SOMETIMES, THE BEST INCENTIVES are the things that employees need, not the things they want. Meridian Health, a leading hospital system in central New Jersey, has created WIN (When In Need), an emergency fund to assist employees during crises, from fires to foreclosures.When one employee's home burned, she was given security money for a new apartment. Another employee who was going to have her gas turned off in the midst of a financial crisis got money to keep it on.

Before WIN, Meridian's employees had raised money for crisis-stricken co-workers, but in an ad hoc manner. While many contributed generously to employees they knew, they donated more rarely to those they didn't. Says John Sindoni, senior vice president for human resources: “We realized we needed to do more to make sure distribution of funds was equitable, and we needed oversight over distribution.”

To solve the problem, the company created the WIN fund in 2001. Employees donate once a year, through a one-time contribution or a payroll deduction. An employee/staff committee at each Meridian site decides how to disburse the funds.

To use the fund, employees must face their crises “through no fault of their own,” says Sindoni. The WIN fund pays for daily necessities such as utilities, food, and clothes. Even employees who do not donate to the fund can qualify for up to $1,000 in aid in an emergency. Since 2001, 537 employees have contributed $108,267, and in 2004 alone, the fund disbursed some $20,000 to employees in need. This benefit and others have helped to keep the organization's nursing vacancy rate between 3 percent and 4 percent — compared to an 8.4 percent rate in New Jersey and a 13 percent rate nationwide.

“Employees see us as not only as an employer, but like a family,” says Sindoni. “We like to take care of our own.”

Bob Nelson, PhD, is president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego; best-selling author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, and a frequent presenter to management groups and conferences. For more information, visit