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Featured Nonprofit 401(k) Client: ProUnitas

One of the best parts of working at Human Interest is the sheer amount of exposure we get to different types of organizations across the United States. We talk to landscapers, restaurant owners, plastic surgeons, and many people in various industries who work very hard for their customers and employees every single day.

One type of organization is a bit more different than the others, and it’s a type we enjoy working with immensely: nonprofits. Generally, nonprofits are limited when it comes to resources, and often don’t have a designated HR department or the funds to offer expensive benefits to their employees who do a lot of good for the world.

The reason we’re so proud to work with nonprofits is that we’re able to help them offer a 401(k) (or 403(b)!) to their employees when they previously thought it just wasn’t possible.

ProUnitas was one of our early nonprofit clients to offer a 401(k) to their employees, and they do some pretty amazing work -- I interviewed the founder and CEO, Adeeb Barqawi, about the organization, the employees, and their mission.

Introductory information

  • ProUnitas website
  • Mission statement: To facilitate the effective entry, coordination and implementation of Houston’s existing educational, health and social services for underserved communities.
  • Payroll: Intuit QuickBooks Online
  • HRIS: Zenefits
  • Operating since 2014

The ProUnitas Organization

Margarette: What does ProUnitas do and why is it important?

Adeeb: ProUnitas currently focuses on the neighborhood that I used to teach in when I was working with Teach for America (Kashmere Gardens, Texas). We work with the age 0 to 24 population, mostly students who attend schools in Kashmere. When I taught there, I learned that the kids there have been through so much. I found that I was spending a lot of time being reactive and trying to connect students to resources and services that were all very disconnected.

As a country, we’ve become program rich and system poor. There’s a program almost for everything but they’re not coordinated and they’re not able to succeed in their areas of expertise. As I was coordinating more services as a teacher, the better results I was getting with my kids. And I was like, well hold on -- what happens when I leave?

It looked like everything is always dependent on people. And if a principal or teacher is great, then with brute force, they can personally make the various programs work together for a student, case-by-case. But what if you don’t have that kind of teacher or principal? What if they’re too busy? So that was really the emergence of something that builds on systems and then relationships, rather than the other way around.

This is my personal conviction, to find a solution for these students, and at the same time it’s an opportunity I found -- things aligned and I recognized that this is an opportunity to act for social good and do something that is disruptive and innovative, and it all started there.

Growth for ProUnitas

Margarette: What would it take for there to be a ProUnitas in other cities where there’s also a large population of children who are under-resourced? Do you guys have plans to expand?

Adeeb: Absolutely. We have demand from other districts and cities, but we’re really taking the time for us as an agency to become sorted internally. We want to be clear about our internal  culture and values as an agency. I mean, we have grown so much in a short amount of time, and we’re expected to double and triple in the next couple of years.

Margarette: What is the hardest part of your job day to day?

Adeeb: The hardest part of the job day to day is to stop the inclination to help whenever you can. It’s very hard when you’re in situations with people who are struggling to not want to help – you want to jump in and help everybody.

But you need to separate what’s the current problem, and what’s actually systemic? Is this well-intentioned short-term decision going to have an unintended long-term negative consequence? People approach us and say, “Hey would you come and expand into a whole new neighborhood?” And we say, “No. Let’s figure out Kashmere first.”

Usually short term fixes are incentivized because they’re immediate. But what we end up realizing is that that short term fix actually delays progress when it comes to long term longevity and sustainability. Every research point confirms this – like increasing homeless shelters increases homelessness. An increased number food banks have a direct correlation to the presence of food deserts.

And when you look at all of these scenarios, they’re well-intentioned but they’re all short-term incentive-based. And the reason that ProUnitas focuses on root causes is because it’s the more difficult thing to do. What’s difficult is that we’re restructuring the way that partner schools and communities all coordinate.

If you’re a nonprofit that focuses on STEM skills for students, we want you to have the time to focus just on that, not family issues, nutrition issues, or transportation issues for their students. You should have the chance to focus.

ProUnitas Culture and Values

Margarette: What’s unique about ProUnitas as a nonprofit?

Adeeb: Well, we don’t “do” a single program. We’re not a food bank and we’re not a mentorship program. We’re not a direct service, and we could have easily been a for-profit. We’re technically a nonprofit but we run it as a for-profit agency in terms of processes, efficiency, and a focus on results. We’re not just here because we have good intentions. And I’m not saying that that’s the case with all nonprofits, but put simply, good intentions are not good enough.

Margarette: Can you tell me more about how ProUnitas is run internally?

Adeeb: We’re drawn to companies like Human Interest or Zenefits -- companies that are disruptive in their markets and have removed a lot of barriers, because that’s what we do, too. And that’s how we run internally, too. The only difference between us and a for-profit company is that whatever revenue we make, we reinvest it back into the agency. But in terms of looking for revenue streams and offering competitive salaries and benefits, that is something that we stand behind, which isn’t typical for nonprofits.

Our end goal is to help and empower the kids we serve. It’s not possible to do that successfully when you have employees that are wearing a million hats at once, if they’re not compensated well, or if they feel they aren’t valued.

The ProUnitas Team

Margarette: It sounds pretty consistent -- you want your employees, just like the programs you work with, to focus on doing and enjoying their jobs so that everyone can help even more students more effectively.

Adeeb: Exactly. And that’s why I spend my time thinking about how to cut costs and maximize efficiency in innovative ways. So I personally don’t want to spend a lot of time on paperwork, and I don’t want my employees to have to do that either, so I seek out agencies and services that can take this kind of work off our plates. I want my mind to be free to be innovative for our partners and kids we serve.

Margarette: How did you guys decide you were ready to offer a 401(k)?

Adeeb: To be honest with you, it was a no-brainer. We offer dental, vision, and health as well, by the way. To me, these are things you just need to have. We were looking strategically at really good agencies that serve kids – whether they’re for-profits and nonprofits – and we did a comparative analysis specifically about how these agencies retain employees? And all these good things like insurance and 401(k)s were mentioned.

But then what we noticed was that our employees were so shocked, in a way, that we’ve offered these things at a nonprofit. And when we give the presentations or onboard new employees, they say, “Wow, ProUnitas is investing in me for the long term. They’re not just here for me to do something then leave. This is somewhere I can build a career, and they want me to grow.”

Margarette: Yes, we’ve heard from our other clients that nonprofits typically have a retention problem, and there’s often a revolving door of employees who get burnt out, and new ones come in, etc. It seems like ProUnitas invests in employees because you would like employees to invest themselves in the company as well.

Adeeb: Absolutely. Our biggest asset is our people and their development and then the culture that we put in place. I don’t think that anyone can be successful without truly investing in their employees, whether it’s with professional development or whatever you offer to help employees feel secure and equipped to succeed. I mean, that’s the least that we can do.

Of course, you need to be smart about it and figure out ways to do this and maintain a high-quality experience in a way that will not cost the company a lot, so that you can actually take that money and then even invest it even more in them. This is something I wish more companies and nonprofits would think about. There are innovative ways to cut costs while still delivering quality.

Margarette: It seems like you care quite a whole lot about your employees. I would love to hear what you’re most proud of when it comes to the way that they work together, the way that they work with you. I’m guessing that they’re pretty happy to be there, so I’d love to hear how that manifests in their work.

Adeeb: So we follow a very close-knit, collaborative structure. Where there are structures in place, but the structures are put in place so that you don’t have to worry about mundane things that everybody has to do so that they can actually focus on work.

We use Yammer and it’s just blowing up in terms of how we share things, we motivate and praise each other. We’re very comfortable in saying, “Well we don’t know, what do you guys think?” And sometimes you get the best answer from the most unexpected individual. And I think that’s the culture that we foster.

And you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on company gatherings and dinners and whatever, but it’s these little things that you continuously feel engaged, and they feel they are part of a continuum. What we’ve eliminated is that culture of them vs. us; admin or managers, or whatever the case is. We view making mistakes as perfectly okay. I mean, you own it, you learn from it and you go on from it. What’s the big deal?

ProUnitas Employee Benefits

Margarette:  Do you have anyone helping you with benefits or HR? Are you the main point person for all these?

Adeeb:  I have a part-time employee helping with HR. There was just no reason to have a full-time employee. A separate person just for HR would have cut into my overhead big time. Naturally, we’ll be hiring a COO at some point, but it will be easy for them to manage something like a 401(k) as well if we’re using a good service for it. So that what maybe would have consumed 50% of their time can now consume 5% of their time and they can really focus on strategic growth.

Margarette: Yeah, that makes sense. You don’t want a COO who’s a 401(k) specialist. That’s just really not a big differentiator for you guys. I’m sure there’s more fruitful things that they can be doing for you. How did you hear about Human Interest once you started looking into 401(k) options?

Adeeb: I was just frustrated because I was researching 401(k) plans, and finding X company is going to charge me $3,000 to do this. Then this other company is going to charge me Y to do A, B, and C. And I’m just sitting there like, why? It stems from the way that I think about resources for our kids. Things don’t have to be this complicated and expensive for the end user. I wanted something that would coordinate all of the back-end work, and I wanted a seamless, easy interface, and a user-friendly experience for my employees.

I just typed in “401k nonprofit” and I found Human Interest and I checked it out. It was definitely a leap of faith, since Human Interest isn’t like those other big companies that have been around for decades. But I felt good about it, and I felt that this is legit and it’s seamless, and it’s exactly what I wanted. I looked at your investment funds, and I’m a big fan of Vanguard funds, by the way, and I invest in them personally. And then it went from there. And I’m very happy because from my QuickBooks, to my Zenefits, to my 401(k), everything is all integrated, which is all I need. I also had a very good experience with Diana, who onboarded me and my team. Very seamless… And I think we did it in record time.

Margarette: Yeah. People tell us that they’re surprised by how easy it is. I think they think of financial institutions as slow-moving and very inefficient. So we try to make that a little bit more intuitive and easy for our clients.

Adeeb: Yeah. And that’s the biggest thing that I appreciated. I think that there is a mutual understanding that there are certain hiccups that can happen, but the ultimate goal is to serve the client in the best possible way and that you’re positively affecting my employees’ lives. I just felt that it’s a very secure, safe method where you guys have kind of found efficiencies and in return made it cheaper for the client so that employees can keep more of their money – and for a business to be able to offer it. So that was really the selling point.

Margarette: Thank you, Adeeb! That’s exactly what we want to help you with. We’re looking forward to helping you and your employees save lots of money in the future.

P.S. Click here to learn about donation and volunteer opportunities with ProUnitas.

Image credit: Marie D. De Jesus, Houston Chronicle Staff