SPRING HILL — It's 2 p.m. on a Friday, and Jackson, Riley, Bailey, Willy and Dora just checked in at the office.
The other staffers love having them help out, even though their main job is to look cute, eat treats and take walks.
"They relax while we work," said Katie Nelson, communications director for the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties and owner of Riley, a 3-year-old golden retriever mix.
Welcome to Dog Day Afternoon, where employees get to spend the last few hours of the work week with their pooches. It's this and other perks such as barbecue lunches, a sick leave bank, and potluck staff meetings that earned the agency a spot on the NonProfit Times annual list of 50 best nonprofits to work for in 2012.
The coalition ranked No. 16 overall. With 36 employees, it's in the company of such well-known names as the American Heart Association (No. 39), Make-A-Wish Foundation of America (No. 14) and the Mayo Clinic Health System (No. 48).
Winners were subdivided into three categories: large, medium and small employers. Within the small employers list, the coalition ranks seventh out of 17 alongside organizations such as the Animal League Defense Fund (No. 4) and the Parents as Teachers National Center Inc. (No. 6).
It also is among four companies with headquarters in Florida, including No. 1 on the list, the Wounded Warrior Project of Jacksonville.
That agency and its 209 staffers work to assist American military men and women injured in conflicts and who are making the transition back to civilian life.
The other two Florida companies are Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida in Daytona Beach and Palm Beach Habilitation Center.
This nationwide survey and awards program — founded in 2010 — recognizes 50 organizations as the best places of employment in the nonprofit industry. Organizations were evaluated based on a questionnaire to gather information about policies and practices. Employees were then surveyed. The combined scores were used to determine the list.
Coalition director Jim Farrelly said that with low salaries offered at nonprofit agencies, it's important to create a culture that motivates staffers.
The typical salary of a veteran coalition employee is about $30,000. A recent new hire was offered $22,000.
"Our staff do not remain aboard for financial security," said Farrelly, who started Dog Day shortly after joining the coalition in 2008 and who brings Bailey, a standard poodle/golden retriever mix he calls a "goldendoodle." "They stay to shoulder their responsibility for a crucial part in our important community mission — to prepare our children to enter and succeed in school."
The coalition, which has won two people's choice awards from WEDU's Be More program, has come a long way in just six years.
In 2006, the agency that had been through a merger, two directors, board infighting and state intervention to heal what officials described as a "dysfunctional" organization. The group endured such negative publicity that it couldn't raise a dime from Pasco's power brokers.
Today, the group has a private foundation to raise money, hosts kid-friendly community events and receives clean audits from the state.
"It's like a family here," said Pattie Eacobacci, the coalition's office manager and a cat person. "It's the little things that count."
She said Farrelly eventually might add a "Cat Day" on a different day of the week.
Joked Nelson: "The cats would probably have to have their own office."