Relationships Are Our Work: 3 Culture Building Practices to Engage Employees

  • By Jennifer Oldham, April 29, 2019

A recent report from Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) reveals that just over half (55%) of entry and mid-level staff who responded to their survey planned to leave philanthropy within the next five years. Respondents listed several reasons for their pending exits, including feeling discouraged or disempowered, not having enough autonomy and influence in their work, and “finding the sector to be less than fully inclusive of their own identities.”

To retain employees long-term, we need to create cultures where people feel connected to both their work and their colleagues. We embrace “relationships are our work” as a guiding principle and ground our staff and grantee relationships from this perspective. While connection can happen organically, oftentimes it requires effort and intentionality to make an impact. Given that, here are three ways that foundations can help build a positive and supportive work environment:

1. Be intentional about creating opportunities for people’s voices to be heard

At The Healing Trust, we have a small team of five employees and two interns. Even in a small organization, it is possible for us to “miss” one another and get siloed in our work. To prevent this, we make time for check-ins during our staff meetings and participate in monthly circles. Check-ins are an opportunity for everyone to share how they’re doing and what they’re working on. Circle is a time for intentional listening and authentic dialogue among everyone without regard to job title, tenure, or seniority and is a great way to connect with the variety of personalities in our office. Our small team includes a mix of introverts and extroverts and the circle process creates an opportunity for everyone’s voices to be heard equally. We also think that it is important for our staff to feel comfortable with our board members. Our organizational structure is flat and everyone on the team is given the opportunity to speak (formally and informally) during board meetings.

2. Get to know one another beyond the work

As much as we try to, it is impossible to separate our work lives from our home lives. What happens in our personal lives directly influences how we show up at work each day. Because of this, it is important for us to understand the people on our teams beyond their job functions. Doing so allows us to more fully understand their motivations and work styles, and to view them in more three dimensional ways. In response to this, our team has quarterly team days. Team days are work-free Fridays where the team spends the day together doing something fun. The staff is invited to contribute ideas for team day and our CEO surprises everyone with the activities for the day. Our team days have included completing a ropes course, a walking food tour, yoga, an enneagram workshop, a strengths finder workshop, laser tag, movies, go-cart racing, and hiking. The day is designed for us to try something new, learn about one another’s interests, and to generally enjoy each other’s company. We also have team lunches and celebrate one another’s birthday.

3. Create a culture of appreciation

As mentioned above, the EPIP report included feeling discouraged as one of the reasons people will likely leave the sector. One of the ways to combat these feelings is to create a culture of appreciation in which people are seen and valued. Our team works hard, and we believe that it is important to stop and celebrate their successes rather than just move on to the next task. We do this by sharing “shout outs” for individuals during staff meetings. At the beginning of the year, each person is assigned a week to bring shout outs to the meeting to highlight something that each person has done well. Our CEO also begins each staff meeting with a brief story of how she has seen the team live out the mission. Additionally, we create Individual Development Plans (IDPs) for our quarterly work performance review. IDPs include the following three questions that are completed by the employee and discussed with her supervisor.

  1. What are you doing well?
  2. Where can you improve?
  3. What are your career goals and how can we align them with organizational goals?

Discussing these questions allows for positive feedback, transparency, and ongoing conversations about each person’s desired career path. We also trust our staff and demonstrate this by having a flexible work environment that allows people to adjust their schedules and work offsite as needed.

In a perfect world, everyone on the team would feel included, empowered, and autonomous. Since, we don’t live in a perfect world, it is up to us to intentionally create work cultures where people do. Creating these cultures requires intentionality and the results of it can deepen employee engagement and help decrease turnover in the sector.

How have you created opportunities for connection and inclusion? What practices have you instituted to improve your work culture?


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Jennifer Oldham

Program and Communications Officer, The Healing Trust

Jennifer Oldham is Program and Communications officer at The Healing Trust, where she manages The Trust’s communications across multiple platforms along with grants that focus on organizational culture, physical health, and sabbaticals for nonprofit executive directors. Follow The Trust on Twitter at @HealingTrust.