Big Brothers Big Sisters of RI’s community service extends to the office setting

CAMPING OUT: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island employees hold an all-staff retreat held at Camp Meehan in Notte Park in North Providence. 
CAMPING OUT: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island employees hold an all-staff retreat held at Camp Meehan in Notte Park in North Providence. 

PBN Best Places To Work Awards 2023
SMALL COMPANIES #1: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island
Employees in R.I. 36
CEO Katje Afonseca

WHEN BIG BROTHERS BIG SISTERS OF RHODE ISLAND noticed its employees were holding on to accrued time off because they worried about needing it for emergencies, the Providence-based nonprofit decided to change the policy, according to CEO Katje Afonseca.

Instead of employees accruing time off, paid time off is front-loaded at the beginning of the year. Afonseca says she hopes the change will encourage everyone to proactively plan their vacations to rest and recharge.

For Afonseca, caring for the well-being of 36 Big Brothers Big Sisters employees is crucial to establishing a toxic-free work culture where the staff is mission driven, compassionate and fun. It’s not unusual to see someone exercising in the on-site gym, or a parent watching their child on a monitor play with games and toys in the youth room or hear laughter echoing through the hallways.

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“Our office vibrates with laughter whenever anyone is there,” Afonseca said.

The work culture in the nonprofit’s office is so vibrant that, at times, people from outside the nonprofit question whether it’s a façade, but Afonseca assures everyone it is authentic. According to her, Big Brothers Big Sisters is dedicated to ensuring the environment is a peaceful and happy one.

To help get a pulse of how employees are feeling, the nonprofit sends out a survey every four weeks asking for suggestions to improve the work environment. One response resulted in filling the snack bins with something other than healthy items – chocolate.

Through its employee-led wellness committee, Big Brothers Big Sisters also encourages team bonding and employee well-being by hosting social events. The committee organizes ice cream socials, game days events, a reading club, walking groups, a spirit week, twinning day and even chair yoga.

“We get excited for those things,” said Tina Santos, director of marketing.

In addition to having a room in the office dedicated to keeping children and teens entertained if they need or want to join their guardian at work, the nonprofit also allows employees to take eight hours to volunteer at the children’s school. Afonseca noted the benefit extends to employees who want to help in their niece’s, nephew’s or grandchild’s classrooms.

During performance review meetings, managers will check in on the employee’s overall well-being while creating a plan to ensure each employee has a path to reach their career goals.

When an employee expresses a career goal, the manager will actively mentor the employee. The plan may include signing up for classes or buying topic-specific books, both of which are reimbursable through Big Brothers Big Sisters, Afonseca said.

Another benefit that sets Big Brothers Big Sisters apart from many nonprofits is the pay. The nonprofit uses the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator as a baseline for salaries. By paying a living wage, Afonseca said Big Brothers Big Sisters can hire and retain dedicated workers and hold them to a high standard of work at the organization.

Plus, BBBS hopes to close pay disparities. But that’s just an action item as part of its justice, equity, diversity and inclusion mission – also known as the JEDI mission. The organization has been working for several years on this mission, even working with a consulting firm, Huckel Inclusive, to ensure it is using best practices.

“We are the people serving our vulnerable population and we need to pay the people who work in nonprofits well,” Afonseca said.

With the help of an $8,500 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, Santos said the organization is set to launch a JEDI committee that will be tasked with helping the organization achieve its goals for a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment throughout its offices and charitable and volunteer programs.

“It’s always been a priority for us because we always look to hire and promote people that reflect the population that we serve,” Afonseca said.

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