Organization Culture Within Nonprofits
Norman Olshansky: President
NFP Consulting Resources
Leaders of nonprofits understand that organizations must incorporate both science and art to be successful. Science includes best practices, policies, procedures, regulations, business planning, accounting, marketing, finance, fundraising, programming, service delivery, etc.. It is “what” the nonprofit does to conduct its “business”. Art focuses on “how” we implement the science. It relates more to the process than to the task. Much of what we refer to as art is what establishes the culture of an organization.
Wikipedia defines organization culture as the “organization’s values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs and habits. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving, and even thinking and feeling. Organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders.”
I’ve worked or consulted with many nonprofits, which have similar missions, budgets, and community demographics but are VERY different from each other when it relates to organization culture. The culture of an organization is a major component to how it is perceived by internal as well as external sources. The culture of an organization can change dramatically over time with changes in leadership, both staff and volunteer. Sometimes the change is deliberate and other times not.
One such organization with which I worked had passionate leadership who loved to debate issues at meetings. No matter how well a committee had presented a proposal, members of the board felt that they had to weigh in on every detail and come up with its own recommendations. Meetings lasted forever. Tempers often spilled over. The chairman of the board often lost control of the meetings. The board was divided, without direction, and had difficulty attracting new members as terms expired. Staff was not professionally trained nor were they able (or willing) to change the dysfunctional “culture” that had evolved. Fortunately, a new chairman was recruited who, from the start, expressed displeasure at the way meetings had been conducted and the lack of respect board members showed to each other and to staff. He indicated that the only way he would accept the chairmanship was with an understanding that board meetings would be kept to a strict agenda with timelines and that he would not allow discussions that were not on subject. Initially, he was seen as a bit stern but he was able to use humor to soften the impact when he cut people off or moved the discussion back to relevance. After a few meetings, there was a noticeable change in how the board members related to each other and the quality of board meetings. He insisted that the board would not conduct committee work at board meetings. Gone at board meetings were the discussions about decorations at events.
In another organization with which I was involved, it’s history and culture had been stable for many years. A lot of attention was given to succession planning for leadership and key staff. By the time a leader moved up the ranks to the board or executive committee, they had been fully acclimated to the organization’s operations. The culture of the organization was buttoned up. However, the culture also became very formal and so “businesslike” that few people involved knew anything about each other outside of the time they spent together working on issues related to the nonprofit. At one of the strategic planning meetings it was noted that while the organization was successful, the environment was a bit cold and not as enjoyable to be a volunteer or staff person as existed in other local organizations. A task force was given the responsibility to work with staff to address the concern and within a few months there were social opportunities for board members to get to know each other better and staff planned occasions for families of volunteers and staff to visit the nonprofit, enjoy each other’s company and socialize. The nonprofit became part of each family and many participants developed special relationships with each other outside their work within the nonprofit.
A strong culture flourishes when clear values and norms guide the way a nonprofit operates.
How does your organization treat its employees? Value its volunteers and supporters? Encourage transparency? Engage those who may be different? Embrace diversity? Think forward or just from crisis to crisis? Encourage collaboration? Provide ongoing training for leadership, volunteers and staff? Is willing to take risk? Provides a clean, safe and enjoyable environment for staff, volunteers, members, clients, consumers of service, funders, others?
When was the last time your organization took a look at its culture to determine what if anything needs to be reviewed, changed or enhanced?