At Certes Financial Pros in Golden Valley, CEO Sally Mainquist has a preferred vendor for employee anniversaries, company meetings and appreciation gifts for clients.

"We use the Cookie Cart," Mainquist said, referring to the north Minneapolis nonprofit business. "The cookies are great and we promote them to our clients, and people are so happy to support them. Our employee innovation team at the office came up with Cookie Cart ... now we've got employees going there for birthdays, wedding showers. It's more than cookies."

Certes, which places accountants, controllers and professionals in temporary positions, is among the 40 Minnesota companies designated a Top Workplace, although it did not rank in the Top 100 Workplaces. A significant part of what makes employees happy at Certes, in addition to competitive wages and benefits, is employee-led community engagement.

The Cookie Cart is a 22-year-old nonprofit bakery and cafe on W. Broadway in north Minneapolis that employs as many as 120 mostly North Side teenagers annually for 10 to 20 hours weekly in their first paid jobs. Besides the cookies, the jobs offer job-readiness skill development such as customer interaction, interviewing and résumé preparation.

"I love this job," Essie Simpson, 17, told several Certes visitors recently. "It's not just about cookies. We learn to work with peers, customers and to interview."

Business is brisk, thanks to increased walk-in traffic and growing corporate support from the likes of Certes, Memorial Blood Centers, Best Buy and Olson Creative.

Teresa Daly, a veteran organizational development and human resources consultant who runs Minneapolis-based Navigate Forward, has concluded, based on academic research and organizational performance, that companies that stress the common good and community outreach in addition to profit-driven performance tend to be superior long-term performers and good places to work.

At General Mills, long recognized nationally as a top workplace, "employees take great pride in [the company's] role in the community. And this pride results in higher job satisfaction and longer tenure,'' the company said.

Through its "Doing Good Works" community outreach program, Securian Financial Group Inc. in St. Paul said it has contributed more than $28 million over the past 10 years, including more than $19 million in cash gifts. Securian employees also volunteer at nonprofits ranging from Habitat for Humanity to United Way to the Red Cross.

But Daly said there is more to be gained from community involvement than corporate talking points.

"There is no doubt that when people come together for the common good, there's a bond, a cohesiveness that can contribute to being a better team," she said. "Most people like to do good. And to get out of the office and see another facet of [your colleagues] enables leaders and teams to leverage each other better at work."

So you see "Joe the accountant" who all of a sudden can solve a carpentry problem at a Habitat for Humanity site and you have a new appreciation for him, Daly said.

The virtuous circle is complete when top managers work side-by-side with people they may not typically connect with at work.

In south Minneapolis, Full Cycle, an independent nonprofit project of Pillsbury United Communities, receives significant support from Quality Bicycle Products of Bloomington, ranked No. 25 on this year's list of mid-size companies.

QBP donates an amount equivalent to 6 percent of its pretax profit through its employee-driven "ACE" program, which includes biking advocacy initiatives and community and environmental programs.

"QBP is our single-largest corporate supporter," said Full Cycle executive Matt Tennant. "QBP helped us grow several years ago from a free-bike program to [one offering] paid internships and hiring a real shop manager. Anytime we need help raising funds or volunteers, they come. And they pay $10 an hour for every hour a QBP employee donates [up to 40 hours per year]. It's an amazing business."

Full Cycle is a non-clinical way to help homeless teens get off the streets and into school, housing and mental health care.

Along with a counselor, more than 150 kids this year will build a bike they get to keep.

Most will be referred to another nonprofit for housing or to complete a GED. About 15 will work as paid interns at Full Cycle, which also overhauls and sells about 150 donated used bikes annually to generate income.

"I like working on bikes," said Korbin Porter, 19, who concludes his internship in June. "I hope to go from here to a bike shop as a mechanic."

Pam Hile, a receptionist and community service director at QBP, says the relationship with Full Cycle and other community programs brings together employees on projects who otherwise might not work together.

"The 'ACE' program is one of the proof points that this is an extraordinary company," said Jason Gikowski, QBP's marketing director. "It's really rewarding to be part of an organization that recognizes that a business can create profitability and greater good."

At Roger Fazendin Realtors in Wayzata, teams of employees work on Habitat for Humanity houses, volunteer with Wayzata-based Interfaith Outreach Community Partners, which serves the area's working poor, and with neighborhood-based initiatives.

Thrivent Financial, a fraternal benefits association, donates an amount equivalent to its federal tax liability to Lutheran-related causes and nonprofits supported by employees and Lutheran congregations. Those dollars are magnified through employee-supported initiatives that range from ending homelessness to early-childhood education and increasing the financial health of immigrant families.

And C.H. Robinson employees, backed by the company, contribute millions of dollars' worth of time and treasure annually to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Children's Hospital and Clinics and the United Way.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •


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