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5 steps to creating a winning culture at your nonprofit

March 28, 2024 Article 8 min read
Kellie Ray Jillien Ortel Monica Bordner
As nonprofits emerge from the pandemic, there’s a renewed focus on reconnecting to the core mission and culture-building.
Coworkers at a nonprofit gathered around their desks and chatting in a sunny room.At our 2024 Nonprofit Summit, we presented "Creating a winning culture" with Meagan Dunn, Executive director, Covenant House, Michigan. Here are 5 steps we presented to building a winning culture with the resources you have today.

During the past several years, nonprofits operated in emergency mode to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the top priority for many leaders is reconnecting to the organization’s mission and values and building a strong and thriving culture to support their team. For some, the challenge of culture-building seems as daunting as surviving the pandemic. But building a winning culture is within reach if you take a systematic approach, keep your efforts manageable, and pause to celebrate the victories along the way. 

What is organizational culture?

For some organizations, “culture” is a buzzword or a box to check at leadership meetings. But culture is so much more. It’s the heartbeat that propels an organization and its mission forward, the thread that binds its people together, and the fuel for the collective effort that results in meaningful work. It guides actions, decisions, and relationships. 

A winning culture is created around four key building blocks:

  • Mission. The foundation of organizational culture is the mission — the core long-term aspirational vision and direction for the organization. What’s your purpose? Where do you want to go? What’s your “why?” Your mission should be documented, communicated, and understood by leaders, staff, and all stakeholders. It should be front and center to help staff understand the purpose and importance of their work and to align the goals of individuals and teams. It’s the foundation from which you build your core values, create processes, and outline the expectations of your staff.
  • Consistency. Mission, values, and operating principles must be applied and communicated consistently. This is a commonly reported challenge for organizations across the board. Consistency is most effectively sustained by the leaders; they set the tone for how relationships are built, how things get done, and how information is communicated.
  • Involvement. Create a shared sense of purpose, pride, and ownership in the work. How does this happen? By prioritizing recognition, feedback on performance, work-life balance, and learning opportunities, people are more likely to lean into the mission and remain committed. People do their best work when they feel challenged, appreciated, and involved.
  • Adaptability. Culture isn’t static. It evolves and adapts over time and requires constant attention and action for continued success. Organizations with strong cultures have an innate ability to live through continuous change. Instead of waiting and reacting to challenges, they proactively identify and address them by always listening and answering the question, "What are we doing about it?"

With those fundamentals in mind, the next question is: How do we put culture into practice in a way that strengthens our organization? Whether you’re refining your nonprofit’s culture or planning a complete overhaul, these five steps will get you started.

1. Set organizational goals and align staffing

The first step in culture-building is locking in your nonprofit’s vision and setting goals and priorities for the future. To help address the cultural building blocks, ask your team what they need to feel supported. What do they want more or less of? Who do they need access to? What resources can the organization provide? You can get this perspective through one-on-one conversations, culture surveys, open forums, etc. A key component of this step is ensuring you have the right people in the right roles. Cultural success occurs when there’s a high degree of alignment between an individual’s talents, preferences, experiences, and their role.

2. Establish performance management processes

Establish role clarity with a formal, documented performance management process that includes the expectations of each role, how the role aligns with the nonprofit’s mission and values, and how it impacts the outcome of the organization’s work. During the onboarding processes, explain to the new team member what they’ll be doing, what they’re being equipped with to be successful, what success looks like in the role, and the process for receiving feedback. Then provide the necessary training and create other job experiences to build skills and apply what they’ve learned.

Over time, people will routinely be promoted to new roles in the organization. Along with the promotion will come onboarding to the new role, which starts the process all over again. A mature performance management process keeps the organization running smoothly from one generation to the next. Building transparency into the process provides individuals with a view into their long-term career path and how what they’re doing today is important to their future.

3. Set the tone

With well-defined organizational goals and a platform to build your team, it’s time to focus on what many leaders find to be the most exciting part of their job — developing their people, aligning them to the organizational culture, and creating a positive environment.

This is where the focus turns to the individual. Successful cultures are based on the recognition that “the whole person comes to work.” People come to the job with their own experiences, perspectives, and preferences. They’re looking for balance and flexibility, and they want to connect with the organization in an elevated way.

The tone of an organization starts with the daily personal connections between people. Whether it’s a smile and a simple “good morning” as staff walk in the door or dropping in on a team meeting or a phone call to thank team members for their work — every interaction is a deposit in the cultural “bank account.”

The “whole person” concept recognizes that what happens outside of work impacts a team member’s ability to maximize their potential at work. This is why culture-centered organizations are invested in helping staff maximize balance between work and their personal lives. For example, direct care staff may not have the flexibility to work from home but could benefit immensely from four-day workweeks, hybrid and block scheduling, or more flexibility around childcare. These solutions can be a wise investment: they contribute to a happier work environment and can lead to fewer PTO requests, less overtime, and better staff retention.

Another key component to addressing the whole person can be a robust diversity, equity, and inclusion program. This, combined with a diverse leadership team and board of directors, supports organizational culture by allowing team members to show up more authentically and bring valuable viewpoints to decision-making.

Finally, organizations that prioritize staff development recognize and celebrate staff members’ achievements through promotions, certifications, and other forms of acknowledgment. You can’t do this enough. Recognition is motivating and reinforces a culture of appreciation and feeling valued.

4. Bring people together

Organizations with winning cultures are very purposeful in bringing people together. They do it by maximizing personal touchpoints, providing occasions for the team to connect outside of their day-to-day roles, and putting together opportunities for staff and leaders can come together. There are many examples of impactful ideas nonprofits use to promote a culture of development. Here are some to consider that don’t require a lot of resources.

  • Leverage internal expertise. Every organization has in-house experts that have knowledge of the organization and its cause — amazing things can happen when you give them a platform to talk about what they’re passionate about.
  • Peer learning groups. Ask staff if they have an interest in doing some peer learning together. If so, create small groups based around similar interests or skills, and provide opportunities to discuss best practices, current projects, or what they may be learning independently.
  • Free or low-cost learning resources. Encourage staff to be self-directed with their learning and provide opportunities for microlearning, reading articles, or using free online learning content that staff can reference at their own pace. There’s a wealth of information readily available from resources such as LinkedIn Learning, Gallup Workplace, TED Talks, Culture Amp Resources, Bridgespan, and YouTube that cover a wide range of culture-related topics.
  • Job shadowing and cross-training. Provide opportunities for staff to shadow colleagues in different roles. This can provide valuable experience and offer a chance to see the inner workings of the organization that they wouldn’t see in their daily activities.
  • Formal/informal mentoring. Pair strong, experienced staff members with newer team members for formal or informal mentoring. This provides a good opportunity to establish high-impact interactions between staff, helps people build their internal networks, and establishes resources for growth and support, sometimes both professionally and personally.
  • Lunch-and-learn sessions. Lunch-and-learns, brown bag meeting series, or coffee chats are a great way to get together to discuss relevant topics. Book and walking clubs are another great way to bring people together for informal conversations. All of these ideas help directly or indirectly foster professional development and leave people feeling more connected to the mission and the organization.

If your organization doesn’t have the human resources capacity to arrange these activities, that’s ok — the team can collectively create ideas and opportunities to make these connections. Start small, try one or two things, and if it doesn’t work try something different.

5. Check to make sure it’s working

Finally, be sure to continually measure your progress to ensure your culture-building efforts are having an impact. Review staff retention data for improvements in staff turnover rates. Survey your staff to get insights into their experience at the organization. You can check your progress through pulse surveys, satisfaction discussions, supervisor touchpoints, and group meetings. Make this a continuous process during the year — don’t wait for year-over-year data.

Nurturing organizational culture is a journey

Cultural development can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Plan to break your efforts into smaller steps and address each one intentionally. Start with the four building blocks of culture — mission, consistency, involvement, adaptability — to build your foundation. Establish, preserve, and communicate your “why” to anchor people to the mission. Then focus on creating an environment that’s joyful, where people want to stay and grow, and people feel valued and talk positively about their experiences in and outside the organization. Give yourself time, and remember: winning cultures are made, not born — don’t aim for perfection, just focus on making things better at each opportunity.

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