Improving Employee Satisfaction: A Study of Jewish Nonprofits in Los Angeles

Los-AngelesBy Alexi Biener
and Emily St. Lifer

What does your ideal workplace look like? An employee at a Los Angeles Jewish nonprofit answered, “A place where everyone understands the mission and understands how we are fulfilling it every day. A place where people are proud of what we are doing and are able to talk about it. A place where you are supported not only professionally, but personally. That people know about the exciting and happy and sad things in your personal life and are there to support you. An organization that supports professional development and work-life balance and values the Jewish family, whether it’s the family of the office or the families that work here. I think I just described this organization.”

As students about to enter the professional world of Jewish communal work, we wanted to know “What makes an organization a great place to work?” Through our research of over 30 Jewish nonprofits in Los Angeles*, we found six important factors that shape employee satisfaction: work-life balance, productivity, organizational culture, professional development, supervision, and appreciation. By identifying organizational best practices with these factors, we hope to help the Jewish community improve the job satisfaction of its professional staff.

Work-Life Balance / Productivity

Although the concept of work-life balance has widespread recognition, there is no common definition to help employers understand how best to help their employees find that balance. Rather, it appears to be a self-defined concept where some call it a “balance”, a “fit”, a “battle”, a “good function”, and the list goes on. The consensus among professionals in the for-profit sector is that having flexibility in one’s work promotes productivity, because employees are less stressed and encouraged to produce more results-orientated work that is rewarded by good performance reviews and promotion. As an employer explained to us, “I can’t give someone a life outside of work,” but an organization can offer suggestions for ways employees can take care of themselves outside of the office.

  • Best Practice: Personal Self-Care/Personal Development: Cedars-Sinai’s Spiritual Care Department sits with each employee to establish a personal “Self-Care Plan.” Finding ways to relieve stress and emotion is vital for personal mental and physical health. Having a professional staff help you work through your plan and check in throughout the year offers a level of accountability that is different than a friend or colleague asking what you did over the weekend.

Organizational Culture

Edgar Schein, an organizational culture scholar, defines a healthy organizational culture as stability, consistency and common history between employees to problem solve together. Programs that bring a sense of belonging and mental or physical health to employees can strengthen organizational culture.

  • Best Practice: On-Site Amenities: The Jewish Home has a variety of physical health classes employees can partake in, including zumba, yoga, running and multiple sports teams, all helping employees to release stress and find a balance in their hectic work weeks. Similarly, the Jewish Federation has an on-site gym that is open to all employees and just recently started promoting personal training options for a fee. Additionally, the Jewish Federation has dedicated a space called “Café Fed” where all Federation employees can find snacks, coffee, beverages, couches, a TV and private or public meeting space.


Our research found that showing appreciation for employees’ hard work is essential. Additionally, we found that people want to be part of a team and feel valued for the work and time they invest in their organization. Appreciation can be shown in a variety of ways, but a little can go a long way.

  • Best Practice: Recognition/Appreciation Events: The Jewish Home’s “Home Runs,” and Cedars-Sinai’s “Standing Ovations” both provide any employee the opportunity to highlight something exemplary that someone else did. These are then communicated to the recognized employee’s supervisor. Furthermore, the Jewish Home holds a yearly, weeklong employee recognition event where employees are individually recognized for their hard work with cheers, pom poms, music and celebration. This sense of appreciation can have lasting effects not only on employees’ self-confidence, but on their investment in their work and feeling of overall satisfaction.

Professional Development

When organizations invest in their employees, the return can be invaluable. As our research suggested, professional development supports physical, mental, spiritual and general well being in a workplace, so organizations that invest in these opportunities are also investing in their employees’ overall health. All the organizations researched agreed that professional development was important. Some organizations offer financial support when employees ask to attend conferences related to the position or department, while other organizations offer internal lectures.

  • Best Practice: Professional Development Supported by Organization
    Cedars-Sinai provides employees with access to a variety of free, optional classes in communication and computer software throughout the year. They also provide scholarships for those who wish to pursue a masters or doctoral program while remaining employed. Although Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles has a limited budget to send their social workers to conferences, they do offer paid time off for continuing education courses required to maintain their licensure.

Supervision and Communication

Feeling supported at work by both supervisors and coworkers brings a level of confidence and happiness to one’s workplace, increasing productivity and connection to the people and the organization. Bureaucracy is a part of all organizations, including Jewish nonprofits. We recommend that organizations fully understand their organizational structure and communication model. This allows staff members to correctly perceive each other’s roles and know who to ask for support and guidance in the decision-making process. This helps to productively streamline processes and insure that employees are all on the same page.

  • Best Practice: New Staff Orientation and Integration. Cedars-Sinai realized the value of integrating new employees and decided to get the entire Spiritual Care Department on board. In cooperation with a consultant, everyone was able to work together to create a mission statement to remind everyone what their job is, together as a team and independently. Coming up with the top two things current staff would tell new employees makes sure that from the moment they join the team, employees feel part of something greater than themselves, helping everyone feel accountable for them and each other.

As our research found, there is no one way to enhance employee satisfaction. But by implementing these best practices, organizations can help employees get what they need physically, emotionally and spiritually in order to do their best work and contribute to their organizations’ mission.

* American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service, Anti-Defamation League, Bend the Arc, Bet Tzedek, Builders of Jewish Education, Cedars Sinai, Hadassah, Israeli American Council, J Street, Jewish Community Foundation, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Jewish Free Loan Association, Jewish National Fund, Jewish World Watch, Los Angeles Jewish Home, Mazon, National Council of Jewish Women, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance and Westside JCC. We excluded museums, Hillels, youth groups, schools, colleges and universities, because of their different organizational structure from the more office-based Jewish nonprofits we chose to research.

Alexi and Emily are dual degree students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and at the University of Southern California. In addition to both receiving their Masters in Jewish Nonprofit Management, Alexi is receiving her Masters in Social Work from USC’s School of Social Work, and Emily is receiving her Masters of Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. You can read their masters thesis here.