“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker, management guru
If you think that defining an organizational culture is only for startups, think again. Strategy is one thing, but culture is another. Your nonprofit’s culture is absolutely critical to your success. But what, exactly, does that mean?
Whether culture-related buzzwords are an everyday part of your vocabulary or you’re a total newbie, a concept refresh is always a good idea. We’re here to break down what organizational structure means and give you novel ideas about defining and building your own culture from the ground up.
What Is Nonprofit Culture?
First, let’s get on the same page about exactly what we mean when we say “culture.” Entrepreneur.com has a pretty straightforward definition: culture indicates a blend of the values, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all organizations develop over time.
You know how every group has a way of doing things? And also a way of NOT doing things? For example, in some organizations, it’s totally not okay to send messages after working hours. In other groups, everyone is chatting about an upcoming project and happily sharing gifs even after dinner. Details like that make your group unique and, once you’re in, you learn the ropes.
In a nutshell, that’s culture. It’s your nonprofit’s atmosphere. It’s your M.O.
Culture guides actions, expectations, habits, and decisions at every level, from the executive director to the volunteer who answers the phone. It can operate beneath the surface and is basically identity translated into practice. In other words, what a nonprofit does reveals much more about its culture than what it says.
Sometimes, there’s a mismatch between a company’s stated mission and its actual behavior. Think about the latest scandals at Facebook. The tech giant says it champions human connection and free speech. In practice, however, it’s been accused of all sorts of shady tactics. When it comes to culture, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Contradictions like that are major red flags, and you don’t want that. You want your nonprofit’s words and actions to align.
Why Is Nonprofit Organizational Culture Important?
Your donors are happier
When your nonprofit takes major pride in its mission and exhibits a strong sense of purpose, your donors feel like they’re supporting the right cause. And when you put those donors at the forefront of your priorities, they’re more likely to return the favor.
A donor-centered nonprofit culture means that your organization shines a spotlight on your contributors. Donors feel valued, important, and always welcome, whether they’re mailing a check or not. That really carries over into their commitment to your goals, and their willingness to go to bat for your nonprofit.
Your team is happier
Don’t assume that just because your nonprofit stands for a noble cause, your staff and volunteers are thrilled to be there. Nonprofits sometimes have a difficult time attracting and keeping talent. Surveys indicate a scary trend: nearly half of nonprofit sector workers are fleeing the industry.
Why? Every organization is unique, of course, but research shows that a broken culture is one of the most common reasons people leave their jobs.
On the other hand, the more robust the organizational culture, the lower the turnover and the happier your staff. A strong culture also leads to greater productivity because it ensures that your people know they are a valued part of something good. It’s a no-brainer: when people like their environment, they stick around and they work hard.
Examples of Nonprofits With Awesome Organizational Culture
YMCA: We’re pretty sure you’ve heard of this one. The iconic and well-respected organization combines faith and health to assist families in underserved communities. People love working at the Y thanks in part to its clearly articulated culture of transparency, diversity, and a fun working environment that keeps its staff moving – literally!
Charity: Water works to provide access to clean and safe drinking water. The under-the-radar organization keeps its staff happy with a start-up culture vibe, meaning a tight-knit family atmosphere, good pay, lots of free snacks, and transparent leadership.
Habitat for Humanity International builds affordable homes for families in need. Even unpaid volunteers are thrilled to be a part of the organization, due in great part to a flexible and supportive working environment. Work/life balance? Yes, thanks.
How to Build Your Nonprofit Culture
Step 1: Define It
If you’re in the game of building your nonprofit culture, it’s best to begin at the beginning. Sit down with a notepad and a strong dose of honesty and ask yourself the following questions.
- Is your mission statement clear? Think of this like the big why of your cause. It’s what you stand for. Everyone in your organization should be on board with your mission, be able to describe it, and refer to it often.
- Who’s responsible for your success? Everyone on your team should feel a sense of responsibility for your short and long term goals, for fundraising efforts, and for outreach. It’s not just the board of directors who pitches ideas and keeps track of the schedule. Everyone gets involved and feels accountable. Of course, this also means that everyone is valued. If you ran a successful event or landed a big donor, make sure everybody on your team gets a chance to celebrate.
- How are decisions made? Some nonprofits thrive on vigorous discussions and debate. Others prefer to have clearly defined roles for who has the last word. Whether your nonprofit arrives at solutions by taking the top-down or bottom-up approach, make sure the way you make decisions is consistent and clear. Do you prioritize speedy solutions? Do you encourage debate?
- What’s your reputation? While the image your organization projects to the public is critical, reputation is more nuanced than just street cred. It’s about how people talk about you, both on your team and outside of it. What your staff and volunteers say to their friends about your nonprofit largely depends on whether they feel valued and have trust in your leadership.
- What are your relationships like? Take a good, hard look at how your people interact with you and with one another. If teamwork is one of your core values, then there should be a communal vibe in your nonprofit. Ask yourself whether feedback and input go over well, whether there’s favoritism or cliques, and if there are avenues for developing or maintaining relationships.
- How do you deal with problems? No matter how awesome your workplace is, conflict is bound to come up. What’s important is how you handle it. Do your team members speak past each other, or do they keep their complaints to themselves for fear of rocking the boat? Neither is ideal, so decide whether it makes sense for your group to address conflict head-on through discussion, less directly through mediation, or maybe even anonymously (like a complaint box). If your nonprofit consists of you and your three BFFs, then it makes sense to sit down over coffee and have a heart-to-heart. If you’re a sprawling organization, then a more procedural approach might be best. It all depends on the ethos you want to create.
- Who gets the credit? We’re all familiar with the trope of leaders taking all the credit for their staff’s ideas, so make sure it doesn’t happen in your nonprofit. If someone goes the extra mile or makes a great suggestion, take care that they get noticed and feel appreciated.
- Do you have fun? Examine the atmosphere in your nonprofit. Some teams work better in a formal, conservative environment, doing great work in separate offices. Others invite their staff to put their feet up on the coffee table and grab a beer from the fridge. Whatever approach you take, make sure it’s clear and consistent and that everyone knows the expectations.
- How do people dress and express themselves? Whether your staff is encouraged to feel comfortable with high-fives and sneakers is an integral part of defining your culture.
- What’s in your space? Books? Plants? Movie posters? The company dog snoozing in the doorway? This might seem like a small detail, but the artifacts you have in your office sends a strong message to your supporters.
- What does your onboarding process look like? Check to see if your mission statement and culture come across loud and clear when you’re interviewing or onboarding your future staff or volunteers. That way, you’ll know right away whether someone is the right fit. And they’ll recognize whether your culture resonates with their personality and talents.
Step 2: Practice It
Now that you know what you stand for – or what you want to stand for–it’s time to walk the walk. Make your cultural values into reality by putting them into practice every day, until they become as natural as breathing.
- Lead by example. If your core values include transparent communication, for instance, then demonstrate that through leadership. Think open-ended brainstorming sessions, being straightforward about your nonprofit’s account balance, or thanking folks for speaking up.
- Nurture your people. Every penny you invest in your staff will boomerang back to your bottom line. Not only will they feel like they’re growing and developing professionally, but those skills translate directly to improving your organization. Find opportunities for skills training, mentoring, and growth. You don’t have to send your volunteers to a big skills conference in Paris, but if there’s a relevant speaker coming to your area, book those tickets. If that’s too much of a financial hurdle, then gather everyone together and watch the event live. Add pizza. Repeat.
- Communicate effectively and kindly. Make sure your message is understood and feedback gets delivered, and be nice about it.
- Connectivity is all about tools: do you use email, text, or Zoom to reach out to your team? Figure out which methods serve which needs best.
- Commitment indicates regularity and accountability, so make sure those meetings get scheduled and everyone has a chance to share their views.
- Listening is a frequently ignored but crucial aspect of communication. Ask questions, then listen carefully to the response. When people speak, take notes. Respond thoughtfully.
- When discussing donors, pretend they’re right there in the room with you. Donors get thank you notes, regular updates, and frequent invites to check out your space and join your events.
- Reward creativity. Your team should feel encouraged to generate inventive, unexpected solutions. Don’t be afraid to shake things up. Is it a sunny day? Hold your meeting outside! Is it almost Christmas? Order a tree and decorate it together while blasting old school Christmas songs. The point is to avoid ruts and encourage your people to share their views, thoughts, and whims. Hold brainstorming sessions with a dry erase board and a playful attitude that nothing is off limits, no matter how crazy – the most offbeat idea might bring huge success.
- Start rituals. Traditions are part of nonprofit culture, so develop a few of your own. It can be as simple as taking a ten-minute coffee break at eleven every morning or visiting a local pub for drinks once a month. Or maybe you hold an annual potluck at the director’s place. Whatever you choose, make sure to stick with it until it becomes a natural and inevitable part of your organization. Donuts every Friday morning? Well, that’s just the way we do things around here.
Ready to Plan Your Nonprofit’s Next Event?
The bottom line is, every organization has a culture, whether you’re aware of it or not. If you’re intentional about identifying and crafting it, your nonprofit culture will be the launching pad for major success.
With sites like RallyUp in your tool belt, you can create fundraisers that align with your core values, keep your nonprofit on mission, and share your culture with your supporters.