Nonprofit Culture: “How We Do Things Around Here”

ImageWhy do some nonprofits thrive in challenging times while others struggle merely to survive?  In uncertain times, the only constant in the life of a nonprofit organization is the relationships upon which it is built – its people.  Understanding organizational culture can significantly enhance your work as organizational change agent.

What is Organizational Culture?

Organizational culture is the collective values, behaviors, beliefs, assumptions and processes underpinning the management, work habits, decision-making, conflict resolution, goal-setting, and successes of a nonprofit – in short, it’s the organization’s “personality”.  Every organization has a culture, even if it’s not discussed – you’re initiated into it, become a part of it, influence it, adapt to it, or you become frustrated and leave.  Despite the power that it has over behavior, productivity and effectiveness, people don’t spend much time thinking about culture, but there are compelling reasons to examine nonprofit culture more closely.

The Importance of Culture

Aligning the “best fit” culture – one that is best suited for a particular mission and community – is among the most important determinants of how effective an organization will be in supporting or hindering new initiatives and fulfilling its mission.  When faced with uncertainty, the existing culture may obstruct progress unless it, too, evolves.  Consequently, successful implementation of organizational change initiatives is reliant on internal cultural change.

Assessing Your Organization’s Culture

There are numerous tools to help you assess your organization’s culture, but you don’t have to spend a lot of time and money in the effort.  The most powerful organizational cultures can be described in very few words.  Ask your board, employees, and volunteers, “What are six words that capture our nonprofit’s culture – not what you want it to be – but what it is right now.”  An unvarnished reporting of facts encourages transparency and increases trust, which in turn develops stronger, more adaptable cultures.  Consider using a confidential tool, such as Survey Monkey, and summarizing the feedback as a basis for thoughtful discussion.

Be Intentional About Developing Culture

Typically, organizational culture remains unspoken and transmitted to others by “copying, coaching, and correcting”.  When you codify your culture into a well-articulated statement, and then live by it, you proclaim to the world, “This is the secret of our success – this is who we are, these are our values.” And you’d better live those values, because you’ll be accountable to them.  People pay attention to expressions of organizational values, so don’t base stated values on sound byte qualities that you think you ought to have – but what it actually is.

Changing Organizational Culture

Try to see change as non-threatening and an opportunity to evolve and transform.  That in itself is an important nonprofit value – change allows your culture to be sustainable and supportive of goals over the long-term.

One of the most powerful way to morph a culture is to let your actions reflect the culture you want to instill and never allow your behavior to violate your stated set of values.  Powerful organizational cultures align from top to bottom – from the behavior of the board chair down to your annual report.  When culture consistently syncs with behaviors, values, and operations, you’ve cultivated a powerful culture that will catapult your organization to a new level.

While not always easy to capture or define, culture is a powerful force that can have a potent effect on a nonprofit’s success, particularly during times of uncertainty.  Once you “get it right”, your culture will become a beacon for all that your nonprofit says and does.

 What does your culture say about your organization’s values? 

 Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching,


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