Elizabeth Chung

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

Company culture isn’t just for startups or corporations. It’s a vital and deep-seated part of each nonprofit’s unique DNA. Like Jason Cohen, the founder of WP Engine, says, “Every company has a culture. The only question is whether or not you decide what it is.”

No matter its mission or size, it’s important for every nonprofit to have a set of core values, beliefs, and perspectives that defines how people do things in the organization. In this post, we’ll delve into the significance of defining organizational culture and a few of its central components to keep in mind while building your own.

Why You Need to Define Organizational Culture

So why does defining your organizational culture even matter? Isn’t it enough that people complete their tasks? Truth is, your culture is the foundation of your organization. It determines your team’s collective understanding of how your nonprofit operates. It can impact donor satisfaction, your organization’s overall effectiveness and success, and the excitement and commitment with which your team will do its work. Most importantly, it protects and demonstrates the core values you uphold.

When your staff and supporters understand your organization’s core values, you can trust them to make the right decisions, no matter which front of the organization they’re on. It’s vital that you take the time to choose and assess your organization’s values, and ensure your team members are on the same page. To get started, you can ask yourself:

  • 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? Do we focus on independent tasks? Collaborative projects? Both?
  • How do we define our work hours? Do we allow flexible schedules, or do we have set timeframes? All-nighters or 9-5?
  • What is our decision-making process? Are chief decisions made by one or two individuals? Do individual program managers have the power to make key decisions?
  • How do we define our approach to our work and mission? Do we rely on a system that works? Do we strive to learn and innovate?

The Role of Leadership in Defining Organizational Culture

Defining organizational culture is a process. It takes time to build, and every member has a role in cultivating it. However, your nonprofit’s leadership deeply impacts the direction in which it will grow and adapt. 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 a desired direction. He noticed the important role leadership has in shaping company culture after witnessing a number of successful startups encourage their employees to work all night, to detriment.

Even though he’s talking in the context of startups, 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 see if you want them reverberated throughout your organization.

For example, your organization may regard transparency as one of its key tenets. Although we stress upfront honesty with donors, it starts at home first. Do you practice transparency with your team members? Do you clearly communicate with your staff members about their goals and progress? Do you welcome honest feedback from your employees? Does your staff have high visibility into where your organization is currently, and where it’s headed in the future?

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 take your cue.

Defining Organizational Culture Is About Defining a Mission

During this past weekend at the CLASSY Awards’ Collaborative, Erin Ganju, the co-founder and CEO of Room to Read, said something that stuck with me. When asked how she has constantly decided which direction and opportunities to take for their growing, 15-year-old organization, she said:

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

It struck me: it’s important that not just a nonprofit’s CEO, but all of its staff members, understand what it does or doesn’t stand for. When all your team members know the organization’s mission statement, you can trust they will make decisions that align with your core values and single vision. Embed your 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?
  • What are we willing to fund? What will we not fund?
  • How do we measure our organization’s impact?

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

Help your team feel like they’re not just at a job, but on a mission. The excitement to keep the vision alive will impact the vibrancy of your organization, and naturally, its interactions with supporters.

Culturing the Happiness of Your Team

When you define organizational culture, you also define how you treat your team. 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 how they work.

Practicing communicative processes is a critical component of building a healthy organizatoinal culture. Here at Classy, our marketing team does a weekly stand-up to share what each member accomplished the previous day, what we’re working on that day, and any challenges we might be facing. We also share about our current and future projects, “wins”, concerns, reflections, and adjustments to be made. This has opened up space to give and receive feedback, which has been both empowering and impactful on our work as a team.

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

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 choice. If you want to build an organizational culture that inspires people to pursue 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.

Go From Happy Employees to Happy Donors

customer service guide for nonprofits

Image Credit: Nathan Rupert


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