Culture Resource Guide

Culture Resource Guide

Culture Resource Guide: Understand

  • July 2, 2018

A productive internal culture aligned with a foundation’s mission and goals is essential to support nonprofit resilience and success. In other words, if we are striving to have more impact, we should look not just at our external strategies and theories of change, but also at the ingrained behaviors, assumptions and values that drive our daily work and our interactions with nonprofits and other partners.

This is what it means to understand culture, the first phase in GEO’s four-phase framework. Common metaphors compare our organizational culture to an iceberg or, in GEO’s case, a lily pond:

On the surface you’ve got leaves and flowers and things that are very visible; a visitor would see them. That’s the ‘how we do things around here’; but the explanation of why we do things in that way forces you to look at the root system, what’s feeding it and the history of the pond, who planted what. If you don’t dig down into the reasons for why we do things this way you’ve only looked at the culture at a very superficial level and you haven’t really understood it.

Former MIT Professor Edgar Schein, author of Organizational Culture and Leadership

  • Artifacts are the visible, tangible manifestations of culture — what your building or offices look like, the clothes you wear, your website, logo and printed products, the way you run meetings, your grant application and reporting processes, and so on. These are the visible flowers at the top of the pond.
  • Espoused beliefs and values are how you publicly express what your organization hopes to achieve in the world and how you aspire to do your work. These are the stems that support the flowers. In public mission and values statements, grantmakers often express their belief in core concepts like collaboration, innovation and humility. Whether these public commitments show up in a grantmaker’s actual work is a separate question.
  • Basic underlying assumptions are the real-life, everyday, often-unstated operating principles and norms that drive the work of an organization and its people. These are the hidden root systems that feed the plants. These assumptions can grow from an organization’s values, or they can run directly counter to those values.

What to Pay Attention To

As we set out to understand the culture of our organizations, it’s important to keep in mind some of the unique aspects of foundation cultures. These include the following:

Our cultures often embody source codes from other fields. Foundations often have built up their current cultures over a period of many years, decades even. As GEO explored in The Source Codes of Foundation Culture, our cultures often have deep roots in other fields from higher education to banking and, more broadly, the private, for-profit sector. While certain aspects of these cultures can serve grantmakers well — for example, a bank-like focus on fiduciary integrity or a university-like emphasis on intellectual rigor — other aspects do not. Many grantmakers’ onerous application and reporting processes mirror the internal processes of banks, for example. And university-inspired cultures can show up in siloed programs and staff teams, together with an overemphasis on analysis and research over action.

The trappings of power and privilege often are expressed in foundation cultures. Foundation cultures and practices can unintentionally reinforce power imbalances and racial and other disparities. Paying attention to culture means being attuned to systemic and structural disparities and how our organizations may be perpetuating them. This can require thoughtful focus, hard conversations and continual learning to increase diversity, equity and inclusion not only in our communities but also in our organizations. For example, if our culture is that we make decisions behind closed doors without input from nonprofits and partners, then we make the power imbalance worse. On the other hand, if we truly engage nonprofits and work to build trust with the communities we intend to serve, then we have a culture that helps to reduce the power imbalance.

We navigate multiple cultures in organizations. While there are dominant cultures within organizations, individuals tend to cluster in smaller groups. In a foundation, program officers or a board might form their own cultures. A unique culture might evolve from a diverse group of people who are working together on an initiative or who coalesce around a shared interest. As foundations become more intentional about shaping their larger cultures, it’s important to understand how these smaller cultures (known as microcultures) work and the ways in which they can contribute to (or get in the way of) foundation effectiveness.

Questions to Ask

  • How would we describe our current organizational culture? What are the specific, concrete, tangible and observable behaviors and artifacts, from the layout of our offices to our website to the way we work with nonprofits?
  • How do we think others perceive our culture — including nonprofits, other grantmakers, members of the local community? What might we be able to do to get these stakeholders to share this feedback with us?
  • What are the microcultures in our organization, and how do they show up ? Are these formal microcultures or informal microcultures? Do they help us achieve a more productive culture, or are they getting in our way?

With a solid understanding of how culture plays out in our organization, we can move to the next step and assess the degree to which our culture does or does not support what we are trying to achieve.