HR Case Study
From 12 to 1,000 Our people-led story of growth, challenge and learning in the social purpose sector WE has always been an organization driven by cause. From our earliest days as a group of 12-year-old volunteers working out of a family home in Thornhill, Ontario, in 1995, to what we’ve become today—a 1,000-person strong organization with a charity operating on four continents and a social enterprise that sells socially conscious retail products and experiences to fund the charity—our drive to create impact around the world has been the fuel in the engine that sustains our entire organization. Like many non-profits, we started out as a purely volunteer organization, so every dollar went directly to our cause of ending poverty around the world, and our mission of empowering youth to make a difference to a cause of their own choice, from their own homes. But in order to grow and scale, just like any other organization or company, a non-profit has to invest in its people and its infrastructure. We are proud to foster diversity among our workforce, with women holding 77 percent of our leadership positions. And in anonymous surveys, 90 percent of staff say they are connected to our organization’s mission and 96 percent believe we are making a difference in the world. As we made our way forward, we had many questions and were grateful for the ability to reach out to incredible mentors for their guidance and willingness to serve as our sounding boards. And while we’ve had stumbles along the way, we’ve always done our best to learn frommistakes and never to repeat them. In our daily work to create impact for the international communities we serve and in our commitment to our staff, who are so integral to everything we do, we are always striving to be better. We’re sharing our story as a case study for other social purpose organizations, in the hope that, as you chart your own path, you can learn from our mistakes and also find reassurance that you’re probably doing better than you think, no matter where you are in your journey.
100 Percent Volunteer-Driven Activism (1995–2003) During our earliest years, we believed activismwas the only way to achieve change. Our very young team of volunteers tirelessly lobbied governments, raised funds for global projects to free child slaves, ran letter-writing campaigns and hand-stapled curriculummaterials for our small but growing group of school partners. We had no paid staff, wanting to put every dollar raised toward our charity’s mission. With no money to spare for office space, the Kielburgers donated the use of their family home; parents Fred and Theresa moved out to live with grandparents while continuing to cover the bills. Our volunteer staff lived and worked together in the suburban house, making phone calls and sending faxes around the clock, while happily sharing meals and chores. We soon discovered, however, that many of our early victories were short-lived, as children we worked to free from slavery were returned to intolerable forced-labor conditions. Why? Because we had not managed to alter the root cause of their plight: extreme poverty. From these experiences came the emerging realization that activism is not so effective on its own. This was a tough reality to face, but from that came important learnings that would help guide us into our next phase.
Support for employees D D Free pizza and Kraft Dinner fuel long hours. D D Slowly begin to hire employees with outside experience to support the organization’s growth. D D New employees quickly make strong connections to co-workers. The feeling of being with “their people” keeps the team going through tough challenges.
Milestones D D Justice-seeking 12-year-old activists establish Free The Children. D D Launch of summer youth conferences (which would become Take Action Camp). D D First learning and service trips to Kenya, India, Nicaragua, Thailand, Ecuador, Arizona and Mexico. D D School-building begins in in Nicaragua, Kenya and Ecuador. D D Development work begins in Haiti, India, Tanzania, rural China and Ghana.
Partnership Learnings (2004–2009) This is when WE Day was conceived. We knew we wanted to create an event that celebrated the change-making achievements of young people. But how to ensure that every kid who deserved to be at WE Day could be there? By securing partnerships, we were able to make WE Day free for kids to attend. That was a big turning point for us. We learned that we could influence change by being selective about who we partnered with. If a company wanted to be part of WE Day, they had to meet our standards. With our ongoing expansion, the homegrown talent of the organization transitioned into specialized roles in business development, school relations, PR, marketing and other key operational areas. But they needed assistance from the outside world in the form of highly trained, experienced professionals to manage our rapid growth. So, we went to market to find seasoned talent—writers, graphic designers, IT experts and our first HR manager—with focused training and experience. Having outgrown our suburban house, we moved into our first real office space in downtown Toronto’s diverse Cabbagetown neighborhood.
Milestones D D The five-pillar WE Villages approach to sustainable development (then called Adopt a Village) is born in 2004. D D The first WE Day show is held in Toronto in 2007, with the mission of making caring cool; 6,700 students and educators attend. D D Canadian newspapers begin publishing our monthly Global Voices educational series. Global Voices will be picked up by more than two dozen additional newspapers in coming years and be used by some 10,000 educators. D D The 500th school built by Free The Children opens in 2007.
Support for employees D D Staff housing makes it affordable for new university grads to live and work in Toronto. D D We hire our first HR professional, introducing formal people-operations processes. D D Professional development for all employees. D D Management staff receive regular one-on-one coaching sessions. D D Health benefits added to staff compensation in 2006. D D Employee Assistance Program (EAP) introduced in 2008 to offer mental health, wellness and work-life balance services.
Growing as Social Entrepreneurs (2009–2014) With more charities competing for fewer donor dollars, we realized that we needed a new financial model to support the long-term charitable goals of WE Charity, as well as crucial behind-the-scenes needs that few wanted to fund, such as administration, research, and monitoring and evaluation activities. That’s when we launched ME to WE, which offers sustainable products and life-changing experiences that have forever transformed the way consumers shop, travel and learn. And ME to WE helps sustain WE Charity. The funds that ME to WE donates to WE Charity enable it to have an extremely low administration rate (around 10 percent) compared to other Canadian charities. By adding the social enterprise to our organization, our impact continued to scale. By 2014, WE’s staff had significantly increased, with the number of full-time employees growing to 370 in Canada alone. The composition of staff was changing, too, as specialists accustomed to working with governments and corporations came on board. In order to ensure everyone was on the same page, we both increased levels of management and introduced a rigorous annual planning process. Both of these together allowed us to communicate goals for the year ahead—for the organization as whole, as well as for our teams.
Support for employees D D Professional and personal development opportunities allow young staff to “grow up” within the organization. D D Rigorous new annual planning process gives managers and their teams a framework for prioritizing and mapping out their work for the year ahead, providing clear expectations and definitions of success. D D Biennial Staff Trip gives employees from all departments the chance visit ME to WE immersive travel destinations in Kenya, India and Ecuador. While enjoying vacation time, they get to see up close the impact WE has made in developing communities. D D New staff perks: an extra day off on your birthday (2010) and whole-office shutdown over the winter holiday (2011). D D The organization’s first CRM helps employees work more efficiently and saves labor.
Milestones D WE’s Adopt a Village (now WE Villages) sustainable development model is creating impact in partnership with communities in eight countries. D D WE’s Baraka Health Clinic begins serving some 30,000 community members in the Maasai Mara. It’s one of the only health clinics in the region. D D Continued growth of WE Day with expansion into 10 regions. D D ME to WE, the social enterprise arm of the organization, launches in 2009 to provide sustainable funding for the WE Charity. D D ME to WE Artisans program is created, providing sustainable economic opportunity for 550 Kenyan women.
Restructuring for the Long Term (2014–2016) WithWE Day expanding into 15 new regions, and stakeholder relationships and partners to manage in each, we have now become a large, complex organization—and the composition of our staff is much different than when we started. Answering the need for specialized skillsets among our people, we now have highly experienced senior leaders helming our partnerships, marketing and human resources departments. Their insight and commitment have been integral as we moved away from being an organically run organization to one that has innovative, clear and rigorous processes that help to ensure we stay accountable and continue to make maximum impact. As we onboarded seasoned people who needed to balance their professional lives with young families at home, the core teamwho had grown up working for the organization began having families themselves. Always striving to learn and adapt, we realized that we needed to shift the way we operated so employees could meet their family responsibilities as well as their deliverables at work. Late nights and weekend work became the exception rather than the norm. To ensure that we are always doing our utmost to meet staff needs, we introduced anonymous Employee Engagement Surveys in 2015, and continue to conduct the surveys annually.
Milestones D D WE Schools partners with the U.S. College Board, launching the ground-breaking AP with WE Service program, which makes service- learning accessible to 15,000+ high schools, with a notice on AP transcripts for college admission. D D By 2014, 1,000 Maasai women are empowered by working with ME to WE Artisans. D D In 2015, the Kisaruni All-Girls Secondary School, built through the WE Villages program, ranks first out of 112 schools in Kenya’s national exam. D D Continued growth of WE Day with expansion into 15 regions.
Support for employees D D First formal employee engagement survey conducted in 2015—and the organization begins to expand proactive HR measures in response to the results. D D Continued investment in staff compensation; co-ordinators receive a 28 percent pay increase over three years, starting in 2015. D D New staff-care measures address the WE Day team’s very unique working conditions: D D physiotherapist traveling withWE Day team to provide free sessions while on the road; D D snack stations in-venue stocked with healthy food options; D D approved rest days following shows. D D Professional Development fund, for which all staff can apply after one year of employment, offers $500 toward outside training.
Continuous Improvement (2016–present) This brings us to our current state, where we are continuously seeking to improve all aspects of the organization in order to create greater and greater impact. We have invested in our strategic planning and technology teams to help us meet our goals for scaling and stakeholder service. We are proud to have been recognized in our efforts to make WE an employer of choice, winning several HR-focused awards (Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures Award, Notable.ca Canada’s Top 5 Charities Run by Young Professionals, one of Canada’s Top Employers for Young People). Every year we listen to and learn from our employees in order to improve the experience and make our culture even better. Results of the anonymous employee surveys we’ve conducted since 2015 indicate a 2.85 x improvement in the area of work-life balance, 5.33 x improvement in providing adequate compensation, 1.22 x improvement in overall employee recognition and 1.73 x improvement in the effectiveness of our internal employee communications efforts. Today, 68 percent of staff say they are proud of the work they do and, further, that they understand how their work contributes to the goals of the overall organization. We certainly aren’t perfect and probably never will be; the nature of being a world-class organization, which is what we strive toward, is that you are never done improving. It’s not a destination, it’s a process.
Milestones D D To date, the WE Villages program has provided 30,000womenwith economic self-sufficiency tools. D D WE Villages sustainable development work expands into a ninth country: Ethiopia. D D Since the creation of the WE Villages Water Pillar, one million people have been provided with improved access to clean water, health care and sanitation. D D ME to WE launches coffee and award-winning Fairtrade chocolate that empowers women farmers with each purchase. Support for employees D D New, fully accessible headquarters are unveiled in Toronto, with dedicated space to serve the community as well as offices for staff, addressing issues identified in the first employee survey of 2015.
D Technology in the new headquarters makes it possible to capture professional development sessions and share throughout the organization; this assists with staff experience in regional offices. D D Free gym memberships offered to all Canadian employees and many in the U.S. (2017). D D The organization invests in dedicated internal communications staff. D D People managers receive mandatory training on how to give effective feedback, assess performance and have tough but important conversations with staff. D D Aligned on what their work priorities are, staff have the tools to be successful. D D Regular town hall sessions give Heads and Directors facetime with Executive leadership. Key communications cascade more easily through teams.
Conclusion We get up every morning thinking about impact; it is our number-one priority, always. In our earliest years, we focused on how to create the greatest impact through our development projects. Now we recognize, too, the responsibility we have to create positive impact in the lives of our dedicated staff and their families— because our people are the key to creating long-term impact around the world. At every step of our journey, we are deeply grateful to our employees, understanding that their contributions of skill, dedication and innovation are what make our mission possible. For them, we are committed to keep learning how to be better; to seek out new ideas; to empower even more youth and adults to create the change they want to see in their communities and around the world; and to create even more impact through our projects. We know we still have a great deal of work to do and that we may never fully reach the goals we have set for ourselves. But we also know that, with our people working beside us, we are better positioned than ever to make doing good, doable.
339 Queen St. E., Toronto, Ontario M5A 1S9 Canada 1.416.925.5894 | firstname.lastname@example.org WE.org | @WEmovementPage 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Page 5 Page 6 Page 7 Page 8
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