The Importance of Nonprofit Workplace Culture: Learning to Move on from Your Mistakes

Legal Aid Society2Legal Aid SocietyWe’ve all been there. It’s inevitably in our human nature (and we’re pretty sure a scientific law?). Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. OK, so maybe not to that extent. But mistakes are just a part of life.

So what does your organization do when a mistake happens? And how does that affect your nonprofit workplace culture?

For the fourth article in our nonprofit culture series, we interviewed Eric Angel of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia—DC’s oldest and largest general civil legal services program. The Legal Aid Society was named one of the NonProfit Times Best Places to Work for 2013. They’re a small nonprofit organization that operates with a staff of around 47 employees.


1. People Make Mistakes—Move on and Learn from It.

“We say that people are always going to make mistakes. The big issue is just talking about it, learning from it. Virtually every mistake is correctable… people enjoy an atmosphere where they feel very supported by their supervisors.”

The Takeaway:

When your staff is afraid to mess up for fear of repercussions, you’re bound to have more mistakes caused by fear and apprehension. We’re all humans and we all make mistakes. So make sure your staff knows that, and also knows that you’re working in an encouraging workplace environment where you can learn from mistakes. They’ll be more apt to try new things and not have to worry about the impending repercussions.

However, this model only works if your staff is learning from their mistakes. Try developing a system where you individually chat with staff members when something does go wrong and figure out why it happened, and how to make it better. Take a proactive approach rather than ignoring it. Like Eric pointed out, virtually every mistake is correctable.

2. The People by Your Side Matter.

“The primary motivator for people to come here is belief in the mission, but I think making sure that the office culture is both really inspiring and fun is really important to attracting talent, and then retaining people when they’re here,” Eric said.

“We endeavor to give people autonomy within their caseloads, and to really prioritize excellence—but also, people have a really good time in the hallways. People are constantly talking with each other and debriefing about cases.”

“When we’re interviewing people, some of the interviewees will ask, ‘What do you like about it?’ And the single thing people like the best is their colleagues,” Eric said. “People are really committed to making justice real, but also to try to make sure that it is a fulfilling, inspiring workplace.”

The Takeaway:

Just because you’ve got the passion to help your organization succeed doesn’t mean everybody around you has that same passion—but they should. Don’t settle for a workplace culture where people aren’t excited to come to work every day, and where people aren’t chatting about the mission to their peers every day. You know the people we’re talking about—the ones that make your mission their life mission.

3. Great Workplace Culture Starts from Square One—in the Interview Process.

“The atmosphere in the interview process is really focused on what is motivating—what motivated the person to go to law school, what motivates them to try to do this sort of work, and would they push themselves to come up with the creative solutions for our client.”

The Takeaway:

Finding the people to fill up your workplace starts from the interview process. If you’re having problems with the people you’re surrounding yourself with at your organization, it might start with reevaluating the interview process.

You’ll need to ask the normal interview questions, such as questions about their qualifications and what makes them a good fit for the job. But you should also ask them questions that get to the heart of why they’re doing what they’re doing. What drives them to do a good job? What got them excited about the organization in the first place? Make sure you’re asking the right questions.


The Rundown

You have the power to set up your nonprofit workplace culture to be amazing. Will your organization take it? From an encouraging work environment (where people feel free to experiment and push the limits) to getting the right people in from the get go, your nonprofit organization’s culture is in your hands.

Legal Aid Society 1

Lyndsey Hrabik

Lyndsey is a former editor for Nonprofit Hub and Nonprofit Hub Magazine. She now serves as a guest contributor, writing on topics such as social media, technology, marketing and starting a nonprofit.

June 5, 2014

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