Creating Employee Centric Policies that Reinforce Your Values and Brand

 Wilder and Dax at 5 months the week before I returned. 

Wilder and Dax at 5 months the week before I returned. 

My Maternity Leave Story

When I told Sarah (founder and CEO of The Spark Mill) that I was pregnant with twins she screamed with delight and congratulated me profusely. At that point it was early in my pregnancy and too early to make any sort of concrete plans for what this news might mean for my future at work but if I’m honest, I was sweating it big time. There are a lot of unknowns with twin pregnancies and on top of a then one year old at home I felt like I wasn’t exactly the poster child for the best kind of employee to have working for you.

In that moment I went from feeling like a liability to an intricate part of a well-functioning team that respects the balance that comes with being a full-person at work.

During a drive to see a client Sarah and I both were talking about our lives and families and of course the twins and she looked me in the eyes and said, “Take the time you need, you’ll always have a job here.” In that moment I went from feeling like a liability to an intricate part of a well-functioning team that respects the balance that comes with being a full-person at work.

The team at The Spark Mill took my pregnancy and impending maternity leave in stride, we were optimistic but also realistic. We made sure I had coverage for client-facing work, and we were honest and up front with our clients about the transition that was going to occur. I documented as much as I possibly could.

And then, at 31 weeks, I had my babies. Fast and without any warning. Much, much earlier than we were anticipating. It was a traumatic birth and my babies were in the NICU for five of the hardest weeks of my life. Right after giving birth there was no way for me to have a phone conversation with my co-workers and I had no brain space to give to work in any way. Sarah and I had a few back and forth texts and then I was done. Instructed to not worry about work at all—Sarah even emailed me an out-of-office response for my email, so all I had to do was copy and paste. And, guys, we were busy at work when I left. We are generally hustling hard but we had A LOT going on, losing someone unexpectedly had to be extremely challenging.

My co-workers all checked in on me, brought me meals, sent me texts letting me know that I was missed but that everything was thriving in my absence. They even hired someone to come in temporarily to pick up some of my slack and kept me in the loop enough to feel completely confident and excited about this person (and lucky for me, Mariah was so awesome she is sticking around now that I’m back).  I took just over 5 months off from work.  That’s a long time!

My loyalty to The Spark Mill grew 10x over through this process and I know I am a better team member because of it.

When it was time to come back to work, I was offered more time, a flexible schedule, and the ability to come back slowly. They gave me flowers. They asked about my babies and how I was doing before we dove into work. And because they had given me the space and time to really unplug and focus on my babies I was more than ready to come back to work. My loyalty to The Spark Mill grew 10x over through this process and I know I am a better team member because of it.

I’ve worked at a lot of places in my tenure, and I would say that I’ve been luckier than most when it comes to working in an environment that values their team being balanced (probably in part because I’ve worked really hard at culture change everywhere I’ve worked). But I consider myself incredibly privileged to work somewhere that has such a healthy attitude toward their team members thriving in their work and home life. I wholeheartedly believe this makes us better at our work, because our clients are real people who have to find their own balances in their everyday lives.

Culture Change is an integral part of all of our work whether you are navigating change, plotting new programs, or embarking on a new brand. It was amazing to see our values and brand at play during my leave. 

If your organization is searching for a way to bring more balance to your work and create a culture where your employees feel backed up and supported, schedule a time to talk with us. 

Tired of Nonprofits Asking for Free Stuff, It’s all your Fault.

 Owls always look so angry. don't they. 

Owls always look so angry. don't they. 

originally posted on

As a former nonprofit fundraiser I want to tell you a secret… lean in a little… The truth is we train, teach, and coach nonprofits to ask for free stuff. Their boards question all expenses and they are literally forced to ask for free before paying. This is regardless of how big their budget is or how much their CEO makes. The problems with that system and methodology are for another day.

Lately, I have overheard and read countless stories of businesses, particularly start-ups, small businesses, restaurants and artists openly complaining about nonprofits constantly berating them for free stuff, discounts, auction items, etc. But I am here to tell you something hard to hear; the problem with all the complaining rests solely at the feet of the business owners.

Now before you get up in arms, you need to know that I get asked for free services all of the time. No, I haven’t attained a higher level of enlightenment. I am not so advanced in mindfullness as to not be bothered. What I did do, was spend time thinking critically about how to do pro bono, who should qualify, how I could create a win-win situation for both of us and common pitfalls that I experienced as a nonprofit staff member working with companies on pro bono projects.

Common Pitfalls in Pro Bono Programs

1. You over promise and under deliver — know your boundaries and what you can and cannot do

2. You lack an understanding of what makes nonprofits tick

3. You don’t understand the legal structure of nonprofit boards and how to manage them

4. You treat them as a “bench time” project and don’t devote your most awesome leaders to the team

5. You take on too many at one time and fail to deliver

6. You do not treat them as a real contract so it meanders as a project subject to mismatched expectations and scope creep

Create a Policy/Practice/Belief System

A few years ago I met Matthew Manos owner of through a client engagement. He is super passionate about pro bono and the delivery of quality services to nonprofits. He wrote a fabulous book “How to Give Half of Your Work Away For Free” that you can buy, download or read online. While that model did not prove to be sustainable for me, it was enough to get me thinking about the need to define a shape a program and put parameters and measurements in place.

Our Belief System about Probono Work:

1. They deserve to be treated just like a regular client

2. They should receive the same investment of time and attention regardless of their ability to pay, and

3. All services need to be delivered without strings attached.

So why is it your fault? Because you haven’t done the work to establish your own belief system and communicated it with others. Or because you think they should be grateful for anything and string a project out forever or get frustrated which causes the relationship to sour. Worse yet, you deliver a substandard product and word spreads.

Still interested? Here are some first steps you should take:

Your First Steps

1. Know your own market — Talk to nonprofit leaders

2. Know nonprofits and their distinct needs and differences

3. Understand how this builds off of your own portfolio of services

4. DO NOT make nonprofits jump through significant hoops to apply

5. Judge interest based on philosophical fit, capacity of nonprofit to receive services, and your own bandwidth

6. Be honest and set a threshold of time or a monetary amount

Two years into our own program and I won’t say it is perfect but putting the time in has meant that we can say yes, and more often no, and back it up with solid reasons. We have learned a few lessons along the way about capacity of a nonprofit needed to handle probono services, passion fit for consultants, and when to spot a project that is way bigger than what we can fit in our hourly limitation. We’ve also developed language around talking to clients about the program, its benefits, and what it isn’t designed for.

What if the next time someone asked you for free stuff and services you directed them to an application instead of feeling burdened by their request? (Here’s ours) It is simple, but also provides us easy places to say no.

Interested in starting your own probono program, email us for our probono manifesto with tips and ideas. Also, feel free to reach out. We are really passionate about helping companies think through this.

The Book Shelf: The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

 The Field guide to Human-Centered Design, by

The Field guide to Human-Centered Design, by

If you regularly read our newsletter you are familiar with our special section we lovingly refer to as "The Book Shelf."  Its origin story was a happy accident stemming from our own strategic planning session in 2017.   We discovered we were all voracious readers, but our book choices could not have been more different.  I personally have a Fiction then Nonfiction flow to my reading. 

The Why

To be in our line of work we have to be adaptive and regularly evaluate our tactics and tools. We promise not to use boilerplates, so we must constantly review new materials and new thoughts. We've been exploring design thinking and its application to strategic planning and change management. At its core, strategic planning done well is 100% in line with design thinking methodology. put this out as a guide to trying out human-centered design. Their web presence is amazing and you can download the guide for free. Thinking it would be a resource for all of our staff, I went ahead and grabbed the real-paper-smells-delicious version.

Top 3 Things I Learned

1. It's a gorgeous and quick read that is thoughtfully designed (always a big bonus)
2. Includes a few really awesome exercises that we look forward to trying out
3. Most important was a real heavy section on empathy work in order to design within a community 


As we delve deeper into authentic community engagement work with our clients we are often faced with decisions on depth and scope of engagement. This book provides a great resource to share that articulates the goal and purpose of human-centered design and co-designing within a community being impacted. 

2017 Probono Bonanza and the First Draft of Our Probono Manifesto

probono program corporate structure

This week we welcomed four new probono clients into the fold and finished work with two others. This brings our total number of probono clients to eight for the year. It is our goal to work with at least one probono client per month. The clients below represent $16,000 in free services in 2017. 

Why Probono?

We have a firm belief that nonprofits deserve access to high quality consulting. We also think that businesses get frustrated by being asked to offer probono services on a regular basis. So, we took time to think of our ideal probono clients, our capacity, and what nonprofits need to get out of a positive probono experience. At the end of the day, they deserve to be treated just like a regular client and receive the same investment of time and attention regardless of their ability to pay, and all services need to be delivered without strings attached

Kicking Off With New Clients

Recent Successes

Qualifications for Probono

  1. Annual Budget under $150,000 rationale - need services, but no or little capacity to pay
  2. At least one paid staff member rationale - you need capacity to handle consulting work
  3. Nonprofit or church rationale - we reserve this service for non-profit motivated entities


Want to Start Your Own Program?

Are you a company and want information on our probono program and how to structure your own? Feel free to download our PROBONO MANIFESTO and please feel free to reach out to our Founder, Sarah Milston at sarah @ 

Creativity in the Workplace


Last week Heide Trepanier and Sarah Milston presented at C3 Richmond in a talk titled Breathe, Create, and Act (a copy of the presentation can be found below.)  This was the debut of a new offering at The Spark Mill called {flare} promoting creativity in the workplace.  

We started out coloring mandalas and watching the amazing tibetan sand video as inspiration for playing and collaborating with the universe rather than fighting against it.  Heide discussed her artistic process used to create art and her new vision that art is a community property as articulated in her work at LoveBomb. 

We finished the talk with a snapshot of some workplace creativity tools drawing from The Spark Mill's visual content work (seen to the right), the book Gamestorming, and inspiration from Brainzooming's Extreme Creativity blogs and a bonus showing of Sunni Brown's TED Talk on the Power of Doodling. 

What will you do today to ACT LIKE A KID?