Creating a Company that Gives

Rebecca Thomley has established a pervasive culture of volunteerism at Orion Associates. All of its more than 2,500 employees are expected to participate in community work.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

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Service is a touchstone of Rebecca S. Hage Thomley’s life — and the beating heart of the large and growing business she leads, Orion Associates of Golden Valley, Minn.

A trained clinical psychologist, Thomley is chief executive of Orion, the parent company to 11 organizations that serve for-profit and nonprofit social-services providers, handling management responsibilities like finance, human resources and training. Together, Orion’s companies employ more than 2,500 people in six states and bring in annual revenue of $124 million.

However, Orion’s service ethos goes well beyond providing support to organizations that help people and their communities. It has also created a pervasive culture of volunteerism, driven by Thomley, that does a lot of community good itself.

Indeed, you could say that Thomley’s dedication to volunteering is in the blood. Her grandmother was a nurse who volunteered with the American Red Cross, and Thomley and her mother Marya Hage began volunteering as mental health professionals with the Red Cross in 1992. Orion’s original company, Meridian, founded in 1980 by Hage, encouraged employees to volunteer, using informal policies providing paid time off and by sponsoring various events.

Owner: Rebecca Thomley
Company: Orion Associates
Headquarters: Golden Valley, Minn.
Revenue: $124 million
Employees: 2,500
Role Model: Mother and company founder Marya Hage
Website: orionassoc.net

After Thomley became CEO of Orion in 2000 and the business started expanding significantly, she and her leadership team decided to take a more formal approach to culture-building, setting formal policies and establishing company programs, including it’s own nonprofit, to facilitate volunteering. “We wanted to have an organization that was based on the principle of commitment to community,” she says.

A Commitment to Community

The bedrock of that commitment is a policy providing employees with two paid days off each year to do volunteer work of their choice or to participate in company-sponsored activities with established groups like Habitat for Humanity and Toys for Tots. Orion also engages in corporate giving, donating an average of 25 percent of annual profits to charities since 2005.

But perhaps the greatest good Orion does follows natural disasters. Through its 501(c)3 nonprofit, Headwaters Relief Organization, Orion employees, their families and other individuals join disaster-relief missions that it coordinates in the U.S. and internationally. Employees receive pay when they participate in these programs as well.

Disaster relief was born as a company passion in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Thomley went to New Orleans as a volunteer psychologist with the Red Cross and was shocked by the feeble response compared to other disasters. So she returned home to Minnesota to recruit more people, returning to New Orleans with 36 employee volunteers.

Once there amid the destruction, everyone “had the same sort of reaction: How can we not be helping?” Thomley says. That trip to New Orleans led to many more, as the relief effort moved from cleanup to rebuilding and as Orion partnered with other organizations. Ultimately, it coordinated more than 1,000 volunteers to the area and helped establish the River of Hope Mental Health Resource Center, a free walk-in center, in the embattled Ninth Ward.

Volunteer Work for All

This work soon led Orion to create Headwaters Relief, which has today coordinated volunteers providing mental-health, cleanup and recovery assistance from Atlantic City, N.J., and Boulder, Colo. in the U.S. to the Philippines and Haiti abroad. The plunge into relief work was driven organically by what “got people excited and motivated,” Thomley says. “It just kept growing and evolving on its own — so it led us to some extent.”

Thomley, herself, says she spends at least 10 percent of her time on volunteer work, and she has gotten her entire family and extended family involved. Her three sons are now highly skilled as volunteers, she says. In fact, one works security when Headwaters goes to high-risk places.

“My children have volunteered since they were extremely little, and have worked nationally and internationally on disaster sites,” she says. “There is no one I would rather be on a team with responding than my kids and/or siblings, who are some of the most highly trained and experienced people I know.”

She encourages her employees to get their children and other family members involved too. And Headwaters leverages an array of partnerships with other companies and organizations. As such, today, 60 percent to 70 percent of Headwaters volunteers are not Orion employees.

“We have volunteers as young as 4 and as old as 84, and we always say: ‘There is work for everyone,’” she says. “We are good at looking for need and giving opportunity to fill those needs.”

Orion provides all administrative support to Headwaters, employing a half-time administrative person and one full-time fundraiser. Headwaters also has one local employee in Haiti, where it operates an education-sponsorship program called One Child at a Time in partnership with the New Grace School in Simonette. Otherwise, Headwaters leans on employee volunteers. This approach allows all donations to the organization to go directly to disaster relief.

But the benefits don’t go only to the community. They also go to the company, Thomley says. From the relief missions, “what we learned was we could send our staff to all the training in the world,… but you put someone with a team of six or seven people and you can teach leadership way beyond anything a class can do — and you create a sense of community.” On top of leadership skills, community work cements employee loyalty and helps Orion retain talent. Especially in a social-services-oriented business, “you have to create a greater good and a greater mission.”

This mission has created some friction at the office, Thomley admits. There was a time when, “if you didn’t volunteer, you maybe started to feel uncomfortable” at the company, she says. Orion’s solution was to make expectations clear to prospective new employees during job  interviews that “part of working here is giving back, and a part of what we ask people to do is volunteer.”

Orion’s commitment to volunteerism also cements client loyalty, she says. “People tell us they choose our services because of our community activism.” It may well have contributed to Orion’s remarkable growth over the decade and a half of Thomley’s leadership, when Orion went from being a three-company organization with $5 million in revenue to an 11-company one with revenue nearly 25 times higher.

“We just want to support a community that gives,” she says. “It’s really a story of many — and the power of what many can do.”

Why do you deserve to be featured?

Ours is a story of a business making the conscious choice to pursue the greater good for the community as fully as it pursues its business goals. Conventional wisdom would state it’s impossible to succeed in doing both well. Our company’s extraordinary business success, however, has occurred while those responsible for that success, from our leaders to our regular employees, have been actively engaged in our company’s successful mission of service to the community. Our story demonstrates that a company, so dedicated, actually benefits from the synergy that striving for both goals creates.

Posted: June 15, 2016

Riva RichmondCreating a Company that Gives