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Why Defining Your Nonprofit’s Culture Will Be the Most Important Thing You Do This Year

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Published May 24, 2019 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Every company has a culture. The only question is whether or not you decide what it is.

Jason Cohen


Company culture isn’t just for startups or corporations. It’s a vital and deep-seated part of each nonprofit’s DNA. No matter its mission or size, it’s important for every nonprofit to have a set of core values, beliefs, and perspectives. In this post, we’ll delve into the significance of defining organizational culture and share a few key questions to keep in mind while building your own.

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Why You Need to Define Organizational Culture

Your culture is the foundation of your organization because it determines your team’s collective understanding of how your nonprofit operates. Beyond that, it can also impact donor satisfaction and increase team excitement and commitment. But most importantly, the right organizational culture can protect and demonstrate the core values your team upholds.

When your staff and supporters understand your organization’s core values, they’ll feel empowered to make the right decisions and you can trust them to accurately represent your nonprofit.

All of these reasons mean that it’s vital to assess your organization’s values to ensure your team members are on the same page.

To get started, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the atmosphere like in our working environment?
  • How do we communicate with each other and our donors?
  • How do our team members work together?
  • What does our decision-making process look like, and who does it involve?
  • How do we define our work hours and a typical day at the office?
  • Do we rely on processes that work? Do we strive to learn and innovate?
  • How do we define our approach to our work and mission?

Once you have a solid assessment of your organization’s operations, then use your learnings to inform the values that are most important to your nonprofit.

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The Role of Leadership in Defining Organizational Culture

Defining organizational culture is a process. It takes time to build, and every member of an organization has a role in cultivating it. However, your nonprofit’s leadership deeply impacts the direction in which it will grow and evolve.

Buffer’s Founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne asserts that it’s up to the founding team to choose the company’s values, maintain them, and steer the culture in the desired direction. He saw firsthand the role leadership plays in shaping company culture after witnessing a number of successful startups encourage their employees to work all night, and saw the negative impact it had long term.

And even though he’s specifically referring to startup culture, the significance of leadership in defining company culture applies to any type of organization. Leaders play a key role in influencing the atmosphere of a workplace, and the morale that a team carries is usually a direct reflection of management.

Take a look at your personal practices and ask yourself if you want them reverberated throughout your organization. For example, your organization may regard transparency as one of its key tenets. We always urge nonprofits to be upfront and honest with donors, but it’s just as important for that practice to start internally.

Review the following questions with your leadership team:

  • Do you practice transparency with your team members?
  • Do you clearly communicate with your staff members about their goals and progress?
  • Does your staff have high visibility into where your organization is currently, and where it’s headed in the future?
  • Do you welcome honest feedback from your employees?
  • Do you take the next step and act on the feedback you receive?

In an open letter to his team, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky says, “We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture.”

Organizational culture is intentionally defined, proactively practiced, and launched by leadership. Clearly communicate your values and live your culture in your actions. Your staff will follow your cue.

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Defining Organizational Culture Is About Defining a Mission

Erin Ganju, co-founder and CEO of Room to Read, had to decide which direction and opportunities to take for the organization as it went through its first years of exponential growth. When asked how she did it, she answered:

“More than it being about what you say yes to, it’s knowing what you say no to.”

It’s important that all of a nonprofit’s staff members, as well as the CEO, understand what it does or doesn’t stand for. One simple way to share this with your team is to ensure everyone involved at your nonprofit know the organization’s mission statement. When your team understands the long-term vision and ultimate goal behind your mission, you can trust they will make decisions that align with your core values.

Embed your unique mission into your shared core values and culture. This will strengthen your team’s sense of purpose and help it move in a unified direction.

Consider these following questions when defining your organizational culture:

  • What do we stand for?
  • What do we not stand for?
  • How do we measure our organization’s impact?
  • What are we willing to fund?
  • What will we not fund?

By integrating your mission statement into your nonprofit culture, you’ll encourage your staff to have purpose with a passion. Research has found that nonprofit employees who express a higher level of mission attachment are also more likely satisfied, engaged with their work, and intended to remain with an organization.

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Culture and the Happiness of Your Team

When you define organizational culture, you also define how you treat your team and set an example for how you want your team to treat one another. Talented people want to work for people who care about them, and when your staff members feel valued and empowered, it directly impacts their motivation and productivity at work.

Practicing communicative processes is a critical component of building a healthy organizational culture. Perhaps you hold a weekly or bi-weekly meeting where you open the floor for your staff to share what they’re working on, reflections, concerns, and wins. This could open up space to give and receive feedback, which is empowering and impactful for your work as a team.

More than anything, practices like this demonstrate that every member’s ideas and personal development are valued. Heighten your employees’ excitement and commitment to your mission by making them feel like their work matters. Foster an inclusive culture where they feel like they can communicate freely, express their ideas, and directly influence the success of your organization.

More Leadership Tips Ahead …

A positive culture will align individuals with your organization’s core values and give them a strong sense of purpose. But creating a specific culture for your organization is a proactive choice.

If you want to build a culture that inspires people to dedicate their lives to your mission, you’ll need to take the time and effort to push it in the desired direction. These efforts will have a lasting impact on your employees, supporters, and overall success as an organization.

To learn more about how you can elevate your leadership skills, access the extended sessions library from the Collaborative: Virtual Sessions, where you can watch all the recordings from the event and hear from industry leaders on fundraising and marketing best practices, leadership in times of crisis, and resilience. The best part is that it’s completely free.

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A Leader’s Guide to Motivating Employees

A Leader’s Guide to Motivating Employees

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