Volunteering, including helping with disaster relief across the United States and around the world, means as much at Orion Associates as the client work the Golden Valley-based management services company does.

Orion Associates offers paid time off to encourage employees to volunteer for causes of their choice, company-sponsored events and disaster relief projects undertaken through the company's nonprofit Headwaters Relief Organization, said Rebecca Thomley, president and CEO.

"The maximum was a little over six weeks," Thomley said of the total paid time off for volunteer work for employees who have taken part in all those projects. "That's a lot of paid time off to volunteer, and they have to be able to do their job, too. But a part of our job is supporting the community."

Orion Associates works primarily in human services, offering program support, finance, human resources and training services to related and unrelated organizations, both for profit and nonprofit. Headwaters Relief Organization has made 58 relief trips since it was founded in 2005, with nearly 1,000 volunteers from outside of Orion Associates joining employees in those efforts.

On-site day care

Benefits in addition to paid time off to volunteer (and more traditional offerings such as health coverage and a 401(k) plan with a matching contribution) include allowing children and pets in the office and a subsidized on-site day care for the children of employees.

"Social services as a general rule is poorly paid," Thomley said. "This is a tough industry in terms of hiring and retaining people."

Orion Associates' wide-ranging benefits, to the contrary, and its commitment to community service through volunteering have helped attract and keep employees, she said.

They're among the reasons a number of people now in leadership roles have been with the company since college.

Benefits and volunteerism also contribute to a respectful, supportive company culture that helped Orion Associates earn recognition in this year's Star Tribune Top Workplaces survey, ranking 29th among 40 firms in the small-company category.

Retaining and developing talent, in turn, has positioned the company to expand its services and grow in a sector where others have struggled, said Stephen Hage, chief administrative officer and Thomley's brother. Orion Associates has 70 employees after making 30 hires in the past 12 months and plans to hire the same number over the next year. Last year's revenue was more than $5.2 million.

"It's easy for social service agencies to do what they know how to do," Hage said. "Had we done that we would be a much different organization, substantially smaller."

Instead, Orion Associates and related companies have added services including case management, social services training, vocational programs for those with developmental disabilities and fiscal and administrative services for the elderly and those with disabilities in self-directed care programs in Minnesota, Tennessee, Ohio, Utah and Oklahoma.

(Hage and Thomley's mother, Marya Hage, founded Meridian Services, which offers services to the elderly and people with developmental disabilities, in 1980 in St. Cloud. Thomley and Stephen Hage joined Meridian in the early 1990s as that company expanded into the Twin Cities. The family launched Orion Associates in 1999.)

"If you want to stay vibrant, fortunately and unfortunately, it requires growth because funding streams come and go," Thomley said. "So you need to always be on that cutting edge and be aware of changes."

To help plan for that growth, Thomley, Stephen Hage and two other Orion Associates executives completed an 18-month master's program in organizational development at Concordia University in St. Paul.

"It's amazing how they can draw people in," said Tony Vannelli, a founder of TDB Builders in White Bear Lake, which helped expand Orion Associates headquarters and has done construction work on relief trips to New Orleans and Haiti. "They're very kind, very trustworthy and that's nice to have on the business side and the personal relationship we have with them."

The expert says: Charles M. Gray, a professor of business economics and interim director of the Center for Nonprofit Management at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said Orion Associates exemplifies a trend that increasingly sees closely held companies that "are true to their social mission roots" while avoiding the tax and oversight implications that nonprofits face.

"They're a prime example of what makes this an interesting field to be studying and exploring," Gray said. "It used to be clear cut — for profit, nonprofit or government. Now all kinds of blends are taking place.''

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com