Justin Nelson encourages community involvement at dash Carrier Services Featured

6:04am EDT July 8, 2010

Justin Nelson’s biggest challenge isn’t exactly a problem. His company, dash Carrier Services LLC, is growing — fast.

The provider of emergency and public safety services and wholesale voice solutions grew by more than 60 percent in 2009 to about $15 million in revenue. But that means Nelson needs to hire more employees — so he must attract and retain the right ones.

“Until maybe the last 12 months or so, we felt like we were underemployed,” says Nelson, the CEO. “We were struggling to bring on the people that would accelerate our growth.”

Nelson, now with about 25 employees, found the solution in an unlikely place: Denver’s nonprofits. With a community involvement program that rewards volunteer hours with paid time off and bonuses, he attracts and empowers the employees he wants to have.

Smart Business spoke to Nelson about how philanthropy builds a better business. 

How does community involvement attract good employees?

Typically, when you talk to [potential] employees about the community involvement plan, you can tell pretty quickly if they’re engaged and interested in that because they’ll, quite often, share what they’re doing outside of work. So we look for that as part of our interview process.

When employees talk about where they’re volunteering or where they’re spending their time, that’s an indication that they aren’t fully focused on themselves. In a company, people have to understand that there’s other people that they’re working with.

Honestly, I think it has helped us hire employees that we probably would struggle to bring on board. They look at all the aspects of employment: salary and benefits, etc. I think we’re competitive in the other aspects of employment, but we’re definitely a leader in community involvement and that’s helped us get employees who value that — and frankly, those are the employees we want.

When you talk about, ‘Not only are we looking to encourage you to hit your internal targets; we’ve got external targets and goals that we want to participate in,’ they see that we’re not just solely here to grow the company. We may not be bringing the perfect salary package to you or the perfect benefits to you, but when you look at the overall ecosystem of what we have, we’ve won candidates that way. 

How does community involvement tie back to the work environment?

This is almost the quickest way that you can get somebody integrated to your team. They’re going to, very quickly, be working and communicating with other employees outside of work, which carries over to work.

You build teamship because they’re interacting with each other outside of work. That’s when you get good communication between employees. It’s pretty interesting how stepping out of the office can lead to better communication. On a day-to-day basis, you get stuck in the rut of typical communication mechanisms between people you work with. People can often be nervous about communicating across that structure. By doing it in the community environment, it almost eliminates those barriers to communication. Our employees have been doing events where they’re participating with other employees … from different teams and different levels of management.

You get a sense of camaraderie from volunteering and giving back. I don’t think anyone walks out of a volunteer event without feeling good that they’ve done something. And that directly ties back into the company because employees feel like they’re making a positive change, both outside the company and inside the company. 

The core goal is community involvement and giving back. That drives employees that are interested in helping others — that’s the core value we want back in the company. In turn, you’re getting the benefit of them realizing ownership in the company because they know that we’re successful. We talk about how important it is to the company and how that helps us keep growing as a company because the culture is better.

How can you tie community experiences back into work?

The challenge is to try to put those in concrete terms. I’m a firm believer that it’s happening all the time, and we’re seeing the benefits and that’s why we’re successful. But to try to prove that to my board, it’s probably a little more difficult. There aren’t easy ways to track how that’s happening.

But one thing you can build on is that through those programs, we’ve seen people take more and more ownership. We started the program a couple of years ago. There wasn’t as much volunteering going on so, as a company, we decided, ‘Well, let’s tie it into the bonus.’ What you saw, over time, was that, because people are interacting with other individuals in the company and they’re building teams slowly, people sort of take ownership of volunteering. Our target is six hours [per employee] a quarter, and last quarter, the employee that did the most did 13 or 14 hours and we had 100 percent participation. We didn’t need 100 percent participation to get to our bonus. The target this year is 80 percent.

Often, an employee will say, ‘I have this volunteer event that I’m thinking about going to. Is anybody interested in participating?’ The employees are encouraging other employees to join in.

What that shows is that employees are taking ownership. And I think anytime employees take ownership — regardless of if it’s directly related to work — they’re going to take more ownership internally.

How do you encourage employees to get involved?

Start small. We started with a target of four hours per quarter and 60 percent participation two years ago. Starting with a low threshold … takes the pressure off people. If they don’t want to participate, they can choose to not do so.

Since we’re rewarding with PTO and talking about it as part of the bonus, these are all upsides for employees. Right now, one-fourth of the calculation of the bonus is determined (by meeting community involvement targets). So instead of making it mandatory or trying to push it down, we’ve given additional bonuses for participation.

That’s the way you avoid ostracizing employees that don’t want to volunteer. Make it flexible enough — especially when you start out the program — that people see that we’re not trying shove it down on them but we’re giving them an upside.

How to reach: dash Carrier Services LLC, (800) 815-5542 or www.dashcs.com