Charting a Change in Culture

Every not-for-profit develops a culture over time, often defining the organization. However, even if your group's been successful in the past, a change in culture could be a change for the better.

Warning Signs to Observe

First, does your culture need an alteration? It's often difficult to know for sure, but there are several warning signs that change might be warranted. For instance:

Lack of commitment. It's important for the people working for your organization to believe in its cause — to demonstrate their desire to have an impact. They need to share ownership of your charitable mission. If they're unsure of what's required, or what they can do to support the organization, implement changes to help bring them into the fold.

Lack of communication. You've often heard that vital communication is to an organization's success. But have you listened to your workers? Without open and honest communication from top to bottom, a staff can become disinterested and discouraged. Give your employees opportunities to provide feedback and speak their minds. This will make them feel they are part of a team striving for a common goal. Include everyone from leaders to volunteers.

Lack of accountability. If people don't take pride in what they do and become accountable for their actions (or lack thereof), your organization will suffer. This is often reflected in evaluations given to employees at the end of the year. On the flip side, accountability should be offset by rewards for doing things well. This may be evidenced by pay raises and benefits. Failing to provide the proper balance can damage an organization.

Lack of innovation. An organization can get stuck in a rut if it accepts the status quo for too long. Don't allow or condone the philosophy of "that's the way we do it because it's always been the way we do it." This restricts organizational growth. Shift to an approach encouraging creativity and thinking outside the box. By giving the staff the ability to come up with and implement fresh new ideas, your organization is likely to flourish.

Lack of diversity. Has your organization been limited by ethnic, religious or other restraints? It's important to see the world through a multicultural lens. In today's global economy, not-for-profits are building relationships and exchanging ideas around the world, so doing the same within a single organization is only logical. Understanding differences and recognizing strengths and weaknesses can result in a more robust workplace culture.

Four Ways to Accomplish Change

Perhaps you've come to the realization that your not-for-profit's culture needs to be changed or at least modified somewhat. It's not going to happen by snapping your fingers. In fact, effecting a cultural change should occur gradually, usually over a period of months or even several years. But that doesn't mean you should concede.

Here are four ideas that can help accomplish this goal.

1. Be a leader. Changing the not-for-profit culture starts at the top. Examine the way you've been going about things. Make an honest assessment of the pros and cons. Do you see any areas that need improvement? Start by tackling the issues most in need of repair.

When you strive for change, practice what you preach. Lead not only in words, but also in action. When you set an example that the rest will follow, change will begin to take shape.

2. Trust your staff. Trust workers to be honest and do their jobs the way they're supposed to. Don't nitpick over every detail and ease up on the pressure, when possible. People are usually more productive, and more dedicated, if they aren't stressed out about performing well or meeting quotas.

If you treat your staff like adults, they're more likely to respond like adults. That includes giving them some essential responsibilities.

3. Be flexible. This comes back to the issue of following the same routines year after year. Of course, you should set some guidelines, but they don't have to be etched in stone. Allow employees who have shown they have the ability and experience to handle matters in their own way.

Sticking to a strict regimen can discourage innovation and creativity. Instead, open your mind to the possibilities and give your valued employees leeway to accomplish goals.

4. Find the passion. Your workplace isn't like most others. Instead of striving to make a corporate profit, you're trying to rally a constituency around a cause. So, you'll want your organization's culture to reflect a burning desire to meet this mission.

In other words, you don't want to hire people who merely show up for work, punch in and punch out. You're looking for dedicated employees who share the same passion for the mission. This means that some job candidates that look good on paper may not be the right fit.

It doesn't mean you can't build a fire under workers. When leaders exhibit passion, it becomes contagious. Your organization will benefit from it.

Lessons to Learn

Changing a not-for-profit's culture requires time and dedication. Don't expect it to happen overnight. However, with strong leadership and a willingness to accommodate employees, change will happen before you know it.

Tips for Tipping the Scales

Changing a not-for-profit's culture doesn't have to be expensive. Here are seven low-cost (or free) moves that may help:

  1. Ask employees for ideas.
  2. Tell your organization's story through photos of your staff.
  3. Send out thank-you notes to staff on a regular basis.
  4. Recognize birthdays and other special events in employees' lives.
  5. Get to know each employee on a one-on-one basis and find out what motivates them.
  6. Share some of the feel-good stories in person or on your website.
  7. Celebrate your organization's successes.

This list isn't all-inclusive. By collaborating with employees, you'll soon find out what works best for your organization.

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