The Importance of Nonprofit Workplace Culture: How PENCIL Thrives by Writing Their Own Path

Think back to a time where glue sticks, pencil sharpeners and new folders and books were abundant. There’s probably a specific classroom you remember from those earlier days, and a teacher who left a huge impact on your life.

And PENCIL, Inc. is full of those life-changing, one-of-a-kind people. They’re no stranger to a fun and engaging learning environment. After all, their organization was built to provide programs that help students in the classroom by providing resources and making education interesting.

This post is the first article in our series about the importance of nonprofit workplace culture. We’re interviewing real nonprofits that use these tactics and have experienced real results.

First up, we interviewed Ben LeBeaux and Sara Clough of PENCIL, Inc. PENCIL was named one of the NonProfit Times Best Places to Work for 2013. They’re a small nonprofit organization that operates with a staff of around 30 people.


1. It’s About the Relationships:

In her own words, Sara explained PENCIL as a group of people with “a commitment to education and a belief among the team that we’re all there because we enjoy and believe in what it is that we’re doing.”

”I think one of the things that drives people—both people who work here and people who want to volunteer in our schools that we manage, is the notion that you are part of a relationship,” she said.

The Takeaway:

Right away, you’ll notice her wording. The official mission statement says “PENCIL is the leader in creating innovative and impactful models of ongoing collaboration between business and public schools.”

See the difference? Sara makes sure to mention the importance of the team and their passion for what they’re doing. It’s evident through her words that the mission is only possible through the collaboration of like-minded people with a common passion.

But often, nonprofit organizations settle. Just because somebody volunteers for a staff job and you haven’t found anybody else doesn’t mean that they’re the best fit for the position. Hang in there and find the right fit. You don’t have to feel a pang of guilt for turning away somebody from a position. Instead, try to find a different place.

2. Fun Plays a Role:


From external staff celebrations or going out to happy hour together and periodic annual retreats, PENCIL makes sure to incorporate fun into professional development-type assessments and working style. Plus, Ben added that they’ve incorporated everything from referral awards to even a scavenger hunt through Central Park.

“We take advantage of the opportunities as they come to us, so I think we have a really good way of coming together whether it’s a summer retreat, or that happy hour, or something like that—we really find ways to come together and bond over that sort of thing,” Ben said.

The Takeaway:

Your main goal is to achieve a mission, but your organization’s workplace culture keeps your nonprofit staff engaged and excited to come to work every day. You don’t need a big budget to make sure your organization’s staff is making time for fun.

Have everybody bring something for a potluck lunch. Develop a theme and have workers come dressed up for the day. Incorporate things to make sure that your staff stays engaged and entertained.

3. Recognition Helps Drive Culture:

“As we look to evolve trends and look to evolve how we’re bonding, we’re looking to create more ways that are tied to people feeling proud and rewarded by the work that they do,” Sara said. “The more people feel engaged, recognized and rewarded, it’s just self-fulfilling and it just feeds on itself, and that’s how you build your organization. And I would say, in order for us to be effective and have the kind of impact that we want to, individually and as a whole, it’s inherent in what we need to and want to do.”

Some of those recognition things include passing off a monthly crown at the staff meeting where somebody is rewarded for going above and beyond. That person gets to keep the crown for a month and is rewarded with a gift card.

“I think as we try to evolve our internal ways of recognizing and bonding as a team, there’s definitely an awareness and a commitment at the leadership team level to look for ways to recognize and reward excellence in work on the team,” Sara said.

The Takeaway:

People feel energized to do good work when they feel like they’re getting the recognition they deserve for doing a great job. That might mean publicly recognizing them or stopping by their desk to tell them you noticed the great work they were putting in.

The Rundown:

Above all, Sara said she wanted organizations to understand that nonprofit culture is not to be taken for granted when you’re doing more with less. She said she wanted organizations to remember that they’re getting a psychic reward that can’t be matched in a lot of other places.

“Culture is at the core of every organization,” she said. “A major part of what we do is focus on principal leadership and a lot of what our partners do together is focus on building our culture, so I think we’re aware and I don’t mean to say it in a cliche way, that you’re only as good as your people are.”


Lyndsey Hrabik

Lyndsey is a former editor for Nonprofit Hub and Nonprofit Hub Magazine. She now serves as a guest contributor, writing on topics such as social media, technology, marketing and starting a nonprofit.

May 16, 2014

You May Also Enjoy

Become a Member

Whether you’re with a large team or a solo entrepreneur looking to start the next great cause, we have a membership package that will help you grow your network and your cause.