Balancing the Books and Building Office Culture at Idealist
Playing trombone in a symphony orchestra might not seem like a step along the path to running accounting and office operations at a well-known nonprofit, but for Sara Lewis the skills she built as a working musician led directly to her current role. As the Accounting and Office Manager for the past seven years at Idealist, her responsibilities span planning company culture building events, handling complex accounting tasks and administrative tasks, and ensuring the office is a great place to work. She takes pride in providing her coworkers with handpicked gourmet treats and planning the company holiday party. I caught up with her over homemade cheese fondue during the weekly team tea at Idealist’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
Tell me more about Idealist’s mission.
The core mission of Idealist is help people live free and dignified lives. We create a place for like-minded individuals to connect and support each other to make the world a better place, and offer services such as a job and volunteer opportunity posting board and nonprofit resources, and we are building a network to help people support each other.
What interested you in the company and role and how did it relate to your past experience?
By training, I am a classical trombonist. I played professionally in Florida and then came to New York to get my Masters from the Manhattan School of Music. Ironically, as a student, I had not been the best with my finances, so to make ends meet I worked as an office manager for a long-term care insurance broker. I’d never worked with Excel before, but I soon found that what I enjoyed most about the job was working with spreadsheets and Quickbooks.
I also worked at a tech company that grew exponentially as a bookkeeper and office manager, as well as a non-profit, Gibney Dance, and for marketing and architecture firms.
I saw an ad on Craigslist for Idealist—I had not heard of them before—and when I saw the job description I thought, “This is it, we’re made for each other, that’s it, I need to get this job.” The overall culture, and how valued staff are, came through in the job posting. It was clear that the people are first.
How has your role evolved in the seven years you've been at Idealist?
My title is Accounting and Office Manager, but I’ve been shifting more towards the accounting side and I currently manage an Operations Coordinator.
When I started, I balanced keeping the office running smoothly, managing vendor relations, interacting with the building staff, and tackling bigger projects including troubleshooting and upgrading our terrible Internet. I also answered questions about invoicing on the website, did payroll, closed out and ran all the financial reports and managed the annual audits, which are a big deal for nonprofits. I planned staff appreciation events like summer outings, ordered snacks for the office, and planned the holiday party.
I’m moving into more of a controller role and have handed much of the day-to-day operations and procurement requests like “I need a mouse” to our operations coordinator. Now I get to take on more high level and nuanced tasks, like all the reporting and data for our 401k administration. As we’ve grown the accounting has taken more time and I’ve prioritized it further. I also recently helped out with the launch of the new Idealist.org website.
I like managing the office and lucky for me I get to pick and choose what I want to do now. The holiday party is like my baby. I have a hard time giving that up. In addition, music is something I care deeply about, and I still play the occasional symphony orchestra gig. My job doesn’t completely define who I am and years of experience have taught me you can’t put a price tag on being happy where you are.
What is one aspect of your job that you feel really passionate about?
I’m not going to call myself a foodie, but I like food and have strong opinions about it and I like planning. We invest a lot in people and want them to feel really good about where they work.
I got a professional coffee set up for the office and it’s something people really appreciate it. I stop at Grand Central Market on my way to work and get special cheeses and gourmet charcuterie because I think it’s really nice to have something nice to nosh on.
I feel proud of the amount of perks and flexibility we have and what we can provide our employees for the size of the organization. I can’t go crazy with the budget, but the summer employee appreciation activities and holiday parties that I implemented in 2012 were new initiatives for the organization.
What’s are some processes, tools, or strategies you use to streamline your workload?
Expensify is a great tool to enable people to submit receipts and expense reports. We set up a direct feed from staff credit cards, because not everyone is like me and as organized about their finances and it used to be like herding cats. Expensify has smoothed things out.
I use a lot lists written in Google docs to manage all the tasks I’m doing and share them with my manager. It sounds silly, but I’m just a list person. Sometimes these fancier apps don’t save you time or enhance your actual work flow.
Finally, I streamline my inbox so there’s only 50 things in my inbox of things that are not archived. If my inbox has more than fifty non-archived emails in it I know I need to step it up.
If you were to give a piece of advice to other office managers, especially those just starting out, what would it be?
I defend my personal space at the office. I take a proactive approach and communicate my boundaries. I used to be reactionary, but now I’m very open, because getting interrupted can really throw me off. I say clearly, “If you need something, please email them to me, and if it looks like I’m really into something give me a minute.”
Don’t be afraid to set personal boundaries at work and don’t be afraid to enforce them when you are concentrating on a project. Boundaries ensure that you are more emotionally available when you do have time. If you make your boundaries clear people will respect your space.