Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.

You could say that the work Rebecca Thomley, CEO of Orion Associates, does on a daily basis is already pretty important.

In 2000, she took the reins of the Minnesota company, which her mother originally founded as Meridian from a basement in 1980. Orion provides a sprawling array of management services to the social-services sector. For example, one Orion division helps the elderly and disabled tap into Medicare or Medicaid to stay in their own homes, rather than go to a nursing or group home.

But perhaps more important — at least to Thomley — is the workplace culture she has fostered at Orion, encouraging its 2,225 employees to volunteer for meaningful causes. When you volunteer “you have the opportunity to connect with people in a way that might not otherwise be possible,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from. The only thing there is the human connection. That’s so powerful.”

Orion, which posts annual revenue of $165 million, offers paid time-off to employees to work on causes of their choice. The official policy is that employees can take 2 days, no questions asked. “It’s an honor system,” she says. But if people need more time, Thomley gives it to them. “The most we’ve had someone take off is about 7 weeks,” she says. “That was with the assumption that the person can still do their job.”

Thomley also has an employee-run committee select about five causes for Orion to support each year — things like Walk MS for multiple sclerosis or a Feed My Starving Children event. “People can have all the time off that they want to participate in those,” she says.

And 12 years ago, Thomley took the company’s volunteerism to a new level when she helped found Headwaters Relief Organization, a nonprofit that assists disaster relief efforts around the world. All Orion employees can take part in Headwaters projects, which Thomley views as something akin to leadership training.

Inspired by Katrina

Thomley is a licensed psychologist by training. She had built a thriving practice before “reluctantly” taking the helm of Orion, after her father passed away and her retirement-age mother sought to step down. “Family’s always first, so that was how I came here,” she says.

As a mental-health professional, Thomley has spent decades treating the trauma that goes hand-in-hand with disaster, sometimes being embedded on Red Cross relief teams. Back in 1995, she assisted with relief in Oklahoma City after the bombing of the federal building. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, she immediately headed down — and was assigned to the city’s Ninth Ward, a predominantly African-American neighborhood devastated by the storm. “It was just a very grim situation,” she says.

Thomley gets emotional when she recalls one Katrina-related event in particular. “I met a pastor there who was coming back to see the damage for the first time,” she says, and he cried “as he walked through his church that had just been demolished.” She realized services and support would never “come in at the level that would ever serve these communities.” She made a pledge to the pastor. “I said, ‘I’ll get people and we’ll come back.’”

Back in Minneapolis, Thomley put together what would eventually become Headwaters. About 35 of her employees volunteered, filling semi-trucks with food, and “we went to work,” she says. “We started with clean-up and we moved into rebuilding.” Some volunteers took multiple trips to Louisiana. “It brought us together,” she says. “It built community. It taught leadership skills. In that process, we finally realized it was something we were going to keep on doing.”

The Business Case for Volunteerism

Today, Thomley, herself, continues to volunteer, and this past fall she headed to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico after a string of hurricanes devastated those regions. Headwaters has also grown, with many volunteers now coming from outside Orion. It has provided aid after tornadoes, fires, earthquakes and other disasters everywhere from Haiti to the Philippines.

Orion picks up some of the costs of running Headwaters, paying the salary of one employee who handles fundraising and another who does part-time administrative work for the nonprofit.  The nonprofit is also funded by grants and donations. Thomley estimates she spends about 10 percent of her time on Headwaters projects.

Thomley believes there is a direct business benefit to volunteerism and encouraging employees via paid time off to get involved. Many employees who started with Orion directly out of college are still with the company; the average tenure is 8 years. “When you create an opportunity for people to serve and to share and to connect and to feel like they’re empowered,” she says, “you create commitment.”

The challenge now is fostering that spirit as the company grows larger. “We’re 42 times the size of when I started,” she says. “It is such a struggle to keep that going at the level we would like to.” Orion makes its commitment to volunteerism clear on its website. Also, “you know when you interview at this company that we make that commitment to the community,” she says. A job candidate’s interest in volunteerism “is part of your evaluation.”

Thomley also says volunteerism gives her a sense of reward, working in a family business — and an industry — that she didn’t necessarily choose. “I am happiest when I am out working in the field, to be in the moment and connected to people,” she says. “Through this work, I can touch a child in Sierra Leone. I can work with a child who has lost his parents to Ebola. I can sit with a family who has lost everything in Afghanistan. That is what this business does for us.”

Read Full Transcript

Rebecca There’s nothing that teaches you better how to lead or to supervise better than disaster work. So there is a direct payback to us as a business. When you create opportunity for people to serve, and to share, and to connect, you create commitment.

TEXT Rebecca Thomley – CEO – Orion Associates – Minneapolis, Minn.

Rebecca Orion Associates is a management organization and we provide management services in the social service field.

SOT When you’re doing CPR, right in the center is where you want the heel of your hand.

Rebecca So whether it’s social workers, residential homes, crisis homes, support for children with disabilities, elderly, anything in social services to the community.

TEXT Orion’s roots go back to Rebecca’s childhood in St. Cloud, Minnesota. In 1980 her mother, Marya Hage, started Meridian Services in the family basement.

SOT Hi, Mom.
-So, we got our second team out to Houston.

Rebecca My mother started her business Meridian Services. She’s an incredibly creative person. It was new, it was innovative, providing services to help people stay in their own homes and remain more independent.

TEXT After a long career working for the state, Rebecca’s father, Orval, joined the business.

TEXT Rebecca attended St. Cloud University.

TEXT She graduated with a degree in psychology and criminal justice in 1983.

TEXT Two years later she qualified as a licensed psychologist.

Rebecca I went to work for the state right out of grad school. And I started to build a practice on the side at the same time.

TEXT By 1992, Rebecca had a thriving therapy practice but no health insurance.

Rebecca My parents said, “Hey, you know, if you come a day a week and work with us, you can sign up on our health insurance plans,” and for that I would start their services up in the Twin Cities area.

TEXT By 1999 Meridian had over $5 million in annual revenue.

TEXT But that year her father died.

TEXT Her mother had health problems and wanted to work less.

Rebecca I had the background, and the training, and the experience and very reluctantly I said, okay, I would step in and take over.

TEXT Rebecca became CEO of Meridian in 2000.

Rebecca I was a little bit overwhelmed with the responsibility. That’s why I went back for the business degrees, because I thought, “What the heck am I doing here?”

TEXT Rebecca went on to oversee a massive corporate expansion.

TEXT Today Meridian is just one of 11 companies under the umbrella of Orion Associates.

TEXT The company has more than 2,500 employees and revenues over $125 million.

SOT We have everything set except for that delivery site.

Rebecca We make our decisions as a team. We have contributed for many years over 25% of our revenues. We all, I think, live very well and I think we live that much better for what we can do for the community at large.

TEXT Employees commit to doing two paid days of volunteer work a year.

Rebecca For me a pivotal point in my work here was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I am a long time volunteer with the Red Cross and I happened to end up getting assigned to the Ninth Ward area.

Rebecca I met a pastor there who was coming back to see the damage for the first time. He walked through his church that had just been demolished, looking at, you know, his books, and...I don’t want to get emotional.
-It’s okay.

Rebecca And, you know, I made a commitment to him. I said, “You know what. I’ll get people, we’ll come back and we’ll help.”

Rebecca That began a grass root movement, which is now Headwaters Relief Organization.

TEXT Since Katrina, Headwaters has worked in disaster relief across America and around
the world.

Rebecca Our first international venture was to the earthquake in Haiti. We responded to the Philippines, to the Nepal earthquake. We got involved with Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

TEXT Employees often bring their family and friends to help on missions.

TEXT Today most volunteers are external to the company.

Rebecca When you experience a connection with someone where it doesn’t matter what their background is, what their education is, the color of their skin, their religion. And you have that moment with that connection, that is so powerful and so meaningful, that to give people that opportunity, that’s, that’s where I want to be.