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Innovation@Work: A Strong Culture Enhances Recruitment and Retention

Most nonprofits know that organizational culture can be a powerful recruiting and retention tool. When an organization infuses its culture in its greatest asset—- its employees – the result can be a deeply engaged, hard working staff.

KaBOOM! is a nonprofit organization that helps communities map their playspaces, build playgrounds, and prioritize more and better opportunities for play for their children.  KaBOOM! prides itself on having a positive, upbeat and fun organizational culture. Based in Washington D.C., KaBOOM! has grown from 12 to over 80 employees in the past few years. Its rapid growth can be attributed in part to the intentional presence of the organization’s culture, specifically the role of culture in connecting employees to each other and to the organization’s mission.

According to Kate Becker, Vice President of Program Management, employee engagement with the organization’s culture begins in the recruitment process. “When you walk into our offices, you quickly see what KaBOOM! is all about. Our space is open, colorful and even has playground equipment. As prospective employees take a tour, they experience the openness of the office and camaraderie between staff first-hand.”

This first-hand experience of culture continues in the on-boarding process for new employees. The HR team ensures that all new hires are presented with materials that represent the values of the culture, such as an internal publication entitled Fundamentals that outlines the history and purpose of KaBOOM!, as well as a toy plastic bucket to be used in an organizational ritual called “giving sand.”

“Employees are encouraged to write appreciative or inspiring notes and leave them in each other’s buckets as pieces of ‘sand.’ When a new employee starts, we try to make sure that they receive a few pieces of sand in their bucket,” Kate says, “This is a fun way to connect our culture of play to the work that we do, as well as live one of our beliefs of giving credit where credit is due.”

In addition to “sand,” employees are encouraged to share “ripples,” or as Kate describes, “stories of impact that we hear from the field. These stories have a big impact on day-to-day morale and remind staff of why we do the work we do.”

KaBOOM!’s strong culture has been intentional since day one; however it has evolved over time. “We’ve gotten more sophisticated about how we infuse culture in our employees. Much of this has to do with instilling the importance of culture at the senior most level of the organization, and then making it a strategic priority to communicate the importance of our culture across the entire organization,” says Kate.

As the organization has grown larger, the importance of culture has become even more important to building staff cohesion and employee satisfaction. Kate says that the culture has its greatest impact on the “day-to-day, whether it’s a team service activity or staff gathering to eat PB&J. It’s the maintenance and regularity of these types of activities that keep staff happy and engaged.” 

For organizations seeking ways to leverage culture in its employee recruitment and retention practices, Kate had the following suggestions:

1. Make culture an organizational priority. For example, encourage managers and their direct reports to carve out time for organizational rituals and activities. At a senior staff level, make decisions that support employee participation in the culture.

2. Strategize for the culture you want to have. Culture is going to develop regardless of your attention to it.  By determining what you want your culture to be – such as your organization’s values and personality traits – your organization can then build a strategic and intentional culture.

3. Think top-down and grassroots. An organization’s culture comes from many inputs. It’s important to involve senior staff to reinforce cultural initiatives, as well as encourage an inclusive adoption of the culture across staff. Solicit feedback from staff at all levels and include a variety of staff in the planning of cultural initiatives.

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