Five Lies You Tell Yourself About Nonprofit Culture

The best nonprofits are adaptable. Being able to roll with the punches and problem-solve on the fly takes organizations from short-term to the long-haul.

At the core of all that change, though, an organization needs something to keep it grounded: a solid culture. You can learn all you want about your competition, supporters and so on—but what happens if you don’t know who you are as an organization?

Some people assume that they have a strong grip on what culture is, but some of those assumptions are wrong. I’d like to set the record straight on some common misconceptions about nonprofit culture.

1. You can build vibrant nonprofit culture later.

Never put culture on the back burner. It’s foundation to your organization, so you should be making it a priority. You’ll be better off fleshing out your nonprofit’s culture early in the game instead of trying to backtrack later on and change what’s already been settled. Make a point to establish what you want out of your culture—later actions will depend on it.

For instance, when we first opened the Nonprofit Hub collaboration center in Lincoln, Nebraska, we knew the culture we wanted to build, but we also knew we had other work to do. Instead of putting culture in the corner, we made a conscious daily (sometimes weekly) effort to brainstorm the things we could feasibly do and the things we dreamt we could do. The things we could do, we jumped on, and the things we dreamt we could do, we set goal timelines for. This kept it in the front of our brains and our culture has been growing ever since.

Culture sets the stage for your organization and informs the decisions you make. Set yourself up for success by handling it up front.


2. Your rad office space equals culture.

I can’t emphasize this one enough. The “fun stuff” can help with your culture, but it’s not strong enough to serve as a foundation for it. Stylish decor can provide a temporary boost in morale, but what will last after that initial “wow” has worn off? If you’re thinking long-term, then switching up your office space isn’t going to cut it. When you connect your culture with the things that really matter, it’ll stick around for the long run.

On the other hand, having the nonprofit mentality of working at your grandpa’s crappy HON desk from 1950 sends a message about your culture as well. So space does matter, it just shouldn’t be the foundation.

You have to go deeper than appearance if you want to create a culture that lasts.


3. Nonprofit culture just happens.

Culture is driven by people, but that doesn’t start with just anyone. Establishing a good culture should begin with your leadership. They have to buy into your nonprofit’s idea of culture before anyone else will, so that means that they have to live it. Leaders that aren’t sold on your culture won’t be able to convince anyone otherwise.

Your organization’s leaders need to have a clear vision for culture. Organizing core values will inform the entire team and help everyone prepare for what lies ahead. Once your leadership sets the stage, it’ll be easier for everyone to get on the same wavelength. That means more time for productivity and less for micromanaging, which will boost your bottom line.

When your leadership sets a clear standard for culture, you can say goodbye to “just figuring it out” and make room for a more cohesive work environment.


4. Culture is about the moolah.

If you think that better compensation equals better culture, then you’re sorely mistaken. Too often, people assume that an organization’s culture is defined by the money they can–or can’t– offer.

You can offer some benefits that don’t involve a dollar sign, but most of all, your people will be the most appealing part of your nonprofit’s culture. More than delicious lunches and trendy desks, they’re the ones that create, back and maintain culture. That starts with leadership—like I said, they’re the ones driving culture in your organization. Support from the rest of your team makes the whole shebang a success.

Once you have people developing your culture, you’ll be able to find the best fits for your organization rather than employees that are looking to reap the benefits.


5. Fun should always come first.

It’s easy to think that culture is synonymous with fun, but that isn’t the only positive value that a company can represent. For your nonprofit, maybe fun is the frosting—but it doesn’t take the cake. Instead, choose a value that’s more meaningful to you and your cause. Take some time to think this out. Which objectives are you focused on? What does your organization value the most? Maybe it’s something like creativity or excellence. Don’t take the easy way out by building your culture on fun. Find out what sets you apart and start from there instead.

If you establish a good culture from the get-go then the fun will come easily for your team along the way.



You have to know what culture truly is before you can build a great one. If your concept of nonprofit culture falls together with splashy furniture and ping pong tables, then it’ll collapse as soon as the latest trends come around. Focus on what matters—your mission and your team—and you’ll have a sturdy foundation for whatever comes next.


This article is part of a Nonprofit Hub series on nonprofit culture. You can check out the rest of the series here.



nonprofit culture

Randy Hawthorne

As the former Executive Director and Editor for Nonprofit Hub and a Professional Certified Marketer, Randy shares his passions of marketing and education with nonprofits to help them implement marketing and organizational leadership principles so they can grow their organizations. Randy lends his marketing and organizational leadership expertise to a number of nonprofits in his community. Outside the office, Randy works with high school and college students and mentors young professionals to develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

September 21, 2016

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