I don't take fancy vacations. I buy all my jewelry at Claire's. I can't remember the last time I went out to a fancy dinner. My family lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment, and my kids share a bedroom. But I do have one extravagant vice: shoes.
If most people were to take a moment to picture in their minds the average, not-for-profit, save-the-world girl, they ... well, they probably wouldn't, because who wants to think about hemp, hairy legs, and Birkenstocks? But I'd rather eat a pair of Birkenstocks than put them on my feet, and I love love love my Christian Louboutins. My red patent-leather, 5-inch peep-toe slingbacks are not mere shoes. They are fine art. They make me feel tall. They make me feel sexy. They make me feel powerful. I call them my "special-day shoes."
My Christian Louboutins are also one of the secrets to my not-for-profit success. Here's why — and it's something that everyone who manages employees, whether in a for-profit business or a not-for-profit, should keep in mind: A little extravagance goes a long way. My job title is not "martyr," and I'm betting you don't work with anyone who has that on her résumé either. While a regular diet of first-class flights, three-Michelin-star meals, and five-star hotels is a waste of money, an occasional luxury isn't just a nice thing. As far as I'm concerned, it's a staff necessity that offers one of the best returns on investment in business.
Don't confuse "luxury" with "expensive": The word actually comes from the Latin luxus, which can be defined as "extra" or "excess." It's something you wouldn't ordinarily have — and that's why it means so much more. Two of the kids in my office ran track for the University of Pennsylvania. They still talk rapturously about one signal day, after a particularly long and hot run, when their coach decided to take them out for ice-cream sundaes. Years later, they still remember the cold ice cream and hot fudge. If their coach had taken them out for sundaes every day after practice, it wouldn't have meant as much or stayed in their minds for so long. And they'd be fatties.
My friend Ami Dar, who founded and runs idealist.org, picks one day a year to declare a Sun Day. He waits for the weatherman to alert him to a Tiffany-blue sky, cool breezes, and sunshine — and then he alerts his staff that the doors to the office will be closed and they'd better spend some time outside. A few people may panic at the thought of rescheduling meetings and missing emails, but Ami tells me that they come back to work the next day with a little more pink in their cheeks and bounce in their steps. One of the keys to the success of a Sun Day? The element of surprise. It jars folks out of their routines and gives a (pleasant) shock to their senses. It also makes them feel doubly appreciated, in a way that you don't when a gift is expected.
Even when the surprise costs a little more, I'd argue that it's worth the expense. In April, I took my entire staff to see the new Green Day musical, American Idiot. Because we're a not-for-profit, we got a deal on the tickets, but it still cost me $1,300 (in other words, nearly two pairs of Louboutins), and it cost my staff three hours of in-office productivity. But the off-site productivity was immeasurable. For several of the employees, it was their first Broadway show. We sang together. We laughed. We cried. I even saw a couple of fist pumps, although I'm not sure why. Whatever — this was an invaluable team-building experience, forging camaraderie in a way that I'd bet a year of whiteboard exercises never could.
Here's my challenge to you, to your charity, to your business: Find $100 in your budget and spend it on something extraordinary today. It may be something that feels silly. It should be something that makes your team smile. And it must be something that feels special — and makes your staff feel special. Because if it doesn't — or if you just have no idea what that might be — you might have a bigger management problem on your hands.
Also, don't forget about yourself. What are your Louboutins? What can you do to treat yourself — occasionally? As for me, I'm going to go spend a few minutes walking around my bedroom in my Louboutins. This is going to be a special day.
Do Something CEO Nancy Lublin is the author of Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, which comes out June 24.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.