How to Build Your Nonprofit’s Culture (One Brick at a Time)

This post originally appeared in the July/August issue of our Nonprofit Hub Magazine. Sign up to receive the next issue in your inbox today.

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Company culture isn’t just for startups and businesses; it’s a fundamental part of every nonprofit’s DNA. Your culture helps to define your brand and, in part, determine the type of people who should be part of your organization.

And to be clear, every organization does have a culture. The question is, did you help to define and build it, or did it just evolve?

Ideally, you want your nonprofit’s culture to be purposefully built. It’s important for every nonprofit to have a set of values and beliefs that define how people do things in the organization. Some people think that company culture refers to workplace perks and benefits—and yes, those things are a part of it. But culture runs deeper than fun holiday parties and free pizza on Fridays. In many ways, your culture is the foundation of your organization. It can impact everything from your nonprofit’s overall effectiveness to the passion and commitment with which your team works.

Most importantly, it protects and demonstrates the core values you maintain.

If you’ve wondered how to make your culture more focused and in line with what you stand for, here are some steps to take:

Be sure leadership sets the tone.

The first thing your organization needs to do is develop a set of core values that you can both manage and hire to. Do you want to have a culture of teamwork? Then your executive team must truly function as a team. If you want “fun” to describe your culture, then your leaders will need to embrace that value as well. You can’t build an authentic company culture if your leadership doesn’t buy into the model you’re trying to create. It will feel like you’re fighting a losing battle, and that’s not fun for anyone.

Assign an owner.

It might sound unnecessary, but your organization needs one person who is directly responsible for its culture. Of course, that person can’t build it on his own, but he can cast a vision and push everyone else in the right direction. Ideally, assembling a small team lead by your “culture owner” will help define and create the type of culture you want to see in your nonprofit. So first step: Find someone who’s a natural leader and passionate about team and culture building.

Listen to your staff and volunteers.

Ask them often how their job is going or if they have any suggestions for improvements. Give them an outlet for ongoing feedback and encourage them to communicate openly. Understanding what makes your staff happy begins with getting to know them better—and they are the ones who ultimately will define and carry out your culture in the long term.

Be sure that your company’s culture allows people to make honest mistakes.

When a mistake is dealt with harshly, it dampens people’s excitement for what they do and makes them fearful to try new things. This will breed a negative culture. On the other hand, an attitude of acceptance and positivity will encourage risk-taking and comradery, and ultimately, a positive culture.

Show staff members how their jobs affect the financial bottom line.

When people understand how valuable their jobs are to the overall success of the organization, they will naturally become more dedicated and committed. If they don’t, then it’s likely they’re not a good culture fit and you may have the opportunity to find someone who is. When you have a well-defined culture, you’ll get good at hiring the people who just seem to fit and embody the same values that your organization does.

And last but not least, communicate. Always. Communicate your values and culture, both internally and externally. In meetings. At events. In emails. Reward employees who advance your culture, and be open and honest with those who don’t. As your organization grows, a culture that’s been purposefully and carefully built will help keep it on track, steer hiring decisions for the people responsible and safeguard your company from spiraling into something you don’t recognize.

And along the way, you may even end up having a lot of fun.