Organizational Culture Is a Verb, Not a Policy
What is the culture at your organization? You may be inclined to say “bold” or “fun,” but those are values, not culture. Other things may come to mind, too, like office ping-pong or Thursday Zoom happy hour. Those may be artifacts of culture, as Harvard’s late-Clayton Christensen pondered, but again, not culture itself.
In newer startup organizations — especially nonprofits with substantial influence from founders — culture begins to take shape through experiences led by those at the top. The inaugural leader has their own vision and values they bring to the table, which the organization experiences over the long arc of time. Culture doesn’t happen on day five, day 50 or even day 500.
“[It] is through the repeated, successful application of the founder’s initial inclinations,” noted Christensen, “that they become embedded in the organization’s culture.”
Organizational guru Edgar Schein posited that culture is a “pattern of basic assumptions … that has worked well enough to be considered valid.”
Notice how he points to chronology. Culture stems from the myriad things you do over time that your people find acceptable and want to do. Organizational culture is a verb, not a policy.
So, what works, what doesn’t, and where can nonprofit staff and leaders truly begin? Here are three ideas that have been front-of-mind and are worth sharing as doable things that any staffer, irrespective of title or place in the hierarchy, can start practicing immediately.
1. Always Consider Your Calendar
One of the important lessons I’ve learned is that actions speak — and conversely, inaction doesn’t. For example, you can preach all you want that your nonprofit has a culture of collaboration, but if you don’t take the time to build those interactions, then those are just words. To be clear, something like a culture of collaboration requires commitment. If you are the type of person who is always rescheduling or canceling your meetings, you are invariably chipping away at that aspect of culture.
At a former organization, the CEO was notoriously absent from meetings with major and emerging donors. One institutional funder eventually pulled a large, multi-year grant because the CEO failed to attend several scheduled meetings. The foundation program officer told me, plainly, “Our board loves what your organization does, but if your leadership can’t be bothered to attend these plenary meetings, how can we know they’ll do right by the partnership?”
If you believe in something, it will appear on your calendar firmly. Think five (or more) years down the road about the culture you wish to see, and start committing to those things by actively adding them to your schedule.
2. Have ‘Gloves Off’ Conversations Often
What I mean by “gloves off” is good, old-fashioned honesty. Perhaps you’ve looked five years ahead and see a company culture that centers around transparency. Taking off the gloves is a great way to get there, and like anything else, honesty is something better demonstrated than expressed. “You can always be honest with me” doesn’t hit as hard as you — the boss — leading from a place of honesty as much as you can.
Mark Twain supposedly said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” If you’re always honest, an environment of shared trust and open culture can begin to develop. A great example is Indian IT shop, MindTree. In 2010, it set out to reach $1 billion in revenue. Knowing its people would get the organization there, the company jumped into several culture-building strategies like the 95-95-95 principle — 95% of people knew 95% of all information 95% of the time. It took almost a decade, but they achieved the goal.
I love that idea of honesty and access to information 95% of the time. The number is arbitrary — and somewhat subjective — but it’s a powerful organizational commitment.
3. Learn to Explore Outside Your Own Sphere
This one is more philosophical. In trying to build anything, especially culture, the easy thing to do is compare your thing to other similar things. In nonprofits, that thing can range from how you fundraise to what type of events you produce to what communities your programs intend to serve. If you’re a food bank, you will likely, by default, look at other food banks. This wouldn’t be difficult to do considering there are more than 370 like-organizations in the U.S. alone. That approach seems logical, but at best it’s myopic — at worst it’s damaging. Your organization, irrespective of what your mission says, is part of a great, big ecosystem. And on the notion of organizational culture, other organizations outside your orbit have a lot to teach you.
This takes a little bit of having your eyes and ears wide open and a whole lot of trust. Some of the most renowned organizational cultures in the world are at companies like Zappos, Chipotle and LinkedIn. I’ve learned so much from researching their cultures and applying the lessons to my own work in nonprofits — even though none of those companies are nonprofits.
This might feel like a daunting task, but you have to begin somewhere. Start by meeting and talking with people outside your immediate circle. It’s easy enough to start the search through local chambers of commerce or regular gatherings like CreativeMornings.
In a race toward profits, staffing up and leading the good work of our missions, culture is routinely overlooked. Some nonprofits have added certain positions to their rosters (chief people officer, director of diversity and inclusion, etc.) but that is only topical.
You can’t create organizational culture. You have to commit to it, practice it and make it as important as all that other stuff you pay attention to — accounting, fundraising, innovation and anything else specific to your work.
“Organizational culture affects and regulates the way members of the organization think, feel, and act,” Christensen said. “If you want all those other areas to shine bright, fewer things than a strong culture will galvanize your people and get you there.
A nonprofiteer for nearly 20 years, Evan Wildstein has led fundraising, programming, and operations for organizations like The Juilliard School, Asia Society, Rice University, Houston Grand Opera and others. Inspired by the intersection of philanthropy, creativity and learning, he has consulted nonprofits on board development and talent growth, galvanized funding for innovative projects that inspire stronger communities, commissioned operas, and produced community-centered educational programs.
Wildstein’s organizational and academic efforts center around nonprofit management and organizational leadership, and his writings are featured in Philanthropy News Digest, the International Journal of Servant-Leadership, and other journals and publications, and he is writing a book on servant-leadership and philanthropy. A native of New York, Wildstein and his family live in Houston, Texas.