Four Ways Leaders Can Cultivate Culture in a Nonprofit Organization

By Teri Yanovitch


When the culture within an organization has a strong foundation, it can survive the chaos and tumult that surrounding external factors may be inflicting. This includes non-profit organizations especially.  Many times non-profit organizations are so reliant on the fundraising for that particular year that it is difficult to make long-term plans.  As strategies change to keep up with the current external factors, it is easy for the culture to get lost in the shuffle. However, culture is a way of life and should be so deep-rooted in the organization, that there is never a question about what the organization stands for and its direction. 


If you are a leader and are looking to sharpen your nonprofit organization’s culture to keep it engrained in your DNA, here are four ways:


1. Beliefs – Make it very clear to everyone what are the beliefs and values of the nonprofit. This should become a part of all communications from each level of leadership.  Senior leadership should develop an elevator speech that they can recite by heart and refer to constantly when communicating with staff, volunteers, donors, sponsors, etc.   Online communications, written communications, water cooler conversations should all be used as opportunities to reinforce these values and beliefs.  Start communicating the essence of these beliefs in the interview process and continue methodically forevermore through various media and meetings.
2. Language – How people communicate within a nonprofit organization is very revealing of the culture. The use of jargon words internally creates a sense of belonging to a group. How everyone refers to the recipients of the nonprofit sends a message. Use of first names, surnames, prefixes can set a tone. Tolerance for curse words or no tolerance for curse words sends a message of the culture.
3. Behaviors – Clearly defined behaviors of how staff should treat clients, co-workers, and volunteers must not only be communicated, but also role modeled from Day One of the on-boarding process. Non-negotiable unaccepted behaviors must also be plainly defined so everyone understands exactly what will be forbidden. Leaders must be willing to call out and address unacceptable treatment or behaviors when observed even though some may feel that since it is a nonprofit and not a business, leaders should be more tolerant.  Not!  The culture is whittled away every time an unacceptable behavior is glossed over and the individual is not held accountable.  Culture is more important than any one person.
4. Traditions – Traditions give a sense of familiarity, belonging, and history. Milestones met, accomplishments, celebrations or holidays, are all opportunities to reinforce the culture. The tradition itself can be serious or light-hearted. For example, one nonprofit celebrates staff birthdays by having everyone sign the card of the birthday person with a short note of why they are special to the group.  Another nonprofit has all the staff bring in a bag of candy during the holidays and share in making gingerbread houses that are then put on display in the front foyer to their building. 


Beliefs, behaviors, language, and traditions are all four ways a leader can cement the desired culture into the nonprofit organization. The stronger the culture, the stronger the organization can have a measurable long-term impact on the clients they serve as well as their communities.