Lessons from a Foundation’s Culture-Change Journey

  • By Paul Luna, January 29, 2019

About 10 years into my tenure as president and CEO, Helios Education Foundation encountered a moment of growth and transformation. We were growing as an organization from 15 to 30, a shift in size that the literature shows is a common pain point for organizations . We were trying to work in new ways, moving from focusing primarily on grantmaking to focusing on broader education reform activities and increased community engagement.

All of a sudden, it felt like there was an old way of doing things and a new way of doing things. This presented some challenges in how we worked with our team. I came to realize we needed an intentional culture effort to bring the organization together around a set of behaviors that would ensure we were well positioned to achieve our vision that every individual in Arizona and Florida can attend and succeed in postsecondary education.

This began two years of culture work with Community Wealth Partners. The work required a lot of self-reflection and openness to change from every one of us at the foundation. It was challenging at times, but this work has helped us become a stronger team and better positioned to work through challenges that lie ahead. From this experience, I have learned three lessons that I think are key to any culture change effort.

  1. Culture manifests itself in actions and behaviors. While culture can feel ambiguous, it is the everyday actions of everyone on the team that creates culture. In our culture work, we revisited our organizational values with a focus on identifying specific behaviors and actions that would reinforce those values and help us achieve our results. For example, we identified innovation as a central value, and behaviors to support that value include embracing new ideas from partners, the community and each other, and being willing to fail. Making these behaviors our everyday practice is still a work in progress, but now our staff has a common understanding of the culture we want to have and the actions and behaviors that will get us there.

  2. Aligned leadership is critical for successful culture change. We did a lot of work with our senior leadership team because they play a critical role in shaping culture. We built more intention around how decisions are made, clarified the purpose of our senior leadership team and our management philosophy, and improved our meeting protocols. Senior leaders also received coaching to better equip them to lead their teams through significant organizational change as well as training in crucial conversations and building trust. These changes will enhance our ability to collaborate and more effectively lead the organization to achieve results.

  3. We are always building culture, whether intentionally or not. Now, everything we do has a culture lens it didn’t have before. This work has led to changes across the organization that enable the behaviors that reinforce the culture we want to have. We have reorganized our staff around community outcomes rather than functional areas to break down silos, enable stronger collaboration, and achieve impact. We are in the process of redesigning our grantmaking processes to bring it in greater alignment with our culture. As we prepare to build a new building in Arizona, our culture will influence how we proceed with that as well.

Today, we are a different organization than we were two years ago. Our expectations of each other are clearer, and we each know how to drive result. We have tools to build trust and to communicate more effectively with each other that we use when we encounter challenges. As a result, we are better positioned to attract and retain talent. The culture work has had a positive impact on our external relationships as well. Partners have noted a change in how the foundation engages with the community, and we feel we can be stronger partners in the community as a result of our focus on culture. There is always room for improvement and tending to our culture will be an ongoing effort, but I am confident it is strengthening our organization and allowing us to have greater impact than we had before.

For more information on culture change, check out Community Wealth Partners’ recently released Creating a Change-Making Culture: A Field Guide.

Paul J. Luna is President and CEO of Helios Education Foundation. Mr. Luna guides the strategic direction of the Foundation, cultivating strong community relationships, and initiating strategic partnerships in Arizona and Florida focused on increasing opportunities for individuals to succeed in postsecondary education.