Why Designing Your Nonprofit Culture is Do or Die

“Designing a healthy nonprofit culture is do or die.”

Really? Do or die?

But isn’t having “a great culture” just another way to say “a place that’s fun to work at?” Like, when employees go bowling together or get free soda?

Nope! Your nonprofit culture isn’t about the kind of clothes employees wear, the music they like or the fun activities everyone does together. Those things probably come from the culture, but they aren’t the culture itself.

Culture is deeper than the perks. It requires constant care, intentionality and commitment.

In a way, creating a healthy culture a lot like tending a garden: how you care for the garden itself affects the quality of your produce. Likewise, your culture determines the extent to which you can make an impact on the world.

If the environment, the garden itself, isn’t well tended, it doesn’t matter how much time you spent picking out that strain of tomatoes or how excited you are about the new salsa recipe you want to try out.

Vision alone won’t bring you to your goal—you have to nurture that vision every day.

The Three Parts of a Healthy Nonprofit Culture

Your nonprofit culture consists of three things:

  1. Your Shared Values
  2. Your Mission And Vision
  3. How You Value Your People

Let’s look at how you can cultivate all three of these, whether you’re starting a nonprofit or thinking about your nonprofit’s existing culture.

1. Cultivate Shared Values


Shared Values are what’s important to your organization. Shared values are expressed in the actions and attitudes that happen every day at your nonprofit.

Sometimes values are explicitly defined in words your executive leadership has chosen. But more often, your values are the way employees and leadership actually acts. When your nonprofit has to make hard decisions, do your stated values match the action you take?

Shared values are like the sunlight and water of a garden. Without consistent expression of shared values, your nonprofit culture wilts.

If you want to cultivate shared values, figure out how to fill in statements like these:

  • A good person acts like X and knows the importance Y.
  • Work-life balance means X. (How long will you stay in the office?)
  • We think money should be used for X and not for Y. (What’s your view of overhead vs. program expenses?)
  • We value X over Y. (Short term success? Long term success? Risk? Consistency?)
  • X is appropriate work behavior, Y is not.

If you and your coworkers share similar answers to the questions, your values are well aligned. If you don’t, there will be conflict, blame and disunity. Not to mention it’ll be hard to actually take your mission to the next level.

In other words, these values are more important than whether everyone at your organization enjoys the same television shows.

2. Define Your Mission and Vision


What’s the big picture mission of your organization? What ultimate goal are you driving toward so intently that you’ll forgo smaller, tempting projects?

Mission is like the soil you plant your garden in. It’s your foundation, the matter you root yourself in. And if it’s rocky and inconsistent, a nonprofit’s best efforts will be tenuous and its focus will be shaky.

If you don’t unite your nonprofit culture around a consistent, inspiring mission, it will be hard to achieve unity of action.

You’ll never be sure what to prioritize, and what to pass on. You’ll have people fighting to either keep old, worn-out programs or add new ones that don’t match your long-term mission. Everyone will be trying to move in a different direction.

This underlies the REAL importance of a good mission statement—it doesn’t exist just for your constituents or your marketers, but ideally it actually helps your organization internally to guide your daily decision-making.

3. How You Value Your People

value people

The third element of a nonprofit’s culture is how it treats the people in the organization. Because how you treat people determines the kind of people you have on board.

People are the equivalent to the seeds in your garden. If you water your budding plants inconsistently, plant them too densely or plant for the wrong season, you’ll have problems.

Figure out the answer to these questions:

  • How do we hire and fire?
  • What behaviors do we reward?
  • How do we communicate?
  • What’s our view on personal sacrifice?
  • How is failure treated? Is it encouraged/discouraged/rewarded?
  • Do you operate in silos or encourage open collaboration?
  • Do we nurture our employees’ personal growth?

The way you answer these questions determines how people in the organization act. It’s another expression on your values.

How you treat employee behavior has a direct consequence on how people work. If you reward only consistent success, there will be no incentive to innovate or take the risks often necessary to succeed as a nonprofit. If you hire someone who doesn’t mesh with your values for short term gain (access to their resources, network or skills), everyone will be affected by that.

How you value people in your organization changes your culture dramatically.

Culture is WORK

Culture is definitely more work than throwing the occasional pizza party or sending a funny email to the whole office.

But when you have a culture that’s truly aligned, amazing things are possible.

And when you have an inconsistent culture, you risk snuffing out your most enthusiastic team members, focusing on the wrong projects and wasting your limited resources.

Instead, create unity. Decide what you stand for and care about most.

Then, live it. Every day.

Time to design a nonprofit culture

Marc Koenig

Marc Koenig is a regular contributor of Nonprofit Hub. Marc believes smart, ethical marketing can make the world a better place, and strives to create content that helps nonprofits tell better stories, push their organizations to excel and do work that matters. You'll find him writing Nonprofit Hub featured posts, brainstorming infographics and tweeting up a storm at @npmarc - follow him and say hi!

September 12, 2013

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