Jamie Millard will shut down her Minneapolis nonprofit on Monday to give staff at Pollen two paid weeks off to unplug and savor Minnesota's infamously short summer while temps fill in.

In St. Paul, Amy Deutschman recently set her baby in a portable crib at her office as she took advantage of a rare policy that allows new parents to bring their infants to work at her nonprofit, Think Small. Nearby, Springboard for the Arts axed its paid time off (PTO) system to give employees unlimited vacation and sick time.

As Minnesota faces a tight labor market with high job vacancies and some of the lowest unemployment rates in decades, more nonprofits are drawing employees with unusual benefits. Even with pay in the sector matching government wages for the first time, nonprofit leaders say they have to get creative to compete with the corporate and public sector. The unusual benefits can also be a way to incorporate nonprofits' missions in workplace policies.

"It's a really important trend," said Carrie Oelberger, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs who has studied nonprofit human resources and work-life balance. "It's a really smart decision for organizations to offer those kind of benefits."

Nonprofit employees make up about 15% of Minnesota's workforce. Oelberger said the new "innovative and creative" benefits reflect the increasing professionalization of the sector from a time when workers were expected to volunteer or live on low pay.

"Some organizations have realized the social justice work they're doing should be done in-house as well," Oelberger said.

To be sure, some of these benefits, like bringing a baby to work or shutting down an organization for two weeks, may not work for all job titles or nonprofits that need to provide 24/7 services. Some also come at a financial cost to the organizations when they are paying people who aren't at work or their substitutes.

Zero turnover

But at Pollen, a media arts organization, Millard said she thinks more larger nonprofits and companies can offer similar benefits, citing Golden Valley-based General Mills, which offers 12 weeks' paid time off for all new parents and two weeks' paid time for caregivers. Millard said Pollen has had zero turnover in four years, but she said nonprofits of all sizes should start similar policies for a different reason.

"We should be leading in this because of our work and missions," she said. "It's disgusting we're not leading as a sector."

Pollen and some other Twin Cities nonprofits and private companies offer "summer Fridays," shortening the workday or closing down so people can get to the lake, cabin or just soak up the state's short season.

Millard decided to close Pollen for two weeks in July and a week in December after noticing that some employees weren't using all their PTO or spent vacation plugged into work e-mail. She hires temp workers to run day-to-day operations while the staff gets time off, separate from their four to six weeks of PTO. Employees return rejuvenated, she said, and the collective break means there's no guilt of missing work or dumping it on a colleague.

"Burnout is real," Millard said. "People, especially in the nonprofit sector where you have a job you love … they don't use all their PTO. That kind of recharge wasn't happening."

"We've seen zero downsides," Millard said, adding that Pollen's revenue increased each year since she started the companywide holiday break.

Springboard for the Arts, which has offices in St. Paul and Fergus Falls, also closes for a week in July and a week in December. It also offers four paid weeks of parental leave and cut its PTO system, instead having the 19 staff track their own hours.

"I think people are hungry for different models of HR," said Springboard's Associate Director Carl Atiya Swanson, adding that employees want to be trusted to do their work, not confined to a set eight-hour day. "People really want flexibility and control. … It makes them feel valued."

Pollen, which has six staff and less than a $1 million budget, offers eight weeks of paid parental leave and eight weeks of wellness time for employees to use for their health or to care for a family member. One day a week, Millard also brings her 6-month-old daughter to work and encourages other new parents — and pet owners — to do the same.

"I think smaller arts organizations are more likely to experiment with this; we're more soul-connected … person-first," Millard said.

Bring your baby to work

In 2018, about a quarter of nonprofits offered paid parental leave, up from 14% in 2014, according to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

On Monday, Think Small will be the latest to do so, offering up to six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. As an early childhood organization, "we felt it was important we walked the talk on this," CEO Barb Yates said. She loses staff to state, county and school district jobs with better wages, retirement benefits and career advancement opportunities. Her 100 employees make $15 an hour or more, but she said policies like parental leave could help keep them.

"That flexibility is really important to people; it's not always [about] money," Yates said. "We try to be as family-friendly as we can."

The new policy comes three years after Think Small started an Infant-at-Work Program, allowing some new parents to bring their baby to work until the child is 3 months. "I don't know of any nonprofit doing it," Yates said.

Deutschman, who had her baby before the parental leave policy began, tapped eight weeks of PTO before returning to work. When she came back to the office, she brought her daughter, Noelle, three days a week for four weeks. That allowed her to earn a paycheck while still spending time with the baby, continuing to breast-feed and delaying the need for child care.

As she sat at her desk answering questions from families about early learning scholarships, her daughter napped or had tummy time in her pack-and-play nearby. It wasn't easy to balance the dual roles. When her baby started crying while she was on the phone, a co-worker swooped in to comfort her. But she said she's glad she had the choice.

"I thought that was an amazing opportunity," she said. "It's really about having options … to make things work."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141