Making Organizational Culture More Intentional to Drive Community Change

  • By Sara Brenner, November 18, 2019

As more grantmakers are considering how they can advance change through their grantmaking, many funders are also thinking about the need to strengthen their organizational cultures in order to work more effectively and have greater impact. Intentional cultural change work can take many different forms. Our conversation with Margie Jo Eun Joo Andreason, diversity, equity and inclusion manager at Northwest Area Foundation, and Paul Luna, president & CEO of Helios Education Foundation, during a recent GEO webinar showed two different approaches to culture change.

Prompted by the staff and board, Northwest Area Foundation decided to take an explicit focus on racial equity and began an intensive process of making both internal and external changes to address DEI over many years. “DEI work is cultural change work,” Margie shared during the webinar. “All our systems have not been built for people of color and are layered in patriarchy. There is a lot to undo.”

During the webinar, we polled attendees and found that 72% of participants said considerations of DEI were part of culture conversations happening inside their organizations.

Helios Education Foundation’s Culture Work was prompted by the Foundation approaching it’s ten-year anniversary. Helios had experienced significant growth in its first decade and its senior leadership wanted to ensure that the established cultural values were being lived out in an authentic and transparent way. In addition, the Culture Work provided an opportunity to examine working relationships among staff. This led to the foundation focusing on specific areas such as delegating decision-making more broadly and working more collaboratively.

No two cultures will be the same and organizations will take different paths to build intentional cultures that lead to results. Still, Margie and Paul’s stories point to some common elements that are helpful to keep in mind as funders embark on culture change efforts:

  1. Identify concrete behaviors that will help create your desired culture
  2. Embrace both top-down and bottom-up approaches
  3. Be prepared to get personal

These recommendations align with Community Wealth Partners’ research and experience on culture change as well.

Identify Concrete Behaviors That Will Help Create Your Desired Culture

Many culture change efforts fall short because they stop at naming organizational values without identifying concrete behaviors that support those values. To create a culture where people are living the organization’s values, it is necessary to establish explicit structures, policies, and practices (norms) that reinforce those values. These norms will incentivize the types of individual behavior that will reinforce the culture.

Similarly, organizations must reflect on norms, both implicit and explicit, that might incentivize behaviors that conflict with the desired culture. This is especially important when you are working to dismantle aspects of white dominant culture in pursuit of a culture that is inclusive and equitable. For example, to ensure behaviors that were more aligned with the equitable culture they wanted, Northwest Area Foundation put norms in place such as embedding equity in the foundation’s strategic goals, which ensures the foundation will put resources behind it; creating a staff position to champion this work (Margie’s position); and establishing a cross-departmental steering committee to ensure this work cuts across all areas of the organization.

Embrace Both Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches

It is critical for leadership to take an active role in culture change efforts to give the work the attention, urgency, and commitment it needs. Margie shared how board and staff both supported Northwest Area Foundation’s equity work, which was helpful for creating urgency. At the same time, top-down efforts alone are not enough. Culture change is the work of everyone in the organization, and therefore it is helpful to have structures in place that can help ensure shared buy-in and ownership at all levels of the organization. Helios Education Foundation adopted a culture-building process that engaged the entire organization. One way they did this was by creating a Culture Working Group, made up of a cross section of employees from all levels and departments. The purpose of this group is to ensure that the culture change in the organization is owned and shared among staff.

Be Prepared to Get Personal

Culture manifests in individual behaviors. Many culture conversations stay focused on the organizational level without honest reflection on individual practices required to make meaningful change. Paul shared that when Helios decided they wanted to work on creating more space for shared leadership and being more collaborative, it meant he needed to reflect on some of his personal practices and adjust his leadership to be more aligned with the desired culture.

“One of the things I focused on was empowering others to do things that previously they would not have done, and [I had to] get comfortable with that,” Paul shared. “I also focused on listening and understanding when I received challenging feedback. I wanted to model the type of culture we wanted to take shape within the organization.”

Internal Changes for External Impact

Intentionally creating culture helps align your organization for greater impact. For example, when Helios Education Foundation sought to improve collaboration and decision making within the foundation, those internal improvements were noticeable to grantees and community partners. Paul shared that the foundation’s community partners noted positive changes in the ways the foundation showed up in work and conversations with partners. In addition, improving internal decision making and grantmaking processes inside the foundation led to improved communications and engagement with the community.

As foundations increasingly talk about DEI and other changes they want to make to the ways they work and the impact they want to have, paying attention to foundation culture and intentionally shaping it becomes increasingly important. To lead your grantmaking with authenticity and credibility, make sure internal culture is front and center in the conversations happening across the foundation.

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Sara Brenner


As President of Community Wealth Partners, Sara Brenner guides the organization’s strategic direction to solve social problems at the magnitude at which they exist and oversees the firm’s partnerships and consulting business. With over 20 years of experience in consulting, Sara has partnered extensively with nonprofits, foundations, and coalitions to embrace change and learning, develop bold strategies, and engage critical diverse community stakeholders in the change process while aligning their resources and actions to transform community outcomes in a sustainable way.

Sara worked extensively in the health and human services including at the Advisory Board Company and The Gallup Organization. In addition to speaking on culture, sustainability, leadership, and social transformation at several national conferences, she authored the SSIR article “Cocreating a Change-Making Culture,” the MIT Innovations article “The Art of Sustaining Social Innovation,” and the SSIR blog series “The Value of Intentional Influence,” and she was a contributing author for the book “Social Innovation and Impact in Nonprofit Leadership.” Sara has served on the board of numerous nonprofits, including the Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association and DC Chapter of After School All-Stars and is a member of the Leadership Greater Washington class of 2013.

Sara received her M.B.A. from Georgetown University and her B.A. with Honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.