Nonprofits and the Culture Conundrum

by Josh Jacobson

Here at Next Stage, we talk a lot about nonprofit strategy. Seriously, so much. Click around our website, and you’ll see thoughtfully crafted pages and myriad blog posts outlining our approach to strategic planning, resource development, talent acquisition and operational excellence. But there’s one area of nonprofit strategy that we don’t think we’ve fully explored just yet, and that’s nonprofit organizational culture.

You might be wondering: just how important is it that nonprofits develop an intentional organizational culture?

In a word: essential.

At a time when so many external pressures are conspiring to disrupt the nonprofit business model, the existence — and protection — of organizational culture is a great stabilizing force that can overcome rough seas and serve as connective tissue for stakeholders.

Making the Intangible Tangible

First, a definition. What is culture? I’m picturing my relative who hates what he perceives to be “touchy feely” phrases. I joke with him, “let’s talk about our feelings.” It’s an easy way for me to clear the room.

But organizational culture isn’t some esoteric thing. Far from it. It’s a system of shared assumptions and beliefs that govern how people behave in a particular organization. Any group of people has a culture, even if it is somewhat unexamined or undefined. For example, your group of best friends has a culture based on what you agree is important and how you treat each other – in fact, it’s probably why they are your friends in the first place.

Given their structure, as organizations made up of dedicated volunteers and staff with assumptions and beliefs of their own, nonprofits inherently have cultures, too. But they desperately need to do a better job of defining and protecting their cultures. “To join this organization is to ascribe to these values and guiding principles.”

If your mission is the “what,” then culture (defined by guiding principles and reinforcing processes) is the “how.” Given this definition, no one should be able to represent your organization without first affirming their alignment with a set of core beliefs.

Is that your experience, fellow nonprofit do-gooder? Did you have to take an oath of office? Pinky pledge to hold up a set of values? Was anything like that even remotely discussed with you before you took the job, joined the board or engaged as a volunteer?

No? Well, that’s not all that surprising.

One would think nonprofits would be pretty good at this given their missions, but the truth is that some have allowed the social good brand of nonprofits generally to serve as a surrogate for intentional culture development. And that simply isn’t good enough.

Downside Risk

I could try to convince you why organizational culture should be a priority in your nonprofit by looking at the positives: how it creates increased productivity, how it engenders longer staff tenures and mobilized board members (yes, board members who fundraise), and how it leads to positive community perception. Sure, I could do that.

But what I’ve found working with countless nonprofits is this: culture is a rarely examined concept until it becomes a problem. It’s when productivity begins to wane, staff and board members are exhausted and no longer engaged, and the community has stopped paying attention. That’s when many organizational leaders dust off their handbooks and turn to the section on values and guiding principles.

As I promise any healthy organization exuding positivity right now – if current conditions are not undergirded by an intentional framework of values, guiding principles and processes that reinforce them, the good times can indeed come to an end.

The Culture Conundrum

The real challenge for many nonprofits lies in the assumption that culture is a destination rather than an ongoing process. It is insufficient to set organizational culture once, codify processes and then move on. Organizational culture is influenced by everyone who touches it, and while a set of shared beliefs need to be affirmed, change should be factored in too. New generations of donors, volunteers and staff members should help to influence organizational culture – not to knock it off its path, but to help reshape and guide it to contemporary relevance.

And this is where the conundrum is most pronounced in the nonprofit sector. When was the last time the topic of culture came up at a board meeting or staff meeting? And beyond these important voices, how are all of an organization’s constituents invited to continually inform and help shape the organizational culture?

What I tend to see a lot of is the exact opposite. Does your organization ascribe to the “my way or the highway” approach to top-down management? Does the Executive Director or management team exert its will as in a fiefdom? Does the board make decisions arbitrarily, without involving staff content experts? Are volunteers seen but rarely heard? Any of this sound familiar?

The culture conundrum suggests that the development and maintenance of organizational culture is an ongoing, never-ending effort, and that external and internal change is likely to continually inform how values and guiding principles – the building blocks of organization culture – are deployed in real-time.

This needn’t be a scary topic. In fact, it should be downright liberating. Drop me a line if you’d like to discuss.

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