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Thursday, Jul 18, 2024

The Wooden Floor’s Employee Balancing Act

The Wooden Floor organization aims to provide stability to Orange County’s youth through its after-school dance program and accompanying community resources.

Chief Executive Dawn Reese knows that to accomplish this mission, that stability starts with the nonprofit’s employees.

“People rely on us,” Reese told the Business Journal. “If our staff is stable, our students are stable.”

The nonprofit was founded in 1983 by Beth Burns under the name Saint Joseph Ballet located in downtown Santa Ana. As the student population grew over the years, the organization gradually added more services beyond its dance program such as tutoring, college preparatory guidance, counseling, crisis intervention, scholarship awards and other learning opportunities.

“We are a creative youth development organization,” not just a dance studio, Reese said.

The Wooden Floor currently serves over 4,000 people per year across 20 cities.

The organization helps 475 students year-round while its community engagement program serves around 2,500 more students and about 1,200 parents as well through its services and workshops.

The team aims to add students when they’re in third to fifth grade, bringing them into the fold as soon as possible so they can participate through high school and take advantage of the program’s college prep resources.

The Wooden Floor counts around 50 employees, 18 full-time in OC, who contribute to the mission, and since 2005, 100% of Wooden Floor students have enrolled in higher education.

“It all starts with people,” Reese said.

The Santa Ana-based nonprofit this year ranked No. 4 on the Business Journal’s list of Best Places to Work, in the small business category (see list).

The Wooden Floor is well known among Orange County executives with a board of directors that includes Chair Theresa Allen, managing director of RBC Wealth Management, Joseph Chatelle, principal at Mercer, and Ernesto Vasquez, partner and CEO at SVA Architects Inc.

The Retention Strategy

Reese joined The Wooden Floor in 2009 as general manager and chief financial officer after almost five years as managing director of Opera Pacific.

At the beginning of her tenure, retention among full-time employees was around 48%.

Retention became one of her main projects as she started, knowing that long-term relationships were at the core of the nonprofit’s ability to meet the needs of the mission.

“We look at profit in terms of impact [in] the community, to who we’re serving and also within our staff,” she said. “Part of our strategy is to have high retention.”

Now it’s closer to 100% this year and usually ranges around 90%, according to Reese, who become sole CEO in late 2016.

Longtime employees offer the students long-term mentorship, the CEO added. Program participants work with multiple staff members as part of the organization’s intentional redundancy of relationships to create trust, she said.

This also helps with continuity within The Wooden Floor’s supporter base as well, according to Reese.

She said she asked a lot of questions in the beginning, trying to listen and learn about why people were leaving.

“A lot of it came down to flexibility and scheduling,” she said.

Reese said she discovered that younger workers were wanting to extend their education and join master’s programs and felt the need to depart due to the after-school nature of the program.

The Wooden Floor started to offer flex schedules for those who had worked three years at the nonprofit. This also led to offering leadership development programs at OneOC and California State University, Fullerton, for interested employees, both part time and full time.

“It keeps us innovative and agile to meet the needs of whatever we have going on,” Reese said. “Our staff is also part of who we serve.”

Reese also interviews each candidate for any full-time position and helps on-board new employees on the “why” behind the nonprofit. Incoming workers are then partnered with a more tenured employee who guides them as they start their role.

She has also been emphasizing strong supervisor relationships within her team, which will keep people engaged at the workplace.

“For me as a CEO, that means I don’t have to be everywhere,” she said, although Reese makes herself available for a private meeting with each of her employees every year.

Building Trust

In 2015, The Wooden Floor had an opportunity to gain a second 4,500-square-foot location in Santa Ana—only Reese “didn’t want the company culture to fray” upon scaling.

Her priority was to ensure that all internal operations remained solid. If internal stability at the organization was guaranteed, she believed that everyone would strive.

Reese founded a culture sustainability task force in 2016 to do so and the team moved into the second space in 2018.

The task force proved to be useful beyond the move when the pandemic hit in 2020 and people started to work from home. Reese worked to make the company’s culture digitally flexible for the virtual workforce that existed during that time.

The Wooden Floor paid everyone until the traditional end of after-school sessions in May even though many of the employees were not on campus.

“This granted the organization a lot of trust from its people,” Reese said.

The Wooden Floor staff was able to return to in person in 2021. Its facilities include three dance studios, a convertible black box theater, education and community centers and administration offices.

The organization recently piloted a new after-school program at nine school sites in the Garden Grove School Unified District this past spring and is currently waiting for approval.

“[We have] the intentionality and focus to ensure our staff are engaged, productive and cared for through the lens of empathy,” she said.

Business-Minded Nonprofit

When Dawn Reese, chief executive of The Wooden Floor, graduated from California State University, Long Beach, she intended to become a teacher and eventually a school principal.

Instead, she found a path in management consulting and started her career at Oaktree Consulting Group working in the technology sector. She moved her way up through different firms building business development and financial skills, also founding the Software Council of Southern California, and then landed at Opera Pacific in 2004.

Throughout all this, Reese was involved with various organizations related to arts and education.

She was managing director at the opera company until it closed its doors in 2008. When offered the role of chief financial officer and general manager at The Wooden Floor a year later, Reese realized that she could accomplish her original goal of being an educational leader at the student-centered organization.

In the last 15 years, Reese has learned that she can run a nonprofit with a business mindset.
“We’re mission-driven, business-minded,” she said.

Reese sees profit not only in financial results but in terms of the impact on the community The Wooden Floor serves, and within its staff.

“You lead with the lens of the team,” Reese said. “If we walk in that lens, it’s going to make a difference.”

—Emily Santiago-Molina

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