—and your organization—up for lasting success. That’s not only good for you and your employees, it’s good for the animals we all strive to protect.