Organizational Culture – Good or Bad, You Choose.

I have been doing a lot of reading lately about organizational culture. The topic is certainly not new to me, but I’ve been fascinated by it for many years, dating back to my banking career and subsequent transition to the nonprofit sector. Like just about everyone I know, I have worked in companies with strong, healthy cultures as well as some with toxic, unhealthy ones. I have experienced work settings where management was mostly unavailable, staff was fearful, and everyone was suspicious of everyone else’s intentions. I have even survived organizations where leadership purposefully fostered cut-throat competitive cultures because they mistakenly assumed it was good for productivity. 

As I type this, it feels like I’ve experienced more unhealthy organizational cultures than healthy. Could this be true? Maybe. But more likely, it’s that our negative experiences tend to linger in the memory longer than the positive. 

Organizational culture is defined as the values, beliefs, practices, expectations, and methods of interacting that create the professional, social, and psychological environment of an organization. Company culture has been researched by many, and we have all seen examples in the news about what can happen when organizational culture goes wrong. I truly believe that nonprofit sector leaders understand the importance of organizational culture just as well as leaders in the for-profit world. Unfortunately, knowledge doesn’t always translate into deliberate actions…particularly in under-resourced nonprofits that are simply trying to survive and serve their client base each day. Whatever the reasons, organizational culture is one of those issues that we understand in theory but don’t always have the wherewithal to pay attention to in practice. 

Is organizational culture overlooked because culture is difficult to causally connect to performance metrics? Could it be because culture is not a topic that is easily pointed out in a policy manual? Perhaps it’s because this “culture” thing is really a confluence of behaviors that, taken individually, wouldn’t necessarily be identified as impacting the overall atmosphere of an organization. 

Despite its ambiguous nature, organizational culture is created, fostered, and passed on. Negative culture may be easier to identify because its symptoms are easy to see in the form of miserable faces, high turnover, and lack of transparent communication between leadership and staff. The other unfortunate reality about negative organizational cultures is that they’re difficult to change because they become entrenched in every aspect of the organization. 

So, what are some of the things a nonprofit leader can do to foster a healthy organizational culture? Here’s a few of my favorite suggestions: 

Model mission alignment. As the chief leader, a nonprofit executive director plays a huge role in establishing and nurturing organizational culture. It is this person’s job to ensure that everyone on the team, and everyone on the board of directors, understands the organization’s mission and aligns their day-to-day work, advocacy, and decision making with this mission. If the head is not modeling mission-aligned behavior, he/she can’t expect anyone else in the organization to. 

Democratize your decision-making process. While it is certainly true that the buck stops with the head of the organization, a nonprofit executive director should never make decisions in a vacuum. First, he/she must know when a decision needs board approval, which is typically in relation to major policy changes, major financial decisions outside of the normal budget process, etc. But in the arena of day-to-day decision making, an executive director has a huge opportunity to nurture a culture of transparency and trust among their team. Sure, the E.D. makes the final decisions, but by encouraging team members to ask questions and offer feedback, the head is modeling that they value their team’s experiences and that their perspectives actually matter. 

Communicate with everyone, all the time. A good nonprofit leader talks with their team regularly. They talk to their board members, even outside of scheduled board meetings. They are transparent about what is happening within the organization – good and bad – and how what’s happening will impact the work. A leader who knows how to lay their cards on the table earns peoples’ respect and trust far more quickly than a leader who keeps their cards close to the chest. Also, communication with external constituents is just as important to building an organization’s brand and culture as its programs or events. Transparency breeds trust. Trust breeds investment. Investment breeds success. And on and on. Overall, executive directors must encourage and model transparency both internally, among staff and between staff and leadership, and externally, between the organization and its clients, donors and other constituents. 

Foster an atmosphere of support & respect. This sounds obvious, but if you’ve ever experienced a workplace where this is missing, you know it isn’t obvious at all: a leader who is attentive to nurturing a positive culture treats their team members like human beings. They assume that their staff members have goals that may eventually take them from your organization – and they do what they can to support them. They remember that their team’s personal identities are not defined by their jobs. They set professional boundaries for their own work/life balance and encourage their team members to do the same. And, they remember that their board members are volunteers and respect the time and commitment they give to the organization. 

The moral of this story is that organizational culture exists whether it is deliberately created or not. My advice – be deliberate about creating a positive, healthy, supportive culture in your nonprofit. Your staff, board, clients, donors and overall productivity will be better for it.