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Foosball, focus and bare feet

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

No. 1 Best Medium Nonprofit: Idealist.org

From left: associate director Russ Finkelstein, Meg Busse, Paul Nauert, Chris Machuca and Erin Barnhart take sides in a game of foosball.

Located on the tenth floor of an historic building in downtown Portland, the offices of Idealist.org feel like part of an earlier era, a time when dot-coms promised a bright future. Here, some of the 15 local employees kick off their shoes during phone calls and arrive at work wearing jeans and T-shirts. The programming squad sleeps late and works late — if they want — and it’s a foosball table that brings people together, not a water cooler.

But these dot-com environs house a dot-org, and a successful one at that. This is a place where a brighter future refers not to stock options but a gentle reshaping of society. That’s because Idealist.org aims to encourage more service, involvement and action from professionals and volunteers around the globe.

It’s no small task, and one that risks promising unrealistic rewards. With that danger in mind, Idealist strives to incite participation “without the exclamation points,” says Russ Finkelstein, associate director, through an extensive website, among other tools.

“Very often people are overwhelmed by the possibilities, which prevents them from acting,” says Finkelstein. “We want to help them make informed decisions about the best way for them to serve.”

Idealist.org staffers Chris Machuca and Jung Fitzpatrick toss their shoes and relax.

Founded in 1995 in New York City by executive director Ami Dar, the organization has grown to a staff of 70 people in four countries. Various incarnations of the website have resulted in today’s massive portal, a place with 14,000 volunteer opportunities, 4,000 nonprofit jobs, and more than a million subscribers.

In addition, Idealist.org organizes events — nonprofit career fairs around the U.S. and international graduate school fairs — and publishes online and print guides to finding meaningful work.

“We’re very mission focused,” says Kyle Dawkins, a software architect who’s worked for the organization for nine years and has a business card that reads “Token New Zealander.” “Everybody always has that in front of them, so we stay inspired by that fact that we have a philanthropic focus.”

Much of the organization’s core content is generated in the Portland office, which opened in 2005. Finkelstein, who has worked for Idealist since its founding, helped choose the location, a city he posited possessed top talent interested in quality of life.

To find the right employees from the Portland pool, Finkelstein leads an extensive hiring process for each position. Recent applicants for project-based sales jobs were asked to write essays in response to two questions: What recently annoyed you and what recently excited you? That was before the mock phone calls, onsite research project and impromptu presentation to the staff.

Intern Paul Nauert finds a relaxed environment to plug in and go to work.

Meg Busse, a former middle-school teacher and a director of the Career Transitions Program, says the staff always participates in the hiring process to help discover which applicants have “that spark,” which stems from intellectual curiosity.

“[We ask them] what are you passionate about? What are you excited about? What gets you going?” she says. “If there’s one thing we all share, it’s an excitement about almost anything.”

That zeal helps explain the diverse backgrounds of the young staff (14 of the 15 employees are under age 40), which show a range of foreign language skills, work and travel experience abroad and nonprofit jobs.

“Everyone who works here is incredibly talented,” Finkelstein says.

To retain that talent, Finkelstein strives to make sure employees are doing work that’s meaningful to them, and constantly reminds the staff that if they weren’t doing this work, no one else would be doing it.

From back: interns Ceyhun Arslan, Nicole Staudinger and Emma Tupper, and a bike-friendly office.

“We’re telling other people, ‘This is how you find value in what you do,’” he says. “If we’re going to inspire others, we need to live up to that ourselves.”

The staff stays connected to the bigger picture through travel, by attending the fairs they organize and visiting the Idealist.org offices in Buenos Aries and New York. The casual Portland office provides a soothing antidote to the professional formalities that accompany travel.

In addition to zero dress code, the chance to bring dogs to work and flexible schedules, employees receive tuition and wellness reimbursements and other benefits that some staffers say rival the for-profit sector. They also report consistent above-cost-of-living raises.

While those benefits keep the staff happy as individuals, their curiosity, sense of humor and like-mindedness create a palpable sense of energy and collaboration, even at the foosball table, where they unleash their competitive streaks. After all, challenging the status quo requires plenty of energy and vigor, even if you’re not wearing shoes.


The list of the 100 Best Non-Profit Companies to Work For in Oregon

Caring mixed with laughter: No. 1 Best Small Nonprofit

Foosball, Focus and Bare Feet: No. 1 Best Medium Nonprofit

A workplace full of hope: No. 1 Best Large Nonprofit

An insider's view on the the Nonprofit Project

A different nonprofit strategy from Small Business columnist, Steve Strauss

How Nonprofits are pulling together to weather the "great recession"


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